Inside ‘Sport, Ethics and Leadership’: Focus on the Fans

October 12th, 2017 | by Rick Walden
Inside ‘Sport, Ethics and Leadership’: Focus on the Fans


Former Philadelphia Phillies star, Mike Schmidt, once declared about Philly fans, “They read their sports pages, know their statistics and either root like hell or boo our butts off. I love it. Give me vocal fans…over the tourist types who show up…and just sit there.”

Let’s face it, a sporting event without fans would be just a game.  In our profession, we spend time, money, and mental capacity to attract fans to sporting events then we work tirelessly to capture their attention from the time they enter the facility to the time they exit.   

We spend less time thinking about how they’ll behave and the ethical considerations of that behavior.  

Included in Sport, Ethics and Leadership, which was released in July 2017, is an examination of the role fans play in sport. Co-authors include Santa Clara University Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Operations, Jeff Mitchell; sport ethics scholar Jack Bowen; sports attorney Ron Katz; former Santa Clara University law school dean Don Polden; and sports agent Rick Walden.

CollegeAD continues to run a series of excerpts from the book.  Written by Rick Walden, this week’s excerpt comes from the book’s fifth chapter, “Fan Behavior: Ethics, Responsibilities and Expectations.”  


When does playful banter among rival fans at a game become offensive or worse?  Why do many sport enthusiasts favorably view the collective volume of Seattle Seahawks fans, which is designed to and does interfere with opponents’ ability to hear their quarterbacks’ audibles, whereas they view a single fan, who heckles and screams near the bench of an opposing NBA team so as to disrupt the coach’s strategizing during a time out, as improperly interfering with the game?  

Obviously, it is not enough to simply say that any fan behavior that interferes with the game itself is unethical.  Nor is it sufficient to define such behavior as that which interferes with another fan’s enjoyment of the game (ex. While many find the volleying of beach balls at Dodgers games to be an annoying intrusion on their spectating, an equal number seem to enjoy the activity).  A fan who stands up in the excitement of a goal or a home run might obstruct another’s view and thus diminish his or her spectating experience, but such conduct is not generally considered unethical.  

A good definitional starting point is to determine the duty a fan owes and to whom it is owed.  All would agree that every fan has an ethical duty to obey the law.  Running onto the field of play, throwing objects at players, and fighting are all easy cases, because they are examples of criminal or at least tortious conduct.  Examining this legal foundation makes it clear that fans have legal duties to other fans, players, and management.  

These legal duties reflect ethical duties as well.  Under such theories as utilitarianism and deontology, ethical fans would not unduly interfere with another fan’s enjoyment of the game; would not interfere with the participants’ ability to play the game; nor would they create problems for management or the stadium operator.   What is ethical fan behavior, however, requires more and goes beyond legal duty.

The fact that unethical fan conduct is relative (to the general culture and a sport’s particular traditions, for example) further hampers the ability to define it.  What is acceptable fan conduct today is often different than what was acceptable fifty or one hundred years ago.  Today, fans rushing onto the diamond after an MLB game would be considered a transgression, yet it was a very common occurrence a hundred years ago.  Reaching from one’s seat into the field of play to catch a foul ball or home run is a natural instinct that might have implications for the teams (turning an apparent home run into an out or a single into a ground rule double, etc.), but the act itself is generally not considered unethical (as opposed to, for example, actually going onto the field during play).  In fact, the same act is just as likely to make one a goat (Cubs fan Steve Bartman) as a hero (Yankees fan Jeffrey Maier)


You can pick up a copy of Sport, Ethics and Leadership and save 20%* plus free shipping at To apply your discount, enter FLR40 in your shopping cart.

*This offer expires November 30, 2017 and only applies to print book orders placed via

About Rick Walden
Richard Walden is an attorney in Los Angeles. He obtained his B.A. in Political Science from Texas Christian University and his J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. He has represented professional athletes for over 20 years. In addition to teaching sports law for the University of San Francisco's Master’s Program in Sport Management for over a decade, he has guest lectured on the subject at several colleges and universities.

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