Dr. Lou’s View: Vulgar Fan Behavior Needs to Change

Dr. Lou discusses the Delta Variant

Welcome to Dr. Lou’s View. I’m Dr. Lou Marciani, the director and co-founder of the Innovation Institute for Fan Experience. In this newsletter feature, I share my thoughts with our subscribers on a key issue facing the sports and entertainment industry. Today, we’ll discuss vulgar fan behavior and chants as well as the effects of this behavior.

I write this as I prepare to attend two European football matches and an NFL game in London this weekend. I’ve been thinking about how the behavior of players and fans affects the spirit of matches and games. In recent events, there has been some bad fan behavior, especially at college football games. 

These sporting events are family events where young children are in attendance. The last thing we want to do is taint their experiences at such a young age. My love of the New York Yankees began when I was a child, and that led to a lifelong love of sports. I have spent more than 40 years in college, international, and other sports and entertainment programs. This love of sports continues on with my children and grandchildren.

It is hard to imagine any parent wanting their child exposed to vulgar language and violence anywhere, but especially at a sports event. 

What Are Some Problems Going On?

Cheering, singing, and chanting are all part of the fan experience at any sporting event. Some chants can be very vulgar and derogatory. The fall sports season in the United States has brought out capacity crowds at college football games, all boiling with renewed energy as we try to take a break from the Covid pandemic. 

The good old college cheers are there, but so are some very notable chants. Some vulgar chants are especially prominent in college football games, with student sections chanting, “F— Joe Biden” (#FJB). 

Along with chants, college centered media sites such as Old Row, are currently making “FJB” merchandise to capitalize on this chanting trend. People who object to vulgar language and the politicization of sports and entertainment events are sometimes reminded about the right of people to express themselves. 

While there is merit to free speech arguments, in my view, sporting events are no place for these unsportsmanlike chants. Why politicize sports or disparage our country or its political leaders during a sports event?

Politics should have nothing to do with these games we love. Vulgar chants of any kind can also ruin the family atmosphere and ultimately, the fan experience for many. 

How Have Similar Problems Been Addressed in Other Countries?

Hooliganism has long challenged European football (soccer). The 1985 Heysel Stadium Disaster had many causes and exacerbating issues (e.g. old stadium crumbling masonry, neutral section tickets sold to Juventus supporters, etc.). It is a classic case study in hooliganism, incivility, and a lack of respect for others. 

Supporters of Liverpool attacked Juventus supporters at the beginning of the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels, Belgium. 

These hooligan attacks resulted in the death of 39 fans and the injury of hundreds of others. It galvanized action by UEFA to ban English teams from play for five years and to address fan behavior. 

Since 1985, the international sports community has had to contend with neo-Nazi symbols, racist chants and behaviors, other incendiary and vulgar behavior, and now all of this carried on social media.  Though the United States has had its own challenges with vulgar and boorish behavior at sports events, the anti-social behavioral challenges that beset other international sports are becoming a part of our sports and entertainment landscape. 

The international sports federations have many more rules governing fan behavior.  These rules are a fixture of fan Codes of Conduct. Fan behavior that is so disruptive, racist, or dangerous cause matches to be forfeited (abandoned). 

At the 2021 UEFA matches there were many instances of racist language, throwing of objects onto the field such as water bottles, pointing lasers at players’ eyes, and dangerous, vulgar, and disruptive fan behavior. Alcohol use by fans prior to and during events is the center of many discussions about disruptive fan behavior.

Recently, the United Kingdom government debated whether to allow sales of alcohol as a means to prevent some bad behavior. Alcohol sales near the stadium are generally stopped up to 3-hours before the start of a match to limit drunken behavior during sporting events. 

In the United States, many colleges and universities prohibit alcohol sales. Stadiums and arenas that do sell alcohol often suspend sales about three quarters of the way through a game or match. 

As the world is still in the throes of the Covid pandemic, fan behavior is becoming very important as there are fewer security stewards or staff available to help stem bad or disruptive behavior. 

Some colleges and universities have severed ties with local law enforcement, and there are fewer law enforcement officers available to help with security during sports and entertainment events. 

Aside from disrupting events, anti-social fan behavior can have greater implications for brand reputation and hosting future events.  

Fan behavior at the 2020 Euro football matches may have even jeopardized the United Kingdom and Ireland’s chances to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030. 

Challenges to Prevent Vulgar Chants and Other Disruptive Fan Behavior?

There were some very high-profile incidents in the NBA over the summer that might have foretold what was coming in the fall sports season. 

These incidents included verbal abuse, throwing of objects at players, and storming the court. According to Sports Illustrated, the NFL was particularly concerned about a rise in fan misbehavior.

Having enough trained and experienced staff to detect and de-escalate areas of tension between individuals and potentially violent confrontations between opposing fans is a big challenge. 

The biggest issue appears to be the difficulty in recruiting, training, and retaining experienced security and other frontline staff. This issue also affects the hospitality, travel, retail, restaurant, and other service industries. 

Advanced practitioners and experts in sports management, social psychology, and security agree that preparing the fans for their experience in stadiums and arenas is important, starting with the fan Code of Conduct.

Fans need to see it and agree to the stadium and arena policies about fan behavior before they ever set foot inside the gates.

The fan Code of Conduct should address vulgar chants and apparel so there is no misunderstanding about what constitutes acceptable behavior and attire. Staff should be empowered to enforce the fan Code of Conduct. 

Experienced staff have been hard to find during the Covid pandemic.  This makes training and supporting new staff even more important.  They need to know how to detect problems and de-escalate tension to prevent highly disruptive and potentially dangerous fan behavior. 

What is the Bottom Line?

Freedom of speech is protected under the first amendment of the Constitution, but these rights still carry the expectation of personal responsibility, civility, courtesy, and respect for the rights of others. 

People have the right to exercise their free speech rights, but they also have the responsibility to ensure that their free speech does not impose an undue burden on another citizen.

Vulgarity is heard by others.  In a stadium, people sit in assigned seats that they purchased.  Telling fans with children to move if they do not like to listen to vulgar chants or witness boorish behavior at a sports stadium can be considered an undue burden on those who paid to be at the event.

When attending a game, watching what you say is important and affects others around you.

Vulgar chants disparaging the country, its leaders, and its symbols are unsportsmanlike and hurt the fan experience for other people and families. In my view, we need to work together to create an environment for fans of all ages to enjoy their sport, free of vulgarity and violence. We can do better!

Thanks for reading, 

Dr. Lou

Dr. Lou signs off to end this discussion on responding to the Delta variant

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