Heckling has always been a part of sports. Giving the opposing team’s players and the referee a hard time has, and always will be, a part of the fan experience, but when does it become too much? When does heckling cross the line of innocent banter to harmful and abusive?
The classic form of heckling can be traced back to America’s game, baseball. “Hey, batter batter. Hey, batter batter, swing!” was once the extent of heckling and was ultimately an innocent form of throwing the player off their game at that moment. However, heckling has now developed into finding ways to get at a player beyond the game. Fans are looking for the best way to hurt players on the field at an emotional level that extends off the field.
Taking a look at the beautiful game of soccer, where the sport’s biggest issue right now is keeping racism out of the game. The use of racial slurs, throwing bananas on the field at players and making monkey noises at them happens far too often in the game. The issue has been so prevalent that English football started an organization called “Kick it Out” to fight this discrimination. This racism has become many fans’ new “hey batter batter” chat and they horrendously view it as an appropriate form of heckling.
A huge gateway to heckling has been the 24/7 access fans get to players through social media. Comment sections have become a go-to place for fans to attack players for their performances on the field. Incredibly, fans do not only target players of opposing teams but more times than not decide to attack the players of the team they support as well. It is almost guaranteed that if a player underperforms or makes costly mistakes fans will attack them with racial slurs, death threats and crude comments about the family of the player.
However, the abuse does still occur directly in the game. Back in 2017, the United States Men’s National Team lost to Trinidad and Tobago in what knocked them out of qualification for the ensuing World Cup. This was obviously a massive underachievement for the team and of every fan’s expectation of the team, and the players were disappointed. After that game players such as Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, two major first-team players for the USMNT, were subjected to boos from fans anytime they touched the ball in an MLS game. This happened anywhere they went to play in the country and the boos still echo around stadiums two years later.
The effect of this on the players is detrimental to their mental health. This new form of heckling is adding pressure and building hate into the mind of the players, which defeats the purpose of sports. In a world that is extremely polarized and divided, we still find a way to divide each other in one thing that is designed to unite us.
Basketball player Kevin Durant has received a lot of heckling on the internet and has been driven to the point of lashing out at fans, which only makes the abuse worse. Similarly, Swiss international soccer player and Captain of English Premier League club Arsenal, Granit Xhaka, was recently booed by fans in his home stadium as he was substituted in a match. The boos and yells caused him to yell at fans telling them to, “f**k off”, before throwing his jersey on the ground and making his way to the tunnel. The list goes on and on of players lashing out at fans or breaking down because of the abuse they are receiving.
We are in a weird situation where people are unable to separate the athlete from the game and people are starting to hate athletes outside of what they do on the field. We have adults threatening and booing 18-year-old college kids because they played a bad game, forgetting that they are just kids. Forgetting that they have parents watching and hearing their child being publicly crucified for a game.
What is interesting is that despite the abuse that occurs while the player is on the field, and through their social media outlets, it would be difficult for fans to give the same abuse face to face with the player. This shows that there is a disconnect between the fans and who that player is outside of the context of sports. These players are regarded as gods, living lavish lives unimaginable to the mass majority of the world. Since these players have all the wealth in the world, an expectation is put on them to perform like it is the only part of their lives that truly matters. In a way it is forgotten that these are human beings, they are more than just athletes.