Why I Scream When I Watch Sports

All fans are an embarrassment to themselves, in large part, because sports give adults permission to act like children.We bring gloves to the game in the hopes of catching a fly ball, throw tantrums at referees and yell insults at athletes that would never be acceptable in any other situation.This isn’t a condemnation but rather a simple statement of fact: The rules of behavior change the moment you start rooting for or against a team.

I recently found myself screaming at an earsplitting volume in a bar because my beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heels were beating Duke in Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game. All sorts of horrible insults came flying out of my mouth, mostly directed at the procession of former Duke players who had shown up to see off their old coach. I wanted every single one of them to be miserable and humiliated. I felt no internal conflict over my sadism because it’s just general American custom that these sorts of feelings, which would be unacceptable in most contexts, are not only tolerated but encouraged when it comes to fandom.

But this social pact only goes one way, because the athletes who get booed have so rarely been asked for their opinions on the arrangement. Earlier this month, at the Indian Wells tennis tournament near Palm Springs, Calif., Naomi Osaka, the former No. 1 women’s player in the world (currently No. 77), was in tears during her match against Veronika Kudermetova, who is currently the 23rd ranked player in the world. To the uninitiated, Osaka’s reaction might have seemed a bit bizarre. During a lull in the action, a spectator had yelled, “Naomi, you suck.” The offender was quickly shouted down by the crowd.

After the match, which Osaka lost, 6-0, 6-4, she thanked the crowd and then said that she had been rattled by the “you suck” because it had reminded her of the way Serena and Venus Williams had been heckled at the same tournament in 2001, which then led the sisters to boycott Indian Wells for 14 years. Osaka’s low ranking isn’t a reflection of her talent on the court, but rather the extended break she recently took from competition, citing mental health concerns. This followed last year’s French Open, ahead of which Osaka announced she would not be attending the typical news conferences after matches; she ultimately withdrew from the tournament.

Sports sometimes present the public with Rorschach tests in which reasonable people can draw opposite conclusions from watching the same event. To some, Osaka’s tears and her address to the crowd might reflect a lack of mental toughness at best, and a type of immature narcissism at worst. From this perspective, Osaka, even though she was the loser of the match, had upstaged her opponent and turned what should have been a big occasion for the much less regarded Kudermetova into a moment in which Osaka, who made $57 million last year between tennis winnings and endorsements, cries in front of a national audience.

To others, Osaka’s address at Indian Wells was a brave stand against an assailant and a courageous act of showing her vulnerability. It also rightly reminded everyone that athletes, especially Black tennis players at Indian Wells, do not need to take such abuse from fans. Screaming at someone who is willing to be sensitive and honest about mental health is a particularly cruel act.

Another interpretation is that while Osaka has every right to act human on the court and fight back, a random fan yelling “you suck” doesn’t really compare to the mistreatment the Williams sisters endured, which included racial slurs and a cascade of boos. Not everything needs to be plumbed for its most dramatic, historic meaning.

But “you suck” isn’t the only mild offense that has caused trouble. Days before Osaka’s loss, Russell Westbrook, the embattled superstar point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, told reporters that he had grown tired of the derisive nickname “Westbrick” that people hurl at him from the stands and on social media. He said his son had taken to writing his last name on every surface he could find. To the elder Westbrook, this suggested a certain pride over the family name. “Westbrick,” then, wasn’t just an affront to Russell Westbrook, the basketball player. “Westbrick to me now is shaming,” he said. “It’s shaming my name, my legacy for my kids.”

Osaka and Westbrook violated the agreement — the agreement they never agreed to — that fans have with athletes: As long as we, the fans, don’t get too abusive, they have to hear from us. The line seems pretty clear: No insulting athletes’ families, no threats or harassment, nothing racist, nothing referring to religion or sexual orientation, no getting too familiar with their personal lives. This doesn’t mean that fans actually constrain themselves or don’t repeatedly behave in ways that cross that line, but there does seem to be some accountability for when they do, whether they are banned from a stadium for life or, at the very least, forcibly removed.

“You suck” stays comfortably on the safe side of that line. Similarly, altering Westbrook’s name to “Westbrick” seems more like a commentary on his play and the shots he’s bricked this year than some insult to his family’s legacy and his children. He might not take it that way, but I’m not sure Westbrook should be able to dictate every bit of behavior that takes place in the stands based on how he chooses to interpret each utterance.

So where does that leave us? Should leagues, who all say they support the mental health of their athletes, shut down any insults in the stands? Should we revoke the fan/athlete social contract because, it must be said, it has so often been wielded by white fans screaming at Black athletes in barely coded or even outright racist ways? Maybe “you suck” isn’t as bad as what the Indian Wells crowd did to the Williams sisters, but why should Osaka take even the slightest bit of invective, given the history of that tournament and her own desire to be treated with respect and kindness?

I want to side with the more charitable interpretation of Osaka’s moment at Indian Wells, meaning we should try our best to protect her from unruly fans. I also understand the hypocrisy of that position, given that I spent about 20 or so years of my life screaming much worse than “you suck” at Duke athletes (who do not make millions of dollars a year in endorsements) both from my living room and, on occasion, from the stands.

But if I’m being honest, I think that Osaka, Westbrook and many of today’s athletes have a bit of an unbalanced understanding of why many, if not most, people go to sporting events and scream. It’s not just because we appreciate the athletic mastery and superhuman feats on display. The fan’s social contract itself is the draw, because the stands are the only place where we can scream at someone without too much fear of reprisal or consequence, and where the person we abuse has a talent or wealth that allows us to think that our actions are just part of the deal they signed. This, of course, is nonsensical, but nothing about fandom really makes any adult sense.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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