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The Thin Black Line

In all my years as an avid sports fan, I have been exposed to a number of extraor-dinary events. However, over the last year, a certain trend has not only questioned my responsibilities as a sports enthusiast, but also my rights as a paying spectator of these enthralling events. The recent escalation of fan-player interaction and violence has made me reevaluate what purpose I serve for the athletes and that which they serve for the fans. In fact, the very idea of people paying to witness a sporting event, watch it on television, or read about it in a newspaper has come into question.

Ever since last November 19, when members of the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers got in a fight with each other, which, within minutes, included the patrons as well, the relationship between spectators and athletes has been questioned not only by me, but also by league officials, sports journalists, law enforcement officers, and players alike. Although relatively brief, in my lifetime I have playedmany organized sports games in fairly hostile environments, but seldom have I even been tempted to respond to taunts and cheers from the audience. So in light of recent events, I am left only to wonder: at what point do athletes feel the need to, or have the right to retaliate against these raucous crowds? And how far are fans permitted to push these players until they are held accountable for their provocations?.Last November, late on a Saturday night that had started off just like any other, I happened to glance at a television and my face lit up when I saw that, in the middle of a party, someone had tuned into my favorite channel, ESPN.

But to my shock, the station that usually brightens my day was showing the same horrific video clips over and over. As gruesome and barbaric as it looked, I could not take my eyes off the image of Indiana Pacers' forward Ron Artest jumping off the scorer's table after being called for a flagrant foul, and racing into the stands to attack a man who had thrown a cup of beer at his face. To make a car accident analogy would not do the situation justice ? my eyes had never been so wide open, nor my jaw so much farther from my nose in my entire life. For the following fifteen minutes, I could not help but feel as though the world as we knew it was about to end.

First, there was Stephen Jackson who followed Artest into the crowd, but not to help protect his teammate from further abuse, but instead to ferociously blindside an innocent bystander who was unlucky enough to be seated behind the man who had originally thrown the cup at Artest. Next, I watched clips of Artest and teammate Jermaine O'Neal mercilessly swing at two fans who had, for some reason, felt it necessary to wander onto the playing court while the melee was still at its height. The broadcast continued with images of fans pouring beer, popcorn and other concessions on Pacers players as they were escorted off the court, and concluded with perhaps the most damaging image of the entire fiasco: a young fan crying and hugging his parents as his idols brutally attacked each other and their supporters.The events of that night sent a deafening scream throughout the sports world, begging for answers to a number of crucial questions. First, and most importantly, who is at fault? In almost every confrontation, there is an aggressor and a victim; but the nature of this riot was much more complex than most.

Although players are expected above all else to refrain from acting maliciously toward fans, it is absurd to think any performer would stand passively by as he is physically abused by his audience. But at the same token, to forgive spectators for harming those whom they pay to watch would be equally ludicrous. So, at what point do the taunts and cheers that are simply meant to distract athletes from playing their game, turn into malicious threats or criminal slander? Dr. Richard Lustberg, a renowned sports psychologists and owner of PsychologyofSports.com writes, "Fans hurl insults for a myriad of reasons. Perhaps some try to have some control over the players and the game; others are simply uncouth.

By responding the way they do, the athletes have in affect given control of their actions to the very individuals they are trying to silence.".Each person involved in the brawl in Detroit has his or her idea of whom is at fault ? according to Pacers' coach Rich Carlisle, the arena security and Pistons' coaching staff is to blame, and Robin Flicker of the New York Times argues that the athletes are at fault, while most NBA players will just as soon point at the fans for crossing the line. In 2003, retired social psychologist Gordon Russell remarked in the San Francisco Chronicle that aggressive fan outbursts usually begin with "one person's thoughtless actions, the high of physical aggression, the thrill of a momentary sensation all contribute.

".Unfortunately, such incidents as this, although not nearly as devastating, have become increasingly prevalent in the past twelve moths. Major League Baseball witnessed two unexpected outbursts last fall when Los Angeles Dodgers' outfielder Milton Bradley walked over to a fan that had been taunting him and threw a beer bottle at his feet. This occurred only two weeks after Texas Rangers' relief pitcher Frank Francisco leapt into the stands from the bullpen at the Oakland Coliseum, only to hurl a chair at a group of hecklers whom had apparently gone too far in their jeers.

With each event, the line between fan's rights and athlete's threshold for insults gets fuzzier and fuzzier, leading America down a path of conflict and uncertainty.This issue intrigues me so much because I am in the unique position of relating to both parties. Not only do I relentlessly follow professional basketball, baseball, football, hockey, and college sports, but I have also played organized basketball my entire life and am currently participating in an intramural league at my university, which on some days takes on a much more raucous atmosphere than any professional game I have ever witnessed.

My family has had season tickets to Los Angeles Clipper games for the last ten years, and I, just as nearly every other Clipper fan, have yelled, taunted, and even cursed the players when their play has been sub-par (which is quite often). On only two occasions have I garnered any kind of response from an athlete ? once a player simply put his index finger to his lips, signaling for me to be quite, and the other time a player actually threw his headband to the floor and yelled back at my cohorts and me. But rather than sensing as though I had overstepped my bounds, I had a feeling of empowerment; that I had actually had an affect on these men whom at times I idolize, despise, and emulate.

In my intramural league, I have witnessed fraternities perform taunts that took days to prepare, and have a very apparent affect on the players. In a first round playoff game three nights ago against the Kappa Sigma frat team, each time I stepped up to the free throw line the brothers in the stands screamed in unison the name of a female acquaintance of mine that they knew would surely distract me. I went one-for-eight from the stripe and could not stand to look any of them in the eye the following day. After that game, my hatred for those drunken frat boys was nearly as profound as my own embarrassment, as I knew that all of their taunting should have not only been expected, but silenced by my preparation and performance.

In hindsight, I assume that I would have retaliated had the fans come onto the playing court, or had their verbal attacks crossed over into the realm of personal assault.But rather than defining exactly how far fans ought to be allowed to push their favorite or least favorite athletes, why not reevaluate the purpose of spectators at athletic events in the first place? Granted there would be little to no interest in sports if spectators were removed from the playing atmosphere, but it is worth considering the purpose of having a partial crowd affect a fair and neutral sporting event. Would sports be better suited having every event televised, but restricting fans from watching in person? No matter what the effect on the actual outcome of the games, this would clearly eliminate such instances as the ones we have seen in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Oakland over the past year, which have stained the face of professional sports leagues, and turned eager, enthusiastic, young fans away from the games.

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Sam Widdoes is a freshman student at the University of Richmond. This article was submitted as a part of a project for his Expository Writing class. He is 19 years old and from Los Angeles, Cailfornia. His email is Sam.Widdoes@Richmond.

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By: Sam Widdoes



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