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When the love turns into hate: The growing toxic fandom in American sports

By Cierra Moore

The backdrop of this year’s just-concluded Mental Health Awareness Month continues to be a pandemic that has everyone’s mental health at risk. The World Health Organization reported in the first year of the pandemic that anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25% globally. Athletes and their fans aren't absolved from being a part of that statistic. After having fans back at live events for the past several months, we’ve gotten a chance to see with our own eyes how fan behavior has grown more sinister. The American fan base is growing more toxic and athletes are taking the brunt of their violent outbursts.

For professional athletes, their extraordinary ability coupled with the amount of money they make has desensitized fans to their very real humanity and it comes at the cost of their mental health. Athletes have the unique ability to do things that the everyday person cannot, and it has made them appear as though they are superhuman. But the truth is, no matter their ability or income, they are susceptible to very real human conditions like depression, anxiety and even suicide.

In the last year, we’ve seen reports of fans throwing concession items at athletes, yelling obscenities and even going as far as physically harassing their families mid-game. Last month we saw two fans escorted out of the American Airlines Center during a Dallas Mavericks-Phoenix Suns game due to them physically harassing the family of NBA superstar Chris Paul. Last spring, a Boston Celtics fan was arrested on assault charges for allegedly throwing a water bottle at Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving. In April, also at TD Garden, fans hurled obscenities at Irving so reprehensible that he resorted to flicking them off while playing. Kyrie Irving has candidly spoken about the abuse he experiences from fans, saying “It’s just underlying racism, and treating people like they’re in a human zoo. Throwing stuff at people, saying things. There’s a certain point where it gets to be too much. You see people just feel very entitled out here.”

These kinds of aggressive fan incidents aren’t limited to the NBA. It’s across American sports. Back in March at Indian Wells, tennis star Naomi Osaka was brought to tears by jeers from the crowd. This is the same Indian Wells tournament that Venus and Serena famously boycotted for decades due to being viciously heckled and tormented by spectators during a 2001 tournament. During an interview on “Red Table Talk,” Serena Williams spoke about her time at Indian Wells. "Even when I went back 14 years later, it was very traumatizing. Talk about post-traumatic stress and mental anxiety. I remember sitting in the bathroom thinking, 'Wait, I'm not gonna go back. I just don't think I should do this. What if they start booing again?' It was really hard for me," said Williams.

As this type of fan behavior continues to permeate through American sports, we’re starting to mirror what we see happening in European sports. The European soccer fan base is an example of how intense and routine these violent outbursts can become. We’ve seen everything from fires to riots to unrelenting racist harassment by European soccer fans. Last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to come out and condemn the racist vitriol that fans were directing at Black England soccer players after their Euro 2020 championship loss. 

For generations, athletes have experienced heckling, insults, and harassment but because it has been consistent, no one has deemed it unacceptable. It’s time to address the elephant in the room. Athletes are being harassed by fans and it needs to stop. Everyone needs to take inventory of their mental health. We should all be concerned about this kind of fan behavior. Nothing gives fans permission to act this way toward athletes. Not their passion for the game, nor their ticket into the arena. Sports fans' inability to recognize this being egregiously inappropriate is quite the oxymoron. Fans are quick to point out the injustice of athletes using their money and fame to skirt around legal troubles. Yet, fans believe an athlete’s notoriety or salary gives them the license to lambast athletes with heckling, trolling and abuse. Talk about a double standard. 

After the Mavericks-Suns game on May 8, shows like “Inside the NBA” and “First Take” discussed the incident involving Chris Paul’s family and condemned the harmful and inappropriate fan behavior. To change the behavior of fans, we must see more sports media personalities unequivocally condemning this kind of fan behavior and leading by example by not giving takes that encourage trolling or harassment. It shouldn’t take escalating violence for us to say this is too much. Brands must also do their part in raising awareness about fan abuse and its impact on the mental health of athletes. We must see longer conversations about these abuses and industrywide initiatives to combat them.

Our athletes have consistently stood on the front lines using their celebrity and platforms to raise awareness about various issues facing humanity. It’s time we do the same for them.

Cierra Moore is strategy director at full-service agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners (BSSP).

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