Rich Tandler is the author of Gut Check, The Complete History of Coach Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins. Get details and order at http://GutCheckBook.com
A couple of people I know related a story about what they did while sitting behind the visitor’s bench during a recent Redskins game. Emboldened by some mean “punch” consumed before the game, they heckled the visiting players about everything from their playing ability to steroids to their uniforms. It was all in good fun. One player not dressed for the game even came over and chatted with them after it was over.
This was just a somewhat amusing anecdote until we saw the outrageously ugly riot that broke out in the Detroit-Indiana NBA game Friday night. Then such behavior became the peak of the proverbial slippery slope.
Such an incident has never happened in the NFL, at least not in modern times. But it’s easy to see how it could.
My friends would never get involved in anything violent nor would they shout out obscenities, but let’s say that they’re yelling to a nearby player that his mother wears combat boots. That doesn’t draw a reaction. But another individual sitting nearby, perhaps not a level-headed at the others and who has been taking shots out of a flask all game long, moves from commenting on the apparel of the player’s mother to her ancestry or what she does in her spare time. This draws some angry words from the player. That gives others sitting near the heckler incentive to really let him have it. Things deteriorate from there and you have the scene in Detroit all over again.
Now, this is a somewhat simplified scenario, but does anyone doubt that the incident at the Palace started with some good, clean heckling? In other words, if nobody heckles, the whole thing never happens. The words created an atmosphere of hostility, one that became extreme when Artest committed the hard foul that provoked Ben Wallace’s shove. It just became a small leap for the abuse to go from verbal to physical.
I certainly am not going to defend the players going into the stands. However, had the whole thing ended with Artest getting hit in the face with that cup and beverage, it still would have been a very ugly incident.
I’ve never liked heckling. My idea of a good time when going to a sporting event is cheering on my team, not razzing the guys on the other side.
At the same time, I’m not going to play the speech police here. Just because it’s not something that I like to do doesn’t mean that I think that those who do get a kick out of it don’t have the right to do so as long as the language is appropriate.I’m concerned, however, that the bad apples, the ones that escalate the hostile atmosphere to the point of physical violence, are going to lead to a necessity to have physical barriers in between the fans and the players like a third-world soccer field has. That would diminish the experience for all involved.So, heckle if you must. Just remember that you may have to be doing it from across a moat and through a barbed wire fence some day.