Calling Out Foul Fans: It Is Time For An Unsportsmanlike Conduct Rule For Fans

The Red Sox management is moving aggressively in the wake of the allegation by Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones of racist taunts at Fenway Park , including the banning for life of a fan who made a racist comment to another fan during a recent game.  Boston police are also looking into any possible criminal conduct, including the throwing of peanuts at Jones and others.  Below is my column in The Hill Newspaper on the proposal for a new federal crime for prosecuting racist fans.  Putting aside the serious constitutional issues, it is entirely unnecessary. The problem with both rowdy and racist fans is the inaction of ballparks, not the insufficiency of criminal laws.

Years ago, I proudly sat in Wrigley Field with my youngest son Aidan for his first visit to my hometown team, the Chicago Cubs. There were not a lot of people in the stands due to the rain, but Aidan and I still cheered the Cubs as they lost to the Reds. A few seats behind us were two obnoxious drunks from out of town who yelled insults throughout the game at players.

Then, in the seventh inning, they screamed “F—k you Barney” as infielder Darwin Barney went to bat. One of the coaches immediately popped up in front of the Cubs dugout and yelled, “Hey, no swearing. Keep it clean.” I immediately voiced my agreement. In truth, neither of our objections had the same impact as the four large (and fairly lobbed) guys in front of us who stood up in Cubs jerseys and said, “Yeah, no swearing at Wrigley.” Looking at these four behemoths, the two Reds fans immediately sat down and were not heard from again.

The incident came to mind recently with the controversy over racist taunts yelled by Red Sox fans at Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones at Fenway Park. While fans can often enforce basic rules of civility like our four Wrigley friends, there remains a serious problem with unruly fans. In the case of Jones, some fans used the game to vent their racist rage. In response, well-known baseball sports agent, Scott Boras, called for Congress to criminalize racist comments at sporting events.

While I share the anger over the incident, the criminalization of speech is not the answer. It is the ultimate “change up” constitutional pitch. It starts as a response to vile racist speech but ends up curtailing free speech as a whole.

I detest loud, insulting fans. Having grown up near Wrigley, I cannot say that swearing was never heard in that sacred place but it was far less common than other parks. I now live in Washington, D.C., where I rarely took my four kids to stadiums because of the increasingly presence of drunken, profane idiots who ruin the game for other fans, particularly families. They have thrived in the absence of action by team owners who have every right to remove disruptive fans.

However, Boras wants to go further. He demanded, “We need legislative and congressional action so that the awareness of this provides an appropriate penalty for the crime, to give the owners and teams the ability to make conduct from fans criminal so that there is a real benefit to this newfound resolve.” Boras added, “If you run on the field, that trespass gets you jail time and a criminal act. Why shouldn’t conduct of this nature get obviously a greater penalty, because it has worse damages?”

The reason is that “free trespass” is not protected under the first amendment, but free speech is. Even racist speech. If Congress were to criminalize racist speech, it could criminalize a wide array of speech that is deemed insulting or demeaning. That is precisely what is happening in Europe where free speech is being sharply curtailed to combat insulting or intimidating or threatening comments. As a result, everyone from politicians to comedians have been charged under ambiguous speech standards.

The United States remains a relative bastion of free speech in the world despite clear challenges on our college campuses. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul in 1992, the Supreme Court considered a St. Paul ordinance criminalizing hate speech after a cross was burned on the front yard of a black family. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion that struck down the ordinance as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Likewise, in 2011, the Supreme Court considered a case involving the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and its signature protests featuring homophobic slogans at funerals for service members. The Court ruled 8-1 in Snyder v. Phelps that the hate spewing speech celebrating the death of a soldier was still protected under the First Amendment.

The Jones incident should not be unexpected. With 30,000 or so fans, it is hardly surprising to find a handful of virulent racists. Just add enough alcohol and adrenaline and social inhibitions are stripped away to reveal the most ugly aspects of some people. The answer to incidents like the abuse of Adam Jones is not the criminalization of speech but the enforcement of an owner’s right to exclude disruptive fans.

Every year it seems to get worse, but it does not have to happen. As Nez Balelo, Jones’ agent, insisted that “[t]here needs to be a ‘Zero Tolerance’ rule put in place across MLB to punish people that are going to act this way.” The rule would go something like this: act like an adult or leave the park. That means that you do not get to force other people to hear your racist diatribes.

However, it should not just be limited to racist or sexist or anti-Semitic slurs. These parks are a wonderful American tradition. Families should not have to stay at home to protect their kids from some drunk moron who believes that screaming profanities or abuses at a player will finally bring meaning to his sad life.

You also do not get to abuse fans of opposing teams and call it sport. In 2013, the Seahawks hired undercover agents to wear the colors of the 49ers to catch thugs who threaten or abuse other fans. To the team’s credit, they were seeking to bust their own fans to keep the stadium a fun place for all of the fans.

Such private action is not government regulation of speech barred under the First Amendment. Ballparks are private property and fans must adhere to the rules of the game just as do the players. In the same fashion, a theater can throw out obnoxious people who cannot take a break from their cellphones.

In the case of drunken or abusive fans, they are actively trying to disrupt players or the game. Notably, under Rule 901(d), any umpire can eject “any player, coach, manager or substitute for … for unsportsmanlike conduct or language.” The same should be true for fans who engage in unsportsmanlike or obnoxious conduct.

So leave the first amendment and the criminal code out of it. The problem is that obnoxious fans believe that they have license to abuse players and fans because no one is stopping them. Just as umpire Bill Klem once said, “it ain’t nothin’ till I call it.” It is time to call out fouls in the stands and eject those fans who see players and fans as their captive audiences for venting hateful or abusive thoughts.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

47 thoughts on “Calling Out Foul Fans: It Is Time For An Unsportsmanlike Conduct Rule For Fans”

  1. Fans have demonstrated they are finally jaded by this stale repetition of the same old content. They want a better variety of creatures. Their discontent has grown so great, they have begun throwing peanuts (bananas, too) at players and calling them out, presumably to request their immediate replacement with Christians and Lions …

    Maybe the players should take the hint? Maybe it’s time they chose a new career? They can go drill water wells in sub-Sahara Africa, or whatever social justice warfare it is these actors do after their careers end.

  2. Ohhh, I get it now. The right has a hissy fit if a openly vile racist like Ann Coulter can’t spread her hate at a collage, but don’t do it at a ballgame. Its OK for “FOXNEWS” but not comedians. Racism and hate will always be with us, I would just hope some would see it more clearly.

  3. Hire Sicilians to patrol the stands and pistol whip those who yell bad things. Kick em in the nuts if they throw peanuts.

  4. I haven’t taken my young son to any professional sporting event yet, besides horse shows where this kind of behavior is just not done.

    I was at Staples Center years ago when the Lakers won their first in a string of championships. A happy mob tried to get on my car, and other cars were flipped and burned. I had to keep rolling forward, prayed, and luckily didn’t roll over anyone’s foot. Hooligans will riot whether they win or lose.

    And Bryan Stow received a traumatic brain injury for wearing Giants jersey to a Dodger game. People in the stands are drunk, rude, cuss, threaten, and sometimes violent.

    But as Professor Turley said, that’s the fault of the team owners’ lax security. They want the seats filled so they cave to the fans. But this is short sighted because they drive away families and probably a lot of people on dates too. This is supposed to be a sporting event not a biker bar.

    So why doesn’t this happen at horse shows? Why do people just cheer loudly for their own barn and friends, and wince sympathetically or pitch in to help where needed? Sure the hunter jumper shows can be more snobby and less helpful than some other disciplines (draft horse people are the friendliest by far) I have never heard of anyone cussing out a rider or a judge let alone getting in a fist fight because Snowball knocked down a rail.

    Maybe more people need to be raised in a barn.

    1. Bull riders are an aggressive lot, suffering from testosterone poisoning. I think it’s required for the job. But they only quarrel with each other if at all and that would be outside an event. The stands are a safe place for families.

    2. You suggest a novel idea. Only allow individuals in ball parks where the individual has his or her own string(s) of polo ponies! (that they leave behind, obviously 🙂 ).

      This would do wonders, at least for the verbal “civility” of the audience (and guarantee lots of seating space as well).

      1. As to the baseball fans, you could bus them out to the polo games!

        1. Lol. Maybe they should send unruly fans out to stomp divots after a few chuckers.

    3. Karen – having been to my fair share of horse shows (we owned Arabs) I will admit I have heard people audibly gasp when Snowball knock down a rail. 🙂

      And admit it, the most fun at the horse show is the vendors.

      1. LOL. Did you get to go to Scottsdale?

        We have a few Arabs but I’m looking mainly towards the open shows for my gelding’s first season. There’s quite a difference between circuits and venues isn’t there!

        (And I love the vendor stalls! Such cool stuff!) Of all the different equestrian sports I’ve attended, Endurance races and Draft Horse shows are the most down to Earth. Everyone knows everyone and pitches in. I recall my Percheron moved an entire 20 stall temporary barn from the inside in a moment of insanity and our stall neighbors were so sweet.

        1. Karen – if you own an Arab in the Valley of the Sun you are required to go to the All-Arabian Show in Scottsdale. I have seen stallions with their own bands to promote them. It is better now since the bottom dropped out of the Arabian market, but at the top, it was insane, but fun. 🙂

  5. I remember taking my 9 year old son to his first Toronto Argonaut football game at the old CNE stadium.He was very excited and even drew his own sign to support the home team.Unfortunately,the two of us were literally driven from the game by dozens of drunken obnoxious louts.He is now 34 and has never attended another professional football game to my knowledge.He has become a huge Raptors fan despite this unfortunate experience and will continue to follow them despite their recent ignominious exit from the playoffs at the hands of Lebron and his Cavaliers.

    1. They play football in Canada? Does the loser have to hose down the field?

  6. Your beloved Raiders will be taking Thunderdome to Vegas, and you know the line about what happens in Vegas!

  7. Good article. Regulate MLB fans, but don’t do it at NFL games. Otherwise, every seat in the Coliseum will be empty when my beloved Oakland Raiders play at home.

  8. Do, AT&T is a nice atmosphere and I believe also a place where I believe there are no beer vendors. And the faux racism incident claim made by Adam Jones was @ AT&T. The fan who stepped forward bravely did so because he did not want Giant fans or AT%T besmirched unjustly.

  9. I am quite sympathetic to the problem. I grew up out east and was happy I didn’t have to take my kids to MLB games there. However, I have been to 27 MLB ballparks and most are pretty civil. Paul Schulte brings up a good point about beer. You don’t have to ban beer. At several west coast parks I’ve been, San Diego, Dodgers and Angels, they simply don’t have beer vendors. If you want a beer, you go to the concession stand and the limit is 2, as it is at all MLB ballparks. Not only is less beer consumed, there is less distraction of the myriad beer vendors barking their product up and down the aisles incessantly.

  10. AT&T park has been successful in creating a family atmosphere. I haven’t seen a fight or unruly behavior there since it was built in 2000. I think this might be because you can text security from your seat and they will throw out an unruly fan in your area. Zero tolerance.
    And, they announce this during the game over the loud speakers. “Swearing and unruly behavior will not be tolerated! Please contact an usher near your seat immediatetly!”
    Candlestick,however, was a nightmare. There were at least 3 fights among the fans per game, and once my girlfriend wore a dodger’s cap to the Giants game and got beer thrown on her.
    Now, the AT&T park is thriving with young familiies and kids. Sometimes I sit surrounded by young women and young moms enjoying the sunshine without a a care in the world. It’s beautiful.I haven’t heard a swear word there in all these years.
    So, in conclusion, I agree wholeheartedly with this article. The stadium security can make the difference.

    1. Don – this is why I like watching college baseball. Closer to the field, no beer, parents in the stands and the needling is good-hearted.

  11. I am suspect of this incident. In 2013 Adam Jones claimed racism when a banana was thrown onto the field in SF. The fan was not singled out and Jones made the claim in a postgame interview. When the person who threw the banana heard of the faux racism claim the next day, he stepped forward. He was Hispanic and said he threw the banana in frustration as to how his beloved Giants were playing[they lost 10-2], and wasn’t even aware Jones was in the vicinity. And, this same Adam Jones mad classless statements disparaging the defeated Puerto Rican team after the US won the World Baseball Classic in March.

    Then there is the problem w/ protected groups. I see JT chose to protect blacks women and Jews. Well, 40% of MLB players are Hispanic. And what words would merit ejection. What about making fun of Italians, Irish, hillbillies, all part of MLB? But I will go back to the alleged incident. Any witnesses to this alleged travesty??

  12. While I agree that basic civility has declined throughout society, I seriously doubt racist comments from fans have increased since Jackie Robinson first stepped on the field. The 2 hour ballgame has already turned into the 4 hour marathon and if we begin stopping the game to call out fans it will become 5. I picture ballplayers giving their best Babe Ruth pose pointing at the “suspects” in the bleachers. If I wanted to watch overpaid people whine and complain about “those” other people, then I’ll just put on C-SPAN or any of the news channels.

  13. If it is against the law to yell racist remarks at sporting events then it would seem that it would be against the law to ‘bounce’ those who yell racist remarks. The Constitution, the illusion of freedoms, the protection of these or those rights, etc. invariably come into conflict. The solution lies in social evolution, the teaching of children to respect each other regardless of race, religion, etc. If ever there was an argument for education over criminalization this is it. America missed this successful model of education and treatment over criminalization regarding our drug problem. Here’s a chance to move forward in an intelligent manner. Hopefully the law will not come into it. Filtering out the imbecility and hate is only possible through education and peer pressure.

    1. Issac, it depends on who’s doing the bouncing. The First Amendment protects us from having our speech curtailed by the Government. I’m pretty sure team owners are free to curtail to their hearts’ content.

      1. Well put. Personally, I think “bouncing” the individual would have sufficed. But you are right, team owners (or ball park owners) certainly have the right to do what they want including banning for life.

        That said, these ball parks, as well as the teams themselves, often receive enormous tax breaks and other financial forms of public support so there is to a degree an argument for constitutional rights to be at least considered.

        In public places where sports are involved, it seems that the public itself is the one who can most effectively control such behavior by shaming and other expressions of indignation.

  14. Enigmainblackcom. I like reading the postings here(even if I don’t agree with them). You have the same rights as anybody else here. I’m not big on PC, but I do believe in civil discourse. Some of the people here get a little crude with their language. Sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it.

  15. That sort of conduct used to be common place back when the country had morals, values and standards. I recall people pitching pennies on the gym floor durinmg a basket ball game . The referees called the game and gave it to the opposing team. These days it would be called free speech …

  16. Bars have been doing this for decades.
    They are called bouncers.
    And after several incidences,
    You can be ’86’ from the property…

  17. They could avoid some of this by stopping selling alcohol at the stadium.

    1. I hear you, but the cost is great and the gain is small.

      Even In the case of Fenway Park, it seems to me that the public exercised exactly the kind of social rejection that works the best. An institutional respsonse, banning the individual for life – for instance, has to some degree the opposite effect of what is intended. Rather than a free society that abhors racism (with the usual exceptions and misfits), we have a society that must progressively be protected from itself by institutionally designed policy.

      How can society feel, never mind express, “for shame…”, when externally fashioned rules already cover every aspect of what it should and shouldn’t feel including the allowable responses?

        1. Maybe society is more and more “accepting” of what you call “racism”, because blacks in America are doing more and more to justify every racial stereotype that ever was. For example, an old racist joke that was relayed to me by a relative was heard by him when he was about 9 years old, in a barber chair in Georgia. One guy asked another “Hey, do you know what mass confusion is???” The answer was “Father’s day in n-ggertown.” That was in the early 1960s, when the illegitimate black birth rate was about 15% or so. Maybe less.

          Today, would that joke be racist, or would it be a Reality Check when blacks are pumping out about 72% illegitimate kids. Even more in that well-know racist and Jim Crow bastion of Minneapolis Minnesota, where its hits 82%. Don’t even get me started on crime, and education.

          Squeeky Fromm
          Girl Reporter

          1. Good points, Ms. Fromm. Why isn’t it racist whenever Blacks refer to Whites as “Crackers, Oreos etc.”? And when Blacks affect a “White” voice when making fun of Whitey?

            Why do they not assimilate – and drop the Ebonics, attitude that failure isn’t a disgrace, and shaming Blacks that stay in school as “tryin’ to be White? Genuine African-Americans (From Nigeria, Jamaica, Benin etc.) do not hang around with BLM folks.

            1. Whether it is racist for blacks to act that way depends on who you ask. Some Liberals have defined “racism” in such a way that it is conveniently impossible for blacks, women, or other minorities to be labeled such. However, even more blacks think most blacks are racist more than they think most whites are racist:

              Among black Americans, 31% think most blacks are racist, while 24% consider most whites racist and 15% view most Hispanics that way.

              Among white adults, 10% think most white Americans are racist; 38% believe most blacks are racist, and 17% say most Hispanics are racist.


              Which means there is still some realistic thinking going on despite the Liberals and their MSM Propaganda Wing nefarious attempts to whitewash the problem.

              Squeeky Fromm
              Girl Reporter

        2. Yes. The cause is nebulous, but ominous nonetheless.

          I suspect that our exploitative system combined with our dual system of justice is what allows this tendency to flourish, not so much that people are suddenly more racist. Cops are not suddenly different from three decades ago, they are instead given more opportunity to bash heads, and the heads available to them, due largely to the distribution of assets, are far more likely to be minority (the people who can least afford to defend themselves). Racism follows.

          One aspect of this “system”, is public fear of immigration (often justified in the sense it is explicitly used against wages and housing resources, etc.). This spills over into general racism and frustration with anything “not like me and my immediate surroundings.” This phenomenon is encouraged and made use of by the powers that be as a means of control in extreme situations where the public is asked to behave and believe radically often at complete odds with common sense or logic, not to mention against their own best interests in any “long game” sense.

          If the public looked at the housing tragedy in Detroit, for instance, the only thing keeping it from picking up cobble stones and storming the castle, besides the total black-out by the media on the subject, is the manipulation of racial sentiments through the process of dividing people against each other. The racism is manufactured.

          BTW, neither Dems nor Repubs have a monopoly on this. They are simply the equally willing “wings” of a neoliberal establishment that is in the process of breaking down under its own weight.

          1. As I recall, and this is of course totally empirical, racism took a huge hit after the equitable 1950’s. The system was more equitable, less driven by fear, and racism suffered accordingly. So much so, and for such obvious reasons, that it has been impossible to completely reverse. Still, after, Regan and his war on the working class, it picked back up and has been gathering force ever since.

        3. enigma….I lived in Boston 30 years ago. I recall walking down the street in South Boston with a black friend and having all kinds of racist comments being shouted our way from cars driving by and cretins walking by. This was the norm, not the exception. South Boston was the worst area. I am mixed race, but look white and grew up in a midwestern racially integrated neighborhood where race and mixed race was accepted as completely ‘normal’. Living in Boston and, along with my black college friends, being subjected to racist taunts and comments by drive-bys or walking idiots was an entirely new experience that I had never experienced growing up in the midwest. I got out of Boston as soon as I was able to. Despite all the universities and colleges there in Boston, I still found it to be one of the most ignorant and racist towns that I ever lived in. I am not surprised by the racist ignorance being spewed from the stands at Fenway based on my personal experience of living in the city of Boston. It is full of contrasts between all the international college students in Cambridge and then so many other areas of Boston that are filled with true old time Bostonian ‘no outsiders welcome’ clannish, ignorant attitudes. I did not enjoy my time living in Boston.

          1. I have lived in Minneapolis, Nashville, Atlanta, Jacksonville and Orlando. what you have described takes place (in varying degrees) in all of them as well.

            1. Unfortunately, it is nearly everywhere as you say, in varying degrees. Though I will say that I have also lived in Philadelphia and Washington DC and have never experienced the same level of overt racism that I experienced living in Boston. So, I remain hopeful. Black IS beautiful, baby. Why else would all us ‘white’ people get spray tans and sit in the sun trying to turn our skin brown?

  18. I agree with each of the elements of what our host mentioned but have one reservation.

    In expanding Rule 901(d) to include fans I wonder how much of a disruption to the game if the umpire needed to babysit every miscreant in the stands. Surely it can be an option but everyone would be better served to have security acting on behalf of agents evict the fan from the stadium quietly and without interruption to the game. If the fan refuses to leave then law enforcement can come forth and arrest him.

    Having thousands of individuals in a particular event or gathering, there is always at least one who will act like jerk and cause a scene. It’s often only a matter of time and numbers.

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