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How far may sports fans go at an event in their dress and in their vocal “protests” about officials and players? Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any clear answer to what might seem to be a relatively easy problem. Certainly, racial epithets, hurling threats at others, and obscenities may lead to ejection, although any attempted criminal action would be dubious.
In a publicly owned arena fans will have more First Amendment license than at a privately owned facility where the ticket-as-contract may severely limit otherwise protected speech. Suppose one criterion for establishing limits on protest is the inability of the game to proceed in an orderly manner. Sounds reasonable but what about those NFL games where the fans are the “12th man on the field” and are exhorted to yell so loud the opposing team’s quarterback can’t even use audibles?
Once we leave the obscenities, threats, and signs that block others from seeing and enter the realm of the merely boorish, beer-enflamed, screams for justice, it may be that we should allow conduct at sporting events to find its level by relying on fan tolerance. Years ago, I went to a Boston Celtics game with a complimentary N.Y. Knicks ticket. That meant we sat in a N.Y. section and the Celtic fans relentlessly called us all sorts of foul names and even sprayed us with beer (I know, that’s an assault). I vowed never to return and never did. Obviously, my decision grievously wounded Celtic attendance and there is that single unoccupied seat I might have purchased. (Forgive me, Red Auerbach)
I’m personally more offended by the constant level of noise promoted at Phoenix Suns games; by the gymnasts in gorilla outfits that dunk at half-time and the incredibly untalented dancing girls whose main talent is to toss their long hair in frenzied spasms. So — I don’t go to Suns games.
I don’t believe the purchase of a ticket gives a fan the right to insult LeBron James’ family; to scream rapist at Kobe; to not respect Ron Artest’s decision to adopt the name Metta World Peace. Is there some First Amendment principle in those preferences? Unhappily, I can’t extract one.
The First Amendment supposedly rests on the premise of a free market of ideas; the kind of reverse Gresham’s Law where the good drives out the bad. I think the premise more resembles a requirement that we learn to tolerate (or simply avoid) “the bad,” the expressions that offend, are mistaken, are boorish.
There are no clear principles for sporting events and that may not be all bad. You can vote with your feet and wallet, as I do.
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