Sports Fans: When you cross the line into personal abuse

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 20: A vender sells beer during the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 20, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 20: A vender sells beer during the game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 20, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images) /
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Weekend incident illustrates that athletes in many sports, including MLB, have to know how to react when sports fans profanely and abusively cross the line.

The behavior of sports fans, including in MLB, is an evergreen topic that didn’t begin with Patrick Reed’s caddy and won’t end there either.

The golf world reacted aggressively this past weekend when Reed’s usual caddy, Kessler Karain, was ordered not to return to Royal Melbourne, site of the final round of the Presidents Cup, Sunday following a run-in the previous day with an unruly fan that turned physical.

Sources said Karain pushed the man, spilling a couple of beers he had been holding, after the man repeatedly verbally accosted Reed following Saturday’s round.

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Reed was a particular subject of fan abuse at Royal Melbourne since video surfaced of him violating a rule at an event the previous week by moving sand in a trap on his backswing.

Karain said he reacted after the fan repeatedly and sometimes profanely accosted Reed. “The most harm done was a little spilled beer, which I’m more than happy to reimburse him for,” Karain added.

The incident renewed discussion of two topics that arise periodically during competitions in most, if not all sports: where’s the line between fair and unfair fan behavior, and what can or should an athlete do when a fan crosses that line?

That the line does periodically get crossed is rarely in dispute. In baseball, players have on occasion been known to take on fans they felt were overly or too personally abusive. Ty Cobb once famously went into the stands to fight such a fan.

The basic rule ought to be fairly simple. Sports Fans, who after all pay money for their tickets, buy the right to heckle. But they don’t buy the right to be profane. And it is never appropriate for either fans or athletes to engage in violent provocation or reaction.

Some years back I purchased a ticket for a spring training game in Arizona between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, two teams whose fans are not especially known for loving one another. Spring training parks are intimate, sometimes notoriously so.

In this particular instance, a small group of partisans of one of the teams seated a section or so away could easily be heard around the park loudly and repeatedly accosting players on the other team with various profanities. As at Royal Melbourne, there was beer involved, but it is not my intention to blame the beer vendor for the invective those abusive sports fans subjected the players, along with several thousand fans, many of them children, to.

Did those fans’ behavior mar the occasion for those of who came to watch a ballgame only to have a frat party break out? Yes, actually it did. The only thing I was happy about was that I hadn’t brought a six-year-old along. Those who did went home with more questions to answer than they bargained for.

The problem isn’t the heckling. Good heckling – clever ripostes, often founded in a player’s real idiosyncracies – can be tasteful as well as humorous and therefore entertaining.

But when heckling devolves into language that would get you tossed out of a semi-respectable brothel, then fans have crossed a bright line and ought to face consequences that include removal from the event.  Not only have they violated rules of taste, but – most importantly – they’ve imposed on and ruined the fan experiences for others.

Players, whether in golf, baseball or other sports, also have a code they are required to live up to, and Karain did violate that code at Royal Melbourne. The code is this: Never react obviously, overtly, and physically.

That code would appear to leave the targets of abusive behavior few options, but there actually are a couple. The first and simplest is to alert authorities on the scene who can identify the offenders and take appropriate action.

On rare occasions, players can even respond directly. They have to be subtle, but subtlety is occasionally possible.

Back when the San Diego Padres held spring training in Yuma, Az., I attended a game which again was marred by the presence of a fan who had a particular case for Garry Templeton, then San Diego’s shortstop.

The Yuma training facility was a lot like many high school and some college ballyards today: Sports Fans could basically stand right up against the backstop, the field itself separated from the seating area only by a chain link fence. This abusive fan, therefore, couldn’t have been more than 20 or 30 feet from the players; there’s no question Templeton could hear every profane word the fan spoke…as could the rest of us.

I watched Templeton closely as he moved to the on-deck circle, and right into the path of the fan’s loudest, most profane, most insistent verbal abuse. Templeton stood with his back to the spectators, peering out at the game action, but all of us in the bleachers knew his ears were wide open.

At the height of the fan’s abuse, I saw Templeton – still staring straight out at the field – quietly slip his right thumb into the back pocket of his uniform pants, spread his fingers downward from the pocket, and very softly pat his rear end three or four times.

Next. The Philadelphia Phillies seem to stop shopping. dark

The gesture was perfect in both its subtlety, its delivery of a meaningful response and its propriety while not disengaging from the substance of the game being played around him.

Patrick Reed’s caddy would have been better off reacting as Garry Templeton did.