Just in time for the start of the Flyers’ and 76ers’ regular seasons, the people in charge of the Wells Fargo Center sent out a press release this week to announce that they planned to increase their emphasis and enforcement of the arena’s code of conduct.
There will be a zero-tolerance policy, or something close to it, for any slurs related to a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or identity. Should spectators breach those boundaries, the arena’s event staff will give them a good talking-to or, in the most extreme scenario, escort them out of the building. Boiled down, the policy, in the abstract, can be summed up like this: Shouting “SIDNEY CROSBY STINKS” is fine. Shouting “SIDNEY CROSBY IS A [insert inappropriate derogatory term here]” is likely to get you booted to the corner of Broad and Pattison. A cluster of fans complain loudly about how referees don’t call traveling against LeBron James? Cool. Enjoy the game. Those same fans use a racist term or terms to describe James? Not cool. Take a hike.
Officials at the Wells Fargo Center insist that this is a good-faith step to curtail what is perceived to be a national trend of fan misbehavior, particularly since the resumption of in-person attendance at games during the pandemic. They’re not on a mission to kick people out of the arena, they say, and they don’t want to make fans fearful of screaming and cheering, and they have acknowledged the limitations of whatever measures they might take. It’s a fine line to be walked. They don’t want to regulate language and behavior so harshly that the Center takes on the atmosphere of a country club, but they also want to empower their customer-service staff to pull aside someone who, by any reasonable standard, is being a jerk. In effect, they want to apply the broken-windows method of actual policing to the arena: Clean up the overt examples of disorder, no matter how small or large, and you’ll cultivate an environment in which overt disorder isn’t tolerated anymore.
The idea is fine as far as it goes, though it would seem to place a burden on ushers and security personnel to size up a testy situation, get an accurate read on the cause of the conflict, assign blame, and react accordingly. The libertarian-oriented side of my brain wonders if the policy might have the unintended consequence of turning fans into tattletales and arena staff into schoolmarms, but again, no one affiliated with the Flyers, the Sixers, or the Center itself wants to turn the place into a public library. They want it to be a difficult, challenging setting for opposing teams and players and an entertaining, enjoyable one for fans, so any crackdown that goes too far or feels too heavy-handed would ultimately be counterproductive.
But if teams and leagues are serious about eradicating clownish behavior from the experience of attending a sporting event, they ought to consider attacking the problem by analyzing its origin. By punishing social transgressions once they happen, they’re treating the symptoms when reducing or eliminating the temptations and opportunities to commit such transgressions could be more of a cure. Here’s one example:
Anyone who watched even a fraction of ABC’s coverage of this year’s NBA Finals, between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, had to notice the frequency with which the network’s cameras – especially those cameras with the highest definition, providing the clearest pictures – homed in on individual fans. In one memorable shot, ABC split its screen evenly between Giannis Antetokoumpo at the foul line and a Suns fan in the stands taunting him for taking so long to shoot. In another, a fan, wearing a purple headband and a Suns jersey, stretched out his arms and twisted his body as ABC held him in an extreme closeup. It looked like he was pretending to be an airplane. He might have been hallucinating. Maybe both.
By themselves, such moments would seem harmless and humorous. But these weren’t traditional spectator shots, panning a raucous sellout crowd to give people at home a sense of the energy in a stadium or arena. That sort of environment and scene-setting is essential to a pleasurable viewing experience. This was something different. These fans were themselves performing, perhaps for the purpose of having the national-TV cameras catch sight of them, perhaps in the hopes that they’d become memes. Whatever their motivations, they were rewarded for their actions. There was the Giannis-mocker, as big on our screens as the target of his taunts was. There was the human airplane, all over Twitter.
Neither of those men used a slur or harassed anyone during their fleeting moments of fame. But the more that leagues and teams and TV executives chase the fool’s gold of going viral and the more the cameras draw attention to those individual fans who go over the top, the more these entities will encourage the very kind of behavior they seek to suppress. They will strengthen the powerful incentive structure that, through social media, is already in place for people to act like fools.
It’s one thing to tell fans that they’re there to see a show. It’s another thing to encourage them to think that they are the show, because those social boundaries that everyone of good faith wants respected will soon begin to blur. Genuine enthusiasm will escalate into performative enthusiasm, which will escalate into performative outrageousness, which will escalate into genuine outrageousness, which will escalate from there. No code of conduct will be strong enough then.