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When Fan Misbehaviour Crosses a Legal Line

by Aron Solomon

What does someone think about as they throw something in the direction of a professional athlete out there doing their job? Do they even think at all or is the act simply a release of pent-up rage at their own life with no thought as to how they arrived at the exact second when an object leaves their hand and heads towards the athlete, potentially ending their career or worse?

While this is probably a rhetorical question for the ages, ongoing incidences of fan misbehavior have been steadily filling our social media feeds now that fans are being allowed back to watch live professional sports. While many leagues have some kind of fan code of conduct, including the NBA, the primary legal vehicle governing what a fan can and cannot do is the actual ticket. The best way for fans to view their ticket is a contract that goes both ways. It is fundamentally an exchange of money for the ability to attend, in person, the sporting event in issue.

But a ticket to attend a game comes with its own terms of service, further specifying what you as the user can and cannot do. For example, here is the contractual relationship you enter into when you purchase a ticket to attend a Milwaukee Bucks game. This really isn’t dramatically different from the kinds of terms of service that you would see online for any kind of software you’re using. And, as for the obvious, in attending a sporting event, your ticket prohibits you from dangerous behaviours.

There are a wide range of dangerous behaviors, some of which involve the relationship between fans and other fans. Like this meme that already went viral during this year ‘s NBA playoffs:

This is a bad look for any professional sports league, particularly for the NBA, which has endured a generation of critics complaining that this deeply beautiful game is now being played too aggressively. These criticisms often come with racist undertones and it all came to a social media head last year when the Cleveland Cavaliers coach referred to his own players as “thugs”.

It is worth noting that players with this reputation often receive the worst treatment from visiting fans, as was again the case during the first round of this season’s NBA playoffs, in which Russell Westbrook, a remarkably talented yet much-maligned player, had popcorn thrown on him by a fan in Philadelphia.

Of course, none of this fan behavior is limited to North America or our professional leagues.

Just last week, FIFA, the global soccer governing body, banned all fans from the Mexican  national team’s next two World Cup qualifying matches for homophobic chants. And for most of his career, Samuel Eto’o, a star in Italy’s first league and a Cameroon national team legend, regularly endured brutal racist chants that were such personal violence for him that multiple matches were stopped midway through.

And while living in Stockholm, your author attended the 2010 Stockholm hockey Swedish first division (then called the elitserien) derby between local clubs Djurgården and AIK. Here’s what ensued.

This went from bad to worse, with the eventual end results being police SWAT team involvement not only in the stands, but also the streets and the tunnelbana trains taking fans back to the city center.

John Brennan, a New Jersey criminal lawyer, points out that the relationship can move very quickly from a contractual one to a criminal one when fan behavior crosses the line, as it did in all the examples above.

“Your ticket to a sports event, while it is a contract, is in no way a shield to criminal liability. Whether you are throwing popcorn or batteries at the players, where fans behave badly, it is a criminal as well as potentially a civil issue.”

Also this season in the NBA, a Celtics fan was charged with felony assault and battery when he allegedly threw a water bottle at former Celitcs and current Nets star Kyrie Irving. The fan also faces a lifetime ban from NBA arenas for his behavior.

What’s scary about these situations is a hybrid of every situation discussed in this article. Whether the end result of the next instance of poor fan behavior is a fan being maimed by another fan in the stands, or a player sustaining a career-ending injury, nothing good ever comes of fans taking it upon themselves to right some fictitious wrong. When they do, and when their behavior goes from socially unacceptable to dangerous, the law will always be involved.

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