Packed stadiums and arenas in recent weeks have offered a bright beacon of normalcy more than a year after the pandemic shut down sports.
NBA fans filled Madison Square Garden for the New York Knicks’ first playoff win since 2013, then spilled into the streets to chant and cheer. In a scene that was both unnerving and joyously chaotic, golf fans swamped Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka as they made their way up the 18th fairway during Sunday’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C. On Sunday, 135,000 auto racing fans are expected at the Indianapolis 500.
But as the crowds have increased, so have episodes of disturbing misbehavior.
Three people reportedly received one-year bans from Houston’s Minute Maid Park this week following a one-sided skirmish that broke out during an Astros game. A streaker captivated the crowd at Nationals Park during a three-hour weather delay, using the infield tarp as a veritable Slip ‘N Slide before crawling into a roller to elude a group of security guards. Then on Thursday, three NBA teams barred five fans from their arenas following offenses the previous night.
The Philadelphia 76ers revoked a fan’s season tickets after the spectator dumped popcorn on Russell Westbrook during Game 2 of the first-round playoff series with the Washington Wizards. The Knicks banned a fan from the Garden after a video appeared to show an individual spitting on Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young. The Utah Jazz ejected three fans for reportedly making racist and vulgar comments to the parents of Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant.
As current and former players spoke out against the aggressive behavior, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association issued statements Thursday, with the league saying the return of fans “has brought great excitement and energy to the start of the playoffs, but it is critical that we all show respect for our players, officials and our fellow fans. An enhanced fan code of conduct will be vigorously enforced in order to ensure a safe and respectful environment for all involved.”
The waning pandemic, which limited attendance for 15 months, combined with decades-old issues – including alcohol consumption and a heightened allegiance to sports teams – could help explain the rash of incidents, according to Murray State professor Daniel L. Wann, who studies the psychology of sports fandom.
“So much has gone on in the past 15 months, and then you say, ‘Oh, yeah, and by the way we also had a pandemic.’ It would be foolish not to think that those things matter,” he said.
The crisis erased at least 225 million full-time jobs worldwide, millions of which may not return. More than 3.5 million people have died in the pandemic worldwide, including at least 592,000 Americans. Since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic March 11, 2020, the United States has also experienced national reckonings on race sparked by the killing of George Floyd and attacks against Asian Americans; a contentious presidential election and subsequent false claims of voter fraud; and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Wann noted that the factors for fan misconduct were already in place. Blending stress, frustration and antisocial impulses that may have developed over the past year only makes that brew more volatile.
He said some fans may have returned to crowded arenas more excitable after spending a year indoors. Others may have grown accustomed to slighting players over social media for 15 months, numbed to consequences of in-person interactions.
“We know that there are dysfunctional fans out there that, above and beyond all these factors, they’re just kind of jerks and they’re going to do this stuff. But they’re in the minority,” Wann said. “Most people just get caught up in the moment.”
So how long could this moment last?
“The initial rush of, ‘Yea, we get to go back to sporting events,’ like every initial rush, that’s going to die down at some point,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really knows [when], because there’s just not a whole lot of research on how fans react to the end of a pandemic.”
History does offer at least one example of post-pandemic re-assimilation.
At least 50 million people died worldwide from the 1918 influenza pandemic, which subsided by the early 1920s. It also gave way to a period of increasing xenophobia, greater violence against Black communities and rising inequality in the United States.
Christopher McKnight Nichols, a historian at Oregon State, said crisis and isolation can exacerbate extant beliefs and behavior.
“Everyone’s a little bit more raw after a year of a pandemic, and you find that in the diaries and correspondences of people in 1918, 1920,” he said.
“The flu in 1918 wasn’t as politicized as our current one – there wasn’t the same politics of masks and that sort of thing – but the human response was very similar. Manifestations of that include people having more violent interactions.”
Wann, the psychology professor, said leagues and arenas are responsible for curtailing fan misbehavior.
“Security should be greater at these sporting events. I don’t think that they should just up it now, they should keep it up,” he said. “We don’t want to have 50 [security guards] standing in the aisle and yelling, but I think that the fans need to know going in that there’s a zero-tolerance policy and if you do these things you’re going to be yanked out.”