The Golden State Warriors led the Toronto Raptors 39-34 with just under nine minutes to go in the second quarter of the 2019 NBA finals. The game came to a sudden halt, and the camera panned to the Warriors’ star forward Kevin Durant gripping his right leg and signaling for assistance from the sideline. Durant’s apparent injury was met with Raptor fans celebrating and waving him off the court. Other members of the Warriors and Raptors stood in disbelief, motioning to the crowd to quiet down.
The crowd’s reaction to Durant’s injury was not taken lightly. It sparked a national discussion surrounding the verbal abuse of athletes, something that resonates all too well with some competitors, including those at Boise State.
“[Some fans] don’t really care much about us as people,” said Boise State women’s basketball guard Jayde Christopher. “I don’t think they really care. [They think] ‘Oh, they’re athletes,’ or ‘They’re just another person with a jersey and a number on it.’ I don’t think they really know what we go through as far as our personal lives and stuff like that.”
Like the crowd’s reaction to Durant’s injury, people can react in high-intensity moments without thinking about how their behavior affects others. Though reactions from fans in these moments may be unintentional, their impact is prompting conversation in the sports world, including the culture at Boise State.
How crowd noise can change the game
Corral president and senior Kinesiology major Connor Martin is a Boise State Bronco superfan. Growing up with Bronco roots, Martin’s Boise State experience has been a spirited one. His father is a university alumnus, he has followed Boise State sports his entire life and now, he leads the student section at many Bronco games.
To Martin and the rest of the Corral, the heckling and the noise they create are advantages for the Broncos, and they are not alone in believing so. Some professional sports organizations, such as the NFL, go as far as measuring decibels to see how loud the crowd really is.
This means that the most obvious reason a fan cheers is to disrupt the opposition, and a loud enough crowd can do just that, according to Martin.
“It helps having the Corral and the Bronco Athletic Association (BAA) for the home-court, home-field advantage that we have here [and]it helps when the crowd slacks in attendance,” Martin said.
The Corral has an unofficial code of conduct in place as an attempt to prevent their behavior from getting out of hand during games. But the Corral’s code of conduct is not a formal one: it is not a written contract, and the rules vary from sport to sport — depending on what the team is comfortable with.
“For most games, we’re not allowed to call out players by their name. We can call them out by their number, or what they’re wearing,” Martin said. “What we can’t do and what we also have regulations against is personally attack[ing]their appearance, their efficiency, anything that can seem harmful. We do have security and people [who are]part of the athletic department that will monitor us and monitor cheers.
Code of conduct
Just because the Corral has a code of conduct does not mean it is always followed. When Boise State volleyball took on UNLV on Nov. 7, the Corral was heard yelling things about the opposing team that did not sit well with the coaches, fans and athletes. The Corral received a complaint email from a fan that had to sit through the entire match listening to certain members of the Corral calling out the women by name and yelling derogatory remarks about the athletes’ bodies.
“I received an email from a fellow student saying she was disappointed in the Corral,” Martin said. “So we called a meeting the [following]Monday I said, ‘Hey, this is not us.’ And they said, ‘Sorry, we kind of got out of control…’ You guys know the rules. Please be respectful; don’t call people out about their physical appearance.”
Malicious crowd noise has long been a part of sports. Martin recalls a time when Boise State 2007-09 men’s basketball forward Mark Sanchez experienced personal attacks from the crowd. The Broncos were on the road at Utah State and, as the game went on, the Aggies crowd erupted in chants of “Dirty Sanchez.”
Racial slurs from fans have become a prominent issue in recent years. In October of 2019, the NBA announced they would be changing their fans’ code of conduct to be tougher and stated that fans can be “ejected or worse” if they chant anything not related to basketball.
Despite the negative connotation that comes with heckling, Martin suggested that, whether from the BAA or the crowd, it probably does not affect the student-athletes too much in the heat of intense moments in the game.
When fans go too far
The body-shaming at the volleyball game was something that Martin described as “out of character” for the Corral, but body-shaming, especially in women’s athletics, has become somewhat habitual for fans.
Boise State women’s basketball center Mallory McGwire is 6 feet 5 inches tall and has heard a fair share of taunts about her height, and said she has overheard several other comments yelled about her teammates or athletes on other teams.
“You don’t see super tall girls all the time. So some people will call you like ‘a giant’ or things like that, like super negative things that get in your head,” McGwire said. “Some people do comment on people’s weight or stupid things like that. It’s terrible, but that’s how people think they should be talking.”
Instances such as the Raptors’ crowd cheering for Durant’s injury or Utah State fans yelling racial slurs at Sanchez can prompt athletes to question the intentions of fans. When such radical displays of fandom occur, it may seem as though fans have forgotten that these athletes are not just athletes, but that they are people, too.
“It’s a competitive sport. Like if you’re hurt, okay, great. If we’re winning, that’s great,” Christopher said. “People have their ways of supporting their team, I guess that’s one way, but that’s just weird… some people just don’t care.”
To fanatics winning the game is what matters, but to a student-athlete, the score is just one of many priorities.
The student-athletes at Boise State and other universities are not professional athletes, as the “student” part of their title indicates. Fans can often forget this aspect of college sports, prompting them to assume that these athletes only care about their sport.
Christopher wants people to know that the reason student-athletes are where they are is “bigger than basketball, or any other sport.”
Student-athletes can be left feeling dehumanized when racial slurs, body-shaming and targeting become a crowd tactic.
“[Some people think] we’re just basketball players,” said Boise State men’s basketball guard Justinian Jessup. “Nobody really cares about anything else than what we do on the court.”
Crowd noise is all part of the game-day atmosphere as long as there’s no malicious intent, according to senior guard Alex Hobbs.
“It’s unfortunate at times,” Hobbs said, “but it doesn’t affect the way you play because at the end of the day, you’re out there with your teammates and the whole staff, and you just have to stay strong.”