NBA Fans

The Boston Celtics played on Friday night at the TD Garden. This was the first time the team met following   that occurred on November 22 in Denver. During that game, in the second half,   chased a loose ball into the stands. Although he was apparently, not injured, his foot did get tangled with a chair which ultimately obstructed him from getting up as quickly as he otherwise would have.

It is at this time that Smart alleges a nearby fan yelled at him, “That’s right, stay on the ground, get on your knees.”

Smart then looked at the fan and responded, “Listen, just watch the game”, and complained to Pepsi Center officials to have the fan removed for what was perceived by Smart as a derogatory comment. Later, Smart reported that his complaints were ignored and that they just looked at him, “…and didn’t even say anything.”

The visibly frustrated Smart went on to rant about the inability of players to respond to derogatory comments, such as those that were directed to him. He specifically mentioned that if NBA players had the capacity to “retaliate,” bigoted fans would think twice before degrading players.

What Smart is talking about here is in indication of a bigger problem in many sporting leagues around the world of offensive fans. As we have seen in the past, if a league fails to administer its own rules appropriately or, at worst, does not have the procedures and policies in place to deal with these issues tensions will escalate to a boiling point.

“We’re going to end up protecting ourselves,” Smart warns. “And it’s not going to be pretty for those fans and we don’t want that.” One only has to look back to 2004, where five NBA players were   and lengthy NBA suspensions were handed out for what notoriously became known as “Malice at the Palace.” The incident occurred at the Palace of Auburn Hills and was a direct result of a fan throwing an object towards the players. The players responded by attacking a man and that sparked a riot where fans and players fought both in the stands and on the court.

Fan Code of Conduct and the Revocability of Tickets

As Michael McCann reports, the NBA has adopted a Fan Code of Conduct. It creates baseline rules for fan behavior. At its core, the code tries to ensure that NBA games “foster a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable sports and entertainment experience” and that “players and fans respect and appreciate each other.” The code explicitly prohibits, among other things, the use of “foul or abusive language and obscene gestures.” This prohibition is considered essential given the close physical proximity between NBA players and fans seated near the floor.

Fans who violate the Code are subject to such penalties as:

  • Warning card.
  • Ejection without refund.
  • Revocation of season tickets.
  • Ban on attending future games and other arena events.

NBA teams and their arenas are free to adopt additional restrictions and accompanying measures.

Tickets to NBA games provide fans with a revocable license to enter an arena for a specific event and to occupy a specific seat. As far the Toronto Raptors are concerned, the following appears on their website:

Schedule B

Arena Code of Conduct

Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (“MLSE”) is committed to providing a safe, comfortable and enjoyable experience for our fans and guests at the arenas currently known as the Scotiabank Arena and Coca-Cola Coliseum (the “Venues”), and MLSE is committed to providing courteous and professional service. Everyone should expect and help to promote an environment where people are treated in a courteous, professional, considerate and respectful manner by all fans, arena staff, team and event personnel, performers, players and other guests. Accordingly, MLSE will not tolerate unsafe, abusive, unlawful or offensive conduct in our Venues. This conduct includes, without limitation:

Violence, fighting, threatening, taunting, physical or verbal harassment;

Making abusive, sexist, racist, offensive or obscene remarks or gestures;

Disruptive, harmful or disorderly behaviour;

Any disruption of the game or event by a guest’s actions;

Throwing objects of any kind or entering the playing surface or performance area;

Intoxication or any signs of impairment related to alcohol or drug consumption;

Possession of alcohol by a minor or providing alcohol to a minor;

Possession of alcohol not purchased inside the Venue;

Failure to comply with requests from staff, including those related to Venue policies, operations or emergency response procedures; or

Any act which, in the opinion of Venue officials, presents a risk to the safety of fans or staff.

Failure to abide by this Code of Conduct is subject to sanctions at the discretion of MLSE, which may include ejection, suspension of entry privileges, arrest, and banishment from any or all MLSE facilities.

The license is revocable if a fan violates applicable codes of conduct. Also, because a ticket to a game is a privilege and not a right, teams can lawfully deny entry to anyone who has demonstrated a failure to adhere to rules. This is why arena and stadium “bans” are lawful.

The NBA has not yet ruled on the Smart investigation, but it is clear that the league takes these things seriously. These issues are nuanced, and their policies and procedures will have to continue to change and evolve to meet competing demands. For example, in October, two fans were ejected from a preseason exhibition game played between the Guangzhou Loong Lions and the Philadelphia Sixers in Philly’s Wells Fargo Center after holding up “Free Hong Kong” signs. It will be interesting to see how the NBA navigates these sensitive issues, particularly ones with global and international implications.


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