Sporting Life

Spectators' freedom should not embrace culture of jeering

The boys are younger than 12. Kids out in the country in Australia, running in the wind and playing footy. There's a kick for goal to be taken. Which is when they start. Crowding around the kicker, jeering him, hissing at him.

"Miss," they shout.

My friend, whose sons are in this league, is mortified. "I don't want you to do it," he tells his kids. "But everyone does it," they replied. My friend is immovable. This is not the way to play sport.

How many other parents say that? Maybe some believe it is all just good fun. No harm, mate, no foul. This is footy and young people need toughness. So man up, kid, hurl a jeer. Just as the adults do to Adam Goodes, the Australian Rules footballer.

Goodes, a highly-decorated athlete of Aboriginal origin who speaks eloquently and candidly on Indigenous affairs, has taken a break from playing because of recurrent booing he has faced. For some the booing is connected to race, for the booers it is all the uppity Goodes' fault.

For me this booing is not the way to watch sport. That ticket we buy to enter a stadium, anywhere in the world, should not give us this right. We can shout, sing, cry, complain, berate the referee, but this is 2015 and we should have arrived at a human understanding that booing a man for months, picking on him like a gang in a schoolyard, is shameful. There is nothing manly to it.

For me this booing is not the way to watch sport. That ticket we buy to enter a stadium, anywhere in the world, should not give us this right. We can shout, sing, cry, complain, berate the referee, but this is 2015 and we should have arrived at a human understanding that booing a man for months, picking on him like a gang in a schoolyard, is shameful. There is nothing manly to it.

There is not a country I haven't heard booing in - including Singaporeans booing their own football team at the SEA Games - nor a country I've liked it in. Booing is cheap, it's cowardly, it's where you surrender your individuality and merge with the mob. It's where you heckle from the anonymity of the crowd - as people did to Sebastian Vettel in 2013 - producing a sound which strips away dignity and respect and everything beautiful from sport.

The tone of the boo - and of the crowd in many lands - has altered. It's a harsher, cruder jeering that is divested of any levity from the past. Used to be a time when Yabba, the Australian cricket fan, hurled wisecracks at players in a voice, wrote Peter Roebuck, "that could shake trees in distant suburbs". As Roebuck continued: "In his prime he once called out to an offending cricketer, 'I wish you were a statue and I was a pigeon!' " Now Yabba is a statue, sitting in the Sydney Cricket Ground, and it tells us of a time forgotten.

No one is curtailing the crowd's freedom of expression and part of the raw experience of watching sport is to articulate emotion. But, however rugged the sport, the crowd's response has to be within acceptable limits. If there are unwritten codes among athletes - kick the football out when a player is hurt - then there must be for spectators.

So fans boo an umpire in good humour for a bad decision, then move on. They heckle the tennis player who will not shake hands after a match, then they let it go. But this, what Goodes faces, is to harass, to stalk, to vocally lynch, and then to ascend to some moral high ground from where this somehow seems acceptable and righteous.

Ask the booer and he will say of Goodes, well, he brought it on himself. As if the booer had no choice but to be hateful. In short, the booer is booing in good faith, he is booing a player to protect the game. He is telling the Indigenous player how to behave, he is lecturing him through boos about good manners, he is telling him, oi, mate, know your place. Of course, he will tell you he is not racist. Not even when he says "get back to the zoo".

Of course, it is a disingenuous argument and in all the clutter of debate, a club football coach in Geelong, Chris Scott, found the clearest perspective. "Adam has come out and said it is affecting him and he considers it has a racist element to it," he said. "On that basis if you go ahead and boo him from now on you're accepting that people are assuming that you are doing it for reasons based on race."

I first sat in an Australian crowd in 1990 and I admire them more than almost any other. Sport is carved into their DNA, it is approached with zest, played with a rough and ready spirit, as if this is a celebration of life itself. Australian crowds rose and applauded Sachin Tendulkar on his way to the wicket and hang onto tennis underdogs like adoptive parents. Tradition is precious and decency - witness the love for Roger Federer in Melbourne - is applauded.

Most of all, fairness is presumed to underpin all contests in this land, they speak of it as if it is a national motto. But fair means to be "free from bias, dishonesty, or injustice" and it is difficult to say that here.

A crowd cannot swear by sportsmanship and justify this type of booing. A fan cannot march to his son's school at the mere whiff of him being bullied in class and then in a stadium sound off like a bully himself. It's mean, it's vindictive, it's racist and it's not sport.

And the kids in the under-12, they're watching it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2015, with the headline 'Spectators' freedom should not embrace culture of jeering'. Print Edition | Subscribe