Ethics @ Work: Fans' rights still murky territory

Fans do not go to games to be reticent about cheering on the heroes or berating the goats.

Maccabi Tel Aviv fans let down 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv fans let down 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Sometimes the most exciting or nerve-wracking moments of a game are the plays: an impressive score or an impossible save; a disappointing near-miss or a bungled one. Fans do not go to games to be reticent about cheering on the heroes or berating the goats; they want to make their voices heard.
Sometimes the adrenalin moments are the calls made by the referees or the umpires. Fans don’t go to games to be reticent about those either, but sometimes expressing an opinion has unexpected results. A few weeks ago two spectators were ejected from a US college basketball game for loudly and repeatedly protesting the official’s calls. The case raised the ancient and contested issue of fans’ rights.
Certainly fans can be ejected for disruptive behavior; it doesn’t make sense to let one spectator prevent another from enjoying the game. There is also broad agreement that spectators can be ejected for hostile or offensive behavior such as racial slurs. But the fans ejected from the North Carolina game were not accused of disruption, of using profanities or racism or any other particularly offensive speech. The referee was understandably upset at having his judgment questioned so tenaciously and vociferously. But is this a valid basis for restricting the fans’ actions?
There are two basic approaches we can use to study this question. One is a “freedom of speech” paradigm. In this view, the sports arena is a public place; anyone present has the right to speak his mind about King George III, about the referee’s calls, or about anything in between. According to this paradigm, it makes a big difference if the sporting event is taking place in a public or a private venue.
This approach is adopted by many experts, but it seems to me that it doesn’t capture the essence of the controversy. The referees in the game wouldn’t ask to eject a fan for tweeting his criticisms in real time to millions of followers; freedom of expression is not really the issue. (We wouldn’t want judges to be above criticism, would we?)
The other approach is the commercial one. What are the conditions of the contract between the organizers of the sporting event and the fans? What should they be? Who has the right to adjudicate the rules? The usual rule is that a proprietor has broad rights to decide who is present on his premises. If he ejects a patron, he is only responsible for giving a refund. But from an ethical point of view it’s clear this right can’t be used arbitrarily. We couldn’t condone an event that ejected people merely for having dark skin, orange garments and so on.
I think the main question here is, what are basketball fans paying for? And I think the answer is to experience a sporting event as a public spectacle. Basketball is not like tennis, where fans expect or want crowd reactions limited to muffled oohs and ahs; it is more like a kind of group therapy where everyone wants the chance to give expression to his emotions and experience those of fellow spectators. Based on this criterion, the decision to eject fans for second-guessing the refs was a bad call.
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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).