While players on your team should never verbally, or otherwise, harass the other team, there is a long and rich history of heckling by the spectators that is widely accepted. In 2019, is it still acceptable? Or is this something we should completely discourage? So what exactly constitutes heckling? When does it cross a line into inappropriate behavior? And under what circumstances, if any, is heckling actually ok?

The History of Sports Heckling

There is a lovely story about the greatest sports heckler in history. He is an elderly gentleman who is described this way by BirchBox Man:

A die-hard Washington Bullets fan in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ficker sat right behind the opposing team’s bench. He would read up on the opposition before each game, devising creative ways to get into the players’ heads. Most famously, he razzed Phil Jackson by reading him excerpts of his own autobiography, Maverick. Ficker is name-checked in Reggie Miller’s book, and Charles Barkley even got him seats for the 1993 NBA Finals in Phoenix, just so he could give Michael Jordan a hard time about his gambling problem (Ficker brought oversized dice and playing cards to the game and repeatedly asked Jordan “how much he wanted to bet”). Legend has it that Isaiah Thomas got so mad that he threw a shoe at Ficker.

But most importantly, Ficker never crossed the line. In an article published in the New York Times he outlined his rules to live by as a heckler: “In all my years as one of the most vociferous fans of the Bullets (the team changed its name to the Wizards in 1997), I never resorted to anything stronger than the English language. Although some people thought I knew no bounds, my rules were simple and effective: no drinking, no swearing, no racial or sexual comments, and no comments about children.”

Fans all over the world are known for their heckling of the opposing team, but very few have been publicly recognized for their efforts like Ficker. That said, floor stomping during basketball games and chants of “swing batter-batter’ are commonly found from the youngest of youth leagues to the top of the professional leagues. Only the Olympics seem to escape the idea of distracting the opposite team, focusing only on cheering for your own team.

ESPN has a fantastic outline of the timeline and history of heckling in sports that begins in the 1940s and carries through today. It details many of the most notable instances of heckling in sports, many of which rise to a very inappropriate level up to and including violence.

Definition of Heckling

According to vocabulary.com, “The word heckler is rooted in an old Dutch verb that means ‘to irritate, prickle,’ and hecklers can be irritating indeed. They sit at baseball games and yell insults at the players, or start booing during a spelling bee. Some comedians love hecklers and often will start heckling them back. Other comedians will jump off stage and attack a heckler — so keep that in mind if you feel like adding heckler to your résumé.”

Other dictionaries define heckling using negative terminology as well, like ‘derisive and harrassing’. Clearly this time honored sports tradition is far from a positive, and probably in some circles might be seen as bullying. Bullying in youth sports is never acceptable. That is why it is really important to make sure that as a youth sports coach you understand what is and is not ok.

So, Is Heckling Ever Ok?

There are many instances of heckling that have led to the police becoming involved and/or fans being removed and even banned. When players heckle other players it is considered bad sportsmanship. So how does this work for the kids’ parents, friends, and other family in the midst of a game or scrimmage? And is there any level of heckling that is ever ok? And how does this apply towards comments directed at coaches, other fans, or even the referees?

It really depends on who you ask. But there is a reason that it has been a dozen years since “Hey batter batter” was banned by the Little League in cities like Cincinnati. And there is also a reason that there are many websites dedicated to becoming a better heckler. Including a Reddit post all about the best baseball heckles and how great they are. That all said, given that we coach youth sports here at Hustle Training, we should not encourage heckling. In fact we should work to strongly discourage heckling and all other activities that are unsportsman-like. Leave the heckling to the adults and adult games and let the kids be kids and develop their game without having to worry about negative noises. As their coach you owe them that lesson in sportsmanship.