When athletes and fans engage in hostile clashes, should we hold athletes to a higher standard of conduct? 

Just how much are fans culpable if their behavior crosses the line?

Should the sporting community reconsider how it supervises interactions between athletes and fans?

Colorado Rapids goalkeeper, Tim Howard, recently brought these meaningful questions to light after he received a 3-game suspension for two different skirmishes he had with fans during an April 9 match versus the Sporting KC.

Essentially, Howard was seen on a security video using profane language directed toward a [Kansas City] fan during the match, and was involved in an altercation with another as he was leaving the field which allegedly included him grabbing the fan’s arm.

In his defense, the 38-year old veteran and longtime English Premier League player issued an Apr 21 statement on Facebook and apologized for his behavior, but also claimed the fans provoked him and denounced the stadium security’s efforts for letting a fan get too close.

“We all want passionate fans but there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. It is not ok for an apparently drunk fan to get inches away from an athlete’s face and yell obscenities at them. While I should have controlled my reaction, I want to make it clear that I have never been put into a situation like that until Kansas City. I’m not a security expert, so don’t know the details of how a fan could get so close, but it was not the norm and not right.”

Howard also mentioned that neither the team nor the league acknowledged their part of the responsibility for the incident(s).

After reviewing the incident in Kansas City, my league and my team chose to admonish me and suspend me for almost 10% of the season, but they did not say a word about the fan’s antagonistic behavior or the negligent security. While I regret my reaction and understand the need to take action on their part, I am surprised and concerned that the full context of the incident wasn’t considered and responsibility wasn’t shared.

I am not saying I want censorship of fans or security policing against passion, but we all deserve a fan-friendly and safe environment. I don’t mind – and even enjoy – a bit of verbal jousting with fans but I don’t want to be taunted for my race or my disability (Tourette Syndrome), which didn’t happen specifically in Kansas City but happens very often. I want security to keep fans at enough of a distance that a physical confrontation is impossible.”

He then called for a “review” of the way athletes and fans interact:

“I am convinced that instructing athletes to ‘endure all, respond to none’ is not the right answer. While re-stating one more time my own fault in this matter, I urge MLS, Sporting Kansas City, the Colorado Rapids and sports institutions in general to review fan-athlete interactions – both what is permitted and how that is supervised.”

His sentiment was shared by the MLS Players Union who released their own statement about his suspension.

In it, the organization basically condemned the MLS for not only allowing Kansas City fans to “repeatedly, routinely and openly” violate the “Fan Code of Conduct”, but also for the “wholly inadequate” security provided, and for the lack of any punishment admonished against the fan(s) for their actions.

They further claimed that the fan Howard had the incident with after the game was “with alcohol in hand” and was “able to come within two feet of him on field level and aggressively scream obscenities in his face.  That is unacceptable behavior anywhere and is not something that players, or anyone, should be subjected to in their workplace.”

They also urged MLS to “take responsibility” and “send a clear message that it is committed to creating a safe experience not only for its fans, but for its players too.”

As of the date of this article, MLS has not released a statement in reply, or any other response regarding this matter.

My Take

The way in which Howard spoke to the fans in question and his inability to show proper restraint is not how a professional athlete should act.

So, it is good that he owned up to what he did and accepted his punishment.  Hopefully, he can learn from happened and better deal with hostile fans in the future.

However, I think that Howard and the MLS Players Union are entirely correct in pointing out that he was not the only one at fault for what occurred.

Clearly, Major League Soccer failed to properly censure the fans’ behaviors on that day which allowed a hostile environment to escalate like it did.

Per their own “Fan Code of Conduct” page, the league warns that fans who violate the code like the ones below, will be “subject to sanctions, including ejection, banishment and arrest”:

  • Fans are encouraged to cheer, sing, and otherwise support their team while remaining respectful and courteous to their fellow patrons, referees, opposing team fans and players.
  • Fans enjoy the soccer experience free from fighting, thrown objects*, attempts to enter the playing field, political or inciting messages, and disorderly behavior, including foul, sexist, racial, obscene or abusive language or gestures.
  • Fans comply with requests from stadium staff regarding stadium policies and emergency response procedures.
  • Fans promptly and carefully return the ball to a stadium staff member or the ball kid on the sidelines in the event that a soccer ball enters the stands. Alcoholic beverages are consumed in a responsible manner and only by those of legal age.
  • Fans conduct themselves in a lawful manner to avoid incidents in the stadium and in the parking lots.

Yet, in this case, not one of the fans who disregarded the code when they engaged in aggressive fracas with Howard were disciplined.

And, if what Howard said in his Facebook statement is true, that he is constantly being tongue-lashed during matches with racial slurs and other unacceptable smears, then the league is failing to uphold the ethics it expects of the fans on a regular basis.

Like the Players Union said, no one should be treated poorly, including star athletes who are held to a higher standard of conduct.

I mean, what does the league expect anyway?  A player to show no emotion or feeling when combative zealots shout very personal offensive comments to them without abandon time after time?

If so, then it is being totally unrealistic and setting its players up for failure.

As for the fans themselves, they are the last piece in this puzzle as to who is at fault with what went down on Apr 9.

Neither Howard nor the Players Union mentioned it, but it is high time for sports fans to start taking responsibility for their actions and stop behaving so badly.

A ticket to a sporting event isn’t a license to lose control and act like a jerk.

But, unfortunately, it seems as if all over the sporting world, there are more and more incidents like this of embarrassing and shameful behaviors by the fans with little being done about it.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times?  Developments in social media has made a closer connection possible between athletes and their fans than ever before.  That ability to directly interact with the most famous players in the world may in effect, make those athletes seem more human.  So, people feel they can say what they want to them.

Also, social media has allowed a kind of open flow of communication where filters just don’t seem to exist anymore and everyone gets to voice their opinion at any moment about anything.  This could be influencing the way fans are interacting with athletes now.

Whatever the reasons, Howard is right.

There should have been consequences for those knucklehead fans on the other side of the altercations.  Instead, the league only slapped the player for his role in the melees.

What are they afraid of?  Confrontation with their paying customers?  Or maybe they found it easiest to blame the athlete with a bad temper?

Unless MLS seeks to end this unhealthy culture of abuse towards its players and let bad fan behavior run rampant, I consider the entire Howard incident(s) with the Kansas City fans a black eye on the league.

I second Howard’s call for a review of fan-athlete interactions by “sports institutions in general”.  But, first and foremost – by Major League Soccer.


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