“I don’t care who you are, you hear those boos.” – Branch Rickey
When New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher fumbled the ball in game 1 of the ALCS, the fans were unforgiving and relentless. A chorus of boos greeted him at his next at-bat, right in his home ballpark, by his own fans. The crowd had petered out by the time the game went into extra innings after the Yankees rallied to tie it up by the ninth inning. But those who remained were vocal, booing right up to the bitter end.
“It hurts. That’s the last thing that I ever thought would be in this ballpark, that people would get on you that bad,” noted Swisher. “Especially your home, where your heart is, where you’ve been battling and grinding all year long.”
It’s hard to feel sympathy for an athlete on a team with the highest payroll in professional baseball. Pay me 10 million dollars and you can sit next to me and boo me all damn day. But I can’t fathom how booing your own team achieves the desired outcome — a win. An exasperated sigh at a flubbed play or shouting at the ump for a bad call – sure. But foaming at the mouth, kill-it-with-fire booing every time the player picks up the bat? Can’t be too great for morale.
“I’ve been so fortunate to be here and play every day,” Swisher continued. “When things kind of turn like that, it kind of hurts a little bit. This is the type of city and crowd that really rallies around their team. That’s the reason we’ve got 27 championships. To go through a stretch like this where it’s kind of a negative attitude, a negative-type setting, that’s tough.”
The practice of booing traces its history back to Ancient Greece. Audiences at plays would clap for performances they approved of, and whistle at ones they didn’t. The alternating practice of jeering/cheering was again enlisted in gladiatorial Rome, where audience response accompanied with a ‘thumbs up’ would mean certain death for the contender (thumbs down, interestingly, meant put down your sword). In “The History of Booing” Charles Welch writes: “The English word boo was first used in the early 19th century to describe the lowing sound that cattle make. Later in the 1800s, the word came to be used to describe the disapproving cry of crowds. Hoot, another onomatopoeic English word, was used as early as 1225 to describe the same phenomenon.”
Fuse bloodlust and herds of mooing cattle and you’ve got your modern day booers. Booing has been a part of performance as long as the standing ovation. It sends a powerful message of disapproval, which is particularly warranted when you’ve shelled out big bucks for tickets.
I caught up with ‘booing’ expert Charles Welch, who has written the “Official Rules of Booing”. These include “Never BOO an injured player” and “Booing is not acceptable at all in youth sports”. However, in pro sports it is acceptable to boo a visiting team player, for any reason. I was curious about how his deep interest in ‘booing’ history and methodology came about.
How did your interest in the practice of ‘booing’ come about?
I have been a Philadelphia Eagles, Phillies, 76ers and Flyers fan all my life. I actually bought an Eagles season ticket with my paper route money when I was 13 years old. The seat was in section 705 at Veterans Stadium. So the interest and practice of BOOing comes naturally.
About ten years ago I started working on the Official Rules of BOOing and eventually decided to trademark “The BOO Birds” and launch a website and media project.
Do you think that booing your own team at any point can motivate them to do better? Or is it just psychologically damaging to the player?
BOOing is part of the game. It does let players know they need to improve their performance and “pick up their game”. I do think it is a motivator. No matter how much a player says BOOing does not bother them it does have an effect. Everyone has a basic need to be liked and appreciated. No matter how “mentally tough” a player is BOOing has an effect on them to some degree.
BOOIng should not be directed at players in Youth Sports, but by the time they are in High School it should be acceptable within reason.
I was noting significant booing of certain Yankee players by their own fans in the first two at-home ALCS games. Have you noticed certain sports fans to be particularly prone to booing?
I think with the amount of money players make it is inevitable they will be BOOed if they are in a slump and underperforming. Fans look at a player like Alex Rodriguez who signed a 10-year, $275 million contract in 2007. Every year he gets paid like he hit the lottery. Fans expect players like this to perform. The players still get paid whether or not they win or perform and fans vent their frustrations at the team and player.
Do you personally ‘boo’ at games/performances?
Yes. I even BOO at the TV during games like most fans.
How has the practice of ‘booing’ evolved/devolved during the last 25 years, in your opinion?
One of the reasons I created “The Official Rules of BOOing” was the direction BOOing and fan behavior has headed. Today it has become more “mean spirited” with any “anything goes” type of behavior. In 1998, fan behavior at Philadelphia Eagles games became so out of control the city of Philadelphia had a court in the basement of Veterans Stadium, and handed out fines or jail time to fans arrested during games. At about that same time I had an incident occur at a U2 concert between myself, a young lady and several Philadelphia Eagles Players. To make a very long story short, one of the players was spitting chewing tobacco at us and I ended up meeting with the general manager of the team. In that meeting he told me he could no longer take his family to Phillies games because of how badly fans were acting. I ended up serving the player with a lawsuit and he settled. Right after he was served he missed easy field goals in the next few games and was out of The NFL 2 years later.
I think part of the reason is that players salaries are so far above what most fans earn, so they expect results and feel anything they do at a game is acceptable behavior. Also, with the internet and media, today’s athletes have transformed into “celebrities” more so than they were 25 years ago. Anything an athlete says or does goes viral in seconds. Sports have now become more than a contest or game; they are multi-billion-dollar big business. With much more exposure, athletes are more of a target for fans venting.
Fans can vent their frustrations at games, players and life in ways they can’t anywhere else. They can’t vent or BOO at home or work without serious consequences.
Do you have any stats surrounding the effects of booing on player performance? How do you think booing affects morale?
There have been some studies done on crowd noise and socially unacceptable behavior activities” by fans done, but I have not come across any specifically on BOOIng. Some studies have shown that teams do have an advantage when they play at home. Crowd noise can affect player’s abilities to concentrate and actually hear plays. Home crowds have also been shown to influence calls by officials in favor of the home team.
If a team is losing and is constantly BOOed it does have an adverse effect on morale.
In modern day professional baseball, the team is the product. When that product fails to deliver, you’re going to hear about it. Yankees fans will tolerate nothing less than winning all the time, they have paid to be perpetual World Series champs. They haven’t been browbeaten over the years like the Chicago cubs. As a lifelong Tigers fan, I have certainly gotten used to being a loser. But kicking your team when they’re down will most certainly guarantee it.
So Yankees fans, you may well have helped boo the Tigers right into the World Series! And for that, I thank you.
For more information about booing, visit here.
Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard. She’s also a lifelong, diehard Tigers fan. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson.