Booing and heckling has been a part of sports for as long as most of us can remember. Heck, as a young sports fan in Houston, I did my fair share of heckling and while it never got personal, I did try my best to get inside the mind of an opposing player in an attempt to get his mind off the game.
Yes, every once and a while I was the beneficiary of a death stare from a player. My heckling also backfired a few times – the player used it as motivation to excel his game. But never did the player confront me for my heckling. It was just part of the game and back then the athletes accepted it.
Today we are seeing a different type of athlete. Many athletes confront booing or heckling fans in ways it was not done before. And as our society becomes more and more politically correct we’re hearing calls from some to end the practice of booing and heckling in sports.
In NASCAR, for the most part booing and heckling has been accepted by the drivers. And depending on the driver, booing fans bring a different emotion to a situation. In a 2013 interview Jeff Gordon said, “Some people get booed for reasons that maybe they’re not proud of or they did something negative and the fans are reacting to that. While there might’ve been people that didn’t like who I was, it seemed like a lot of the boos were coming because we were winning too much, so that’s what I miss. I miss the winning.”
Brad Keselowski is thankful for the boos coming from the NASCAR fan base. “I’m happy that they’re making noise. What hurts most is when I went out there and nobody made noise. That’s when you don’t even feel relevant,” said Keselowski. As for Joey Logano, his thoughts are similar to those of his Penske teammate about fans booing. He said, “I secretly love it. Don’t tell anybody. In all honesty, you’d rather be loved than hated but I’d rather fans say something than nothing.”
Jimmie Johnson can be labeled as a driver who confronts his critics and heckling fans. If you follow Johnson on social media you get a front row seat to his entertaining responses to these fans. In a recent interview, Johnson told a reporter, “But poking fun back at these guys is, I think, critical. You know, people sitting in their underwear in their mom’s basement, they’re pretty brave and want to say things. It’s funny, as soon as you draw attention to them and let some hating happen on their feed, they’re quickly apologizing, they delete the tweet and hopefully they don’t do it to anyone else again.”
That is an incredible statement from Johnson that got very little attention – because it is proof that the booing and heckling game has changed – in favor of the player or in NASCAR’s case, the driver.
How has it changed in favor of the drivers?
Social media has given millions of fans a voice beyond those found at the race track. No longer are drivers dealing with just the live boos or heckling as they walk from the garage or pit road to their hauler. In today’s environment they must also deal with digital heckling. The level of heckling across all forms of social media is certainly overwhelming and from what I’ve seen ugly and vile at times. But it’s really rare when you see a driver like Jimmie Johnson confront a fan or a group of fans in person, at the race track, for booing or heckling. First, it’s not worth their time and second, the optics does not play in the favor of the driver. In addition, with the exception of the driver’s entourage, the driver has minimal support when dealing with a crowd.
Instead drivers now can use social media to become “pretty brave” (as Jimmie Johnson said of fans on social media) and unleash a massive backlash on their social media hecklers. An example of this plays out frequently on Johnson’s Twitter page – as he takes on what some call “Twitter trolls.”
A Kyle Busch fan with less than 350 followers tweeted a non-favorable response to a tweet sent out from a Hendrick Motorsports employee about Johnson. This fan obviously was not a Johnson fan and blamed Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus for “destroying NASCAR.” Johnson simply replied to the tweet and many of his 2.4 million followers attacked – with hate, threats and degrading statements directed at the female Kyle Busch fan. It all follows Johnson’s post – like blood in the water.
Remember Johnson’s quote to the reporter – “It’s funny, as soon as you draw attention to them and let some hating happen on their feed…”
Jimmie Johnson is one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers and a very good ambassador for the sport. That’s why it amazes me that he actually promotes “hating” (his word – not mine) against those who send him mean tweets. This is an entirely a new level of heckling – a revenge tactic and NASCAR should take a serious look at how drivers respond to this new form of digital heckling.
Look, I believe there is a difference in simply booing and heckling in a respectful way versus taking to social media where a fan personally attacks a driver or a driver unleashes his massive fan base to attack a fan. And while people will say the digital heckler deserves what is coming to them from the driver’s followers for voicing their opinion (no matter how idiotic the opinion may be), in reality the person with 2.4 million followers, in my opinion, has a greater responsibility to keep the peace. Who is the grown up – who is the professional?
At Pocono this past weekend we saw an example of what a driver confronting booing and heckling fans looks like. As I said earlier it is rare when it happens and the optics does not play in the favor of the driver – just ask Danica Patrick.
A fan caught Danica Patrick on video addressing booing fans after Patrick denied signing an autograph. Patrick said to the group of hecklers, “I mean, if you’re a real fan, you know that I’m not just — my job is not to sign autographs, right? My job is to drive a car and to tell the crew chief what’s going on. I don’t appreciate the booing. It hurts my feelings. I’m a f—ing person, you know what I mean? I’m a person too. I have feelings.”
Could you imagine hearing “my job is not to sign autographs” from Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., or Brad Keselowski? Let’s just say it was not one of Patrick’s finest moments. And even though she’s technically correct, it’s a horrible public relations move to say what she said. It also confirms in my mind what her former sponsor Nature’s Bakery told a North Carolina court – that Danica Patrick didn’t do her job to promote their company.
It makes me wonder if the rumors of her time in NASCAR (coming to an end) are true. I recall at the end of her IndyCar career she encountered a similar situation. It was at Indianapolis in 2010, after a poor qualifying effort she told the crowd, over the IMS public address system that “it wasn’t my fault” and she blamed her team for a slow car. The crowd erupted with boos, which took her by surprise. Later she told a reporter, “Everybody booed me. I do not understand that because I’m the same driver I’ve been every other year and I’ve done well here. So…I don’t know what else to say – I feel bad. It hurts my feelings.”
Patrick’s comments from Pocono could simply be raw emotion built up from a frustrating season, but she wasn’t addressing fans booing her because they disliked her (while some may have) – they booed because of her denial to sign autographs. I will note a few minutes later Austin Dillon walked up and signed autographs for the same fans.
Obviously NASCAR is full of personalities and each one handles the boos and heckling in a different fashion. As for the calls from those folks that we should end heckling in sports, let me say I am against any ban to stop fans from respectfully voicing their opinions about the game or the players. It should be fun. But if we as a society want a bunch of voiceless fans sitting in arenas, stadiums or race tracks on their hands, then sadly the joy of the fan experience will disappear.
So keep booing and heckle respectfully. And whatever you do – unless you want to feel Jimmie Johnson’s wrath of hate, don’t tweet bad things about him.
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