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Tufts Student Athletes Punished for Heckling Volleyball Players

When Does Heckling Become Harassment?


It’s time for another episode of Volleyball Crime & Punishment. Let’s talk hypothetically for a minute. Let’s say you take the time to decide to go out and support your local collegiate women’s volleyball team on a typical weekend night. You drive over, plunk down the money for a ticket, pick up some popcorn and find a seat just as the action starts.

To your chagrin, that rowdy, drunken group of young college guys that walked in right after you decides to sit in your section. You realize this is about to get loud and you are prepared to deal with it. At first, they’re just cheering loudly for the home team. No problem there. Then they start trying to be funny with their comments and they start egging each other on and slapping high fives. You think about moving to the other side of the gym, but you don’t.

Soon, the funny comments give way to full-fledged heckling and it’s not long before things start to get ugly. They’re starting to yell directly at the opposing players. They are calling the women by name and insulting them. It becomes harassment. The guys begin to yell sexually explicit and even racist things at the young women as they come back to serve.

What do you do? What if there were almost 30 of these rowdy guys? What if they were big, burly lacrosse players? Would you confront them? Complain about them? What if they were your friends? Would you have the guts to tell them that they had crossed the line? Would you feel any differently if the athletes getting harassed were men? Would you think male athletes should just suck it up and play ball?

This scenario played itself out last season at Tufts University. The rowdy group of guys was the Tufts Lacrosse team, many of whom were wearing apparel that identified them as such. The visiting Smith College women’s team took the brunt of the harassment, but even the home team and it’s head coach were targeted. An official did approach the men and ask them to stop. Nothing was done when they didn’t.

The ‘you’ in this example is a female Tufts student who was at the game. She didn’t do anything at the time either, which she regrets. But what she did do may have brought light to an incident that otherwise would have gone under the radar. She wrote an opinion piece about the incident in the Tufts Daily, chronicling the harassment and quoting some of the ugly comments that were made. The article led to a complaint that was filed by a Tufts student with the Office of Equal Opportunity. The university had to respond.

An investigation into the conduct of the lacrosse team was completed this month and 27 members of the team will be suspended for the two games in the upcoming season. They’ll also be asked to write letters of apology both teams and coaches.

The Dean of Students and Athletic Director at Tufts co-authored a letter to the editor that also ran in the Tufts Daily. In it they wrote:

“We want to stress that the behavior documented in the OEO investigation would be unthinkable in a classroom or a residence hall and it is equally unacceptable at a sporting event. There is no scenario within collegiate team sports that would support the use of race or gender as the basis for jeering, heckling or taunting members of a team. While we encourage you to come out and support our athletic teams, it is important to do so in a respectful and positive manner.’’

The President of Tufts and other officials actually made the trip to Smith to apologize in person to the administration and coaching staff there. A classy move, but was it too little too late?

Heckling is always a tough thing to monitor. It is a very common part of sports and it’s a way for fans to show their enthusiasm for the game. Athletes are accustomed to dealing with all sorts of insults and “jokes” being hurled at them from hostile crowds and they are expected to block it all out and focus on what they have to do. Some fans consider it their duty to heckle in an attempt to get the opposing team off its game. Sometimes it works.

But when is it too much? Certainly we can all agree that racist statements can’t be tolerated. Neither can sexual harassment. But fans have been insulting the physiques and attributes of opposing players for decades. Where is the line? When is it crossed? Is there a gender-based double standard here?

Is heckling allowable in volleyball? Click here and let me know what you think.

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