clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is It OK to Swear at Sporting Events?

A Trail Blazers attendee has a question for fellow fans. We discuss.

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Phoenix Suns on Friday night in their home opener in front of a sellout crowd. In attendance was one Blazer’s Edge reader with her family. She posed an interesting question about fan ethics to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag after the contest. See what you think!

Dear Dave,

How great to be in attendance at a win to start the season! I loved it and loved the atmosphere except for one thing. I was there with my family, my husband and two grandkids. They’re tweens so they’re not innocent but I have a question I want your opinion on.

Not far away was a guy who was swearing almost constantly. He wasn’t shouting but he was loud enough to hear easily. He was the kind of guy who commented on everything and everything he commented on was accompanied by a lot of words that I didn’t appreciate hearing.

I know things have changed. People say words on TV I would have gotten punished for even thinking of. I understand my grandkids have already heard these things and that they sometimes say them too. But I still think in an arena with people around you that you do not know, some things should still be minded.

Do you think it’s ok to curse indiscriminately at basketball games just because you bought a ticket or consider it normal?


Well, this is kind of difficult.

I have two kids just slightly older than your grandchildren. For the first 11 years of their life, we were basically a profanity-free household. That’s not a judgment against swearing; I do it myself. I guess I wanted them to grow up learning the standard for speaking to other humans, then judge when to relax, modify, or break it, rather than finding out the hard way that other people have different standards (e.g. your boss or that lady you just handed a communion wafer to).

At a certain point, though, I just accepted that swear words are part of our culture. My focus shifted to making sure my kids are using them correctly in context, that they understand when a situation doesn’t call for them, and most of all that they don’t use any that would demean others based on gender, orientation, or other characteristics.

Part and parcel of that last boundary is understanding how words are heard by others. We do have a list of words I never, ever want to hear coming out of their mouths. They understand those.

Explaining why entails asking, “What does this sound like to people who aren’t right in front of your face right now?” They’re my kids. If they used one of those words, I’d be upset, but I’d forgive them and we’d have to move on. A random passerby can have their day, sometimes their outlook on life, changed by those same words in ways that don’t get better. That’s precisely why they’re on the “no-no” list.

Now we’re approaching what I see as the heart of your question. Assuming they weren’t racist/sexist/orientation-phobic (because you didn’t mention any of that), there’s nothing inherently wrong with the words coming from your fellow spectator’s mouth. They’re just sound waves broken into syllables. But those syllables, spoken in certain ways, can be perceived differently by others, affecting their life and/or enjoyment of same.

The question is, how much is it the responsibility of the person speaking to attend to this, and how much is it the responsibility of the people hearing to filter out potential offense in order to preserve their enjoyment?

Ultimately, we each have to govern what we can. You can’t control the guy who bothered you. It’s up to you, and those around you, to do everything possible to reduce the potential harm to your evening caused by those words. That’s not an ethical statement as much as an admission that it’s the only power you really have. It’s incumbent on each of us to do the same, to the best of our ability, in any public situation. That’s the only way being together works well.

That said, we’ve already admitted that some words and phrases cannot be reduced or filtered in that way. Even among those that can, there’s a limit.

I’d hope that the fan speaking those words would acknowledge that a limit exists. I’d also hope that he’d understand that, even though he is just one speaker, his words hit the ears of dozens of people around him. There’s no way he can know the folks his words are hitting. The weight of those unknown dozens should be heavier than the need of the one to speak. It might well cost him less to tamp down the profanity than it costs that random person two rows in front of him to deal with it. That’s the kind of thing that needs to go through your mind if you think about people besides yourself.

If somebody swears occasionally in a non-culturally-demeaning way, I don’t think anybody should have much problem with it nowadays. Sometimes words slip out. Everyone around needs to know how to deal with that.

If that swearing happens over and over, I think the person doing it is making potential withdrawals out of banks he hasn’t deposited anything in. At that point it starts to go over the line for me. We all bought tickets to watch the game and deal with the action on the court, not to process how accommodating we should be to a fellow fan who is demonstrating insensitivity.

I think the same thing is true of offering public opinion or criticizing the action on the court, by the way. If Damian Lillard fumbles the ball on the break and you want to say he’s lost a step, go ahead. If you’re critiquing every second play and calling Lillard an idiot, you’ve reached a different level of impact and it’s time to rein it in, even if you think your observations are valid. We didn’t pay admission for your observations. We’re here to make our own.

Is it ok to swear at ballgames? Sure! If nobody who isn’t with you hears it, nobody is going to complain. If the people around you do hear it, but it’s infrequent and somewhat justified, in this day and age you’re probably good. If you’re swearing to the point that lots of people you don’t know can hear you and you have no idea of the contextual lens they’re interpreting it through (like having kids or having bad prior experience with those words), then whatever you’re swearing at may be less of a problem than you are.

I don’t listen too carefully to pregame announcements at the Moda Center, but I believe there’s a blurb about appropriate language in there somewhere. If you’ve done everything you can to pass over the offense, Eileen, then I think the arena staff would be willing to assist you, should the problem continue.

Bottom line, we should all be as kind and respectful to each other as we can manage, which includes some tolerance for swearing, also some ability to limit same.

This is really a community-based question though, so what do you all think? Do you swear freely when you attend games? Have you witnessed others doing so? Does it bother you when they do? Share your thoughts for Eileen and others in the comment section below!

Remember, you can submit your Mailbag questions to all year long!