Back Squawk

Three Hecklers, Two Moms, One Cringy Conversation

Flying under the radar is easy for me, especially with my gray hair, a slightly tragic fanny pack, supportive hiking boots and a well-worn baseball cap. Confronting intoxicated college student hecklers at a sports event is not a practice I relish, but sometimes I can’t help myself from stepping into the mix. I never have a plan, but I bank on years of playing sports with boys to guide me.

While sitting in the stands watching the game, I hadn’t noticed the three guys chirping the goalie on our son’s team. This particular goalie is a badass on fire. Game after game, he fiercely lays himself out there with his incredible skills. He has also played long enough to not be too fazed by sideline squawkers. My friend and fellow parent pointed the chirping guys out. She and most of the other parents closer to the action had listened to three quarters worth of harsh, loud and very direct heckling by the three guys who followed the goalie from one end of the field to the other each quarter. I am well aware that boys and young men tolerate as well as engage in what they perceive as normalized banter. Conforming to the codes of male behavior is often just easier.

Generally, people of all ages are conflicted about speaking up in these situations. The chances are low that one would change the minds or behavior of drunk hecklers. It is usually not worth the elevated blood pressure. My friend and I were annoyed enough that we decided to at least plant a few seeds by having a conversation with the three guys. I was also curious about what they were thinking. We thought they might be less defensive being confronted by two moms.

Nothing throws off a bitter, intoxicated heckler more than being approached by the likes of me – an odd, old mom with a jolly smile on her testicle-like face who drops a couple F-bombs early in the inquiry-scolding. It was small of me to swear, but I was nervous and hoped that a little confusion would engage them. I was correct.

Two of them were members of another athletic team on that campus, and the high school senior in tow was a little brother visiting for the weekend. With my friendly curiosity, peppered with a couple swears, I asked about the purpose of the personal and relentless verbal attack on a goalie whose team was losing by a ton of goals. The little brother was caught between a nervous grin and a regretful grimace; he seemed to sober up quickly and admitted to just going along with the older guys. His big brother was warmly receptive to the inquiry. The other guy had the slight hunch, bleary eyes and the maniacal grin of a day drinker on a roll who wears an NHL hockey jersey from a far-off team. He clearly took pleasure in baiting the hundreds of fans of the local NHL team attending the game.

Growing up in an Inn that hosted a lot of heavy-drinking Dartmouth alumni events helped me develop the ability to assess various levels of intoxication early in life. I learned to recognize the moment when formal interactions could ease off and allow me to share thoughts and humor more freely. I have carried this handy skill throughout my life and into that fourth quarter moment. The fellas seemed to be at a prime level of buzzed – befuddled enough to take the conversation seriously and sober enough to be able to converse in a reasonable manner.

I asked questions about the reasoning behind their personal-attack style of heckling and whether they had endured such fan heckling themselves in their own sport. They were more than willing to dig in. I learned that most of the banter they had engaged in during their games happened between teams on the field. Bleary-eyed guy with the hockey jersey prattled on about how much fun it was to heckle and belittle individuals on opposing teams as a fan and player. He also assured me they were following strict orders to stay behind the fence and not swear.

His earnest teammate answered my questions about their fraternity, explaining that hazing was no longer tolerated after their fraternity was banned from campus for a fight club kind of deal in the basement many years before. I could tell he was a reflective person who was aware of the issues at hand. He mentioned that they were able to bring back the fraternity but were currently on probation for a misunderstanding about a few incidents, which was both understandable and frustrating for him.

Without the need for a segue, I tossed out a few concepts between my questions, including the common trend of the harshest hazers being people who were the victims of hazing and bullying in middle and high school. Their tolerance for my scattered topics and indirect scolding started to wane, and I could tell they were eager to get back to their heckling post. I offered one more thought: How truly confident people don’t step on others to elevate themselves. My friend added a few points that seemed to bring their interest back, so I continued.

When I asked about their coaches, they both reflected about how coaches are hard on players to prepare them to handle the chirping and cruel personal degradation that they will experience on the field. My point about many coaches repeating the cycle of brutality they experienced as players caused bleary-eyed-guy in the jersey to fiercely defend his own father who had coached him as a kid. Then, becoming more reflective, he acknowledged that some coaches would be arrested for what they have said to players.

I grabbed one more window to share a few examples of professional sports teams whose coaches consciously chose to take a different approach with great results, including the Chicago Bulls and the Seattle Seahawks. I mentioned the work of High-Performance Psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais who worked with Pete Carroll to create “Compete to Create” for the Seattle Seahawks. Players trained their minds through self-discovery and exploring the relationship between mindfulness and training for peak performance. I offered my favorite example of how the offensive linemen would aim to uplift a player who made a mistake with encouragement rather than withhold support to motivate him.

The fourth quarter of the game was ending with a resounding loss for our boys. The hecklers, my friend and I had a friendly wrap up with some funny chatter about the controversial jersey. I wished the little brother good luck as a future college soccer player and encouraged him to spread positive energy rather than heckling. He politely agreed. The trio started toward the other end of the field with heads bowed and a little less swagger than they had before we wrangled them for a chat. They slowed and lifted their heads when big cheers followed the final buzzer. The boys had missed their last chance to grind on the soul of the opposing goalie. They seemed aimless and perhaps a bit annoyed that some old mom had killed their buzz.

As I adjusted my fanny pack, I took a deep breath and headed back into the crowd of fans. It is impossible to know if any seeds were sown. I’d wager that the bleary-eyed-guy in the hockey jersey retained not more than 3% of anything discussed. It was unlikely that the little brother in-tow would reconsider his fan behavior, but he would not forget how the day of partying at his brother’s college came to a screeching halt when he was bossed into a cringy conversation for the entire fourth quarter. Maybe all that was accomplished was distracting the hecklers and giving a goalie a break. I would do it all over again.

Follow this link to see Dr. Michael Gervais speak with Willie McGinest, former player for the New England Patriots

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