Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2009 [Print without images]

Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Updated: February 2, 10:10 AM ET
The 10 Commandments of Heckling

By Eddie Matz
ESPN The Magazine

This could have affected Sheed, we 'spose.

There are three "web off-shoots" to this piece: A History of Heckling, a "Clip Reel" on Bad Fans throughout time and profiles of three fans who have been arrested at games. Check 'em out!

(1) DO THY HOMEWORK First assignment: Read "Doing Thy Homework."

DOING THY HOMEWORK Heed the advice of experts such as Rob Szasz and Zach White. Chances are you've heard Szasz even if you haven't heard of him. His voice is the one blaring through your TV when you watch Rays games. Szasz has spent the past six seasons perched behind the visitors' on-deck circle at the Trop, adhering to one golden rule: Be an educated fan. Each series, he picks one—and only one—opposing hitter to ridicule. In the World Series, he went after Ryan Howard, going so far as to research former Philly first baseman John Kruk's stats. He used those numbers to hector Howard with constant comparisons, concluding: "Kruk's choking on his cheesesteak. You'd better get a hit." The result? Howard hit just .222 in Tampa without a homer or an RBI. Back in Szasz-less Philly, he hit .333 with three dingers and 6 RBIs. At Duke, White, a junior, spends hours searching the web for irritating nuggets about foes, which he gives to the Cameron Crazies on cheer sheets. His fliers have included Tyler Hansbrough's affinity for pedicures and lyrics for a song mocking Montana coach Wayne Tinkle (sung to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"). "Players always get booed," says White, "but they don't always hear their third-grade teacher's name while they're shooting a jump shot." And when they do, they're no doubt reminded of homework, which is hated by everyone. Except hecklers.

(2) THOU SHALT VALUE QUIET TIME It's not a good heckle unless someone hears it, so wait for the din to diminish. "The best time is during pregame warmups," White says. Other prime moments include free throws, time-outs and all three hours of a Pirates home game.

(3) THOU SHALT PROJECT "It helps to have a loud voice," says famed Maryland-based hoops heckler Robin Ficker. For those not blessed with powerful pipes, here are a handful of hints to help your heckles hit home:

Play the name game: According to an auditory phenomenon known as the Cocktail Party Effect (you've experienced it if your attention has been drawn to the sound of your name in a noisy room), the most effective attention-getter is simply yelling a player's name. Says Laurie Heller, a cognitive science prof at Brown, "They can't help but respond."

Crank up the bass: "Low-frequency sounds travel farther," says William Clark, a hearing scientist at Washington University's School of Medicine. High-pitched voice? Feed your lines to a nearby basso profundo.

Value your vowels: There's a reason "ah" is the syllable of choice when it comes to rattling freshman guards and QBs in the red zone. Back-of-the-throat vowel sounds (ah, uh and ooh) have the lowest frequency, at about 300 Hz, while sounds like "s" hover in the 4,000 Hz range. "You're awful" might not sound as macho as "You suck," but it'll reach its target more effectively.

The Ten Commandments of Heckling Bonus Content

A Brief History of Heckling

Clip Reel: Fans Behaving Badly

Three true stories of fans being arrested at games

(4) THOU SHALT NOT SWEAR "If you have to explain it to your kids," Szasz says, "don't say it."

(5) HONOR THY OFFICIALS Says Ficker: "They're just trying to do their job." Then again, so are jocks. Difference is, refs don't get paid enough to deal with you. Save your energy for opposing players.

(6) DISHONOR THY ROOKIES There's no substitute for experience, so newbies struggle most with distractions. Says Andrew Jacobs, a sports psychologist for the Royals: "The younger the players, the more sensitive they tend to be."

(7) THOU SHALT NOT SLUR "The really annoying guys are the ones who are drunk beyond recognition," says Titans kicker Rob Bironas. Annoying? Good. Incomprehensible? Not so much.

(8) THOU SHALT NOT SLUR PART II Read this: former Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell was suspended in 1995 for punching a fan, but can you blame him? Maxwell claimed the spectator made a crack about his stillborn daughter (though it was never proved). Comments about tragedies cross the line, as do racial and sexual slurs. Still, shades of gray exist. "Everybody has a breaking point," says Jacobs. "For most people, that point is when you start talking about their family." Szasz draws his line at families, but Ficker (who once taunted former NBA journeyman Lewis Lloyd by reminding him about delinquent child-support payments) has a different take. "If it's public record, it's not offensive," he says. Then again, Ficker's an attorney.

(9) THOU SHALT HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR Forget about sweeping the leg, Lawrence. Go for the funny bone. Players from across the sports spectrum say humor is the easiest way to grab their attention. "We get 'You suck' and 'Wide left' all the time," says Bironas, "so we don't even notice. If you want us to hear you, say something funny." Perhaps something like the anecdote Bruins wing Shawn Thornton shared: "My favorite heckle had nothing to do with me. It happened in the Western Hockey League, where a player named Rob Skrlac had an oversize cranium. Somebody held up a sign that said, 'What would you rather have, a million dollars or Skrlac's helmet full of nickels?' It's legendary—players still talk about that."

(10) THOU SHALT STAY IN THE MOMENT Homework helps, but one of the Crazies brings a giant dry erase board—an instant cheer sheet—to home games for a reason. Put simply, if a guy has 12 turnovers in the first half, then steps to the line, the Crazies might…um…mention it.

These guys are pretty good at heckling.

BONUSES!

EVER WONDER HOW TO…(ALMOST) GET IN THE BOX SCORE? Chants, songs and signs don't do it for you? Need to actually palpate the pill to feel you're making a difference? Luckily for you, there's baseball. Of the major sports, the national pastime is by far the most interactive. "There's something very empowering about fan interference," says Zack Hample, the author of How to Snag Major League Baseballs. "Not only can you actually influence the outcome of the game, you can prove your athleticism." His top tips:

Bring your glove If you're going to interfere, you'd better make the play. Right, Bartman?

Pick the right park Fenway offers the lowest home run fence (3.42 feet in rightfield), followed by Dodger Stadium (3.50 in LF and RF) and Petco Park (4.0 in LF).

"Players always get booed, but they don't always hear their third-grade teacher's name while they're shooting a jump shot."

Choose your seat wisely According to Berkeley physics prof Bob Jacobsen, the best place to scoop up a ball that lands in fair territory is halfway between third base and the leftfield foul pole. There, you can easily reach over the railing to grab the ball. The result: ground-rule double. And make sure you have an aisle seat, says Jacobsen: "If you're pressed between Bubba and his 400-pound cousin, you don't have much wiggle room to make a play."

EVER WONDER HOW TO…DEFEND A FREE THROW? You know those CRAZED college hoops fans behind the basket, the ones wildly waving their arms as if they were stranded on a desert island and trying to attract the attention of a search vessel? Turns out, in trying to distract the shooter, they're missing the mark.

"Dynamic random motion is like white noise on a TV," says David Whitney, a visual scientist at UC Davis. "It's easy to tune out." Harder to ignore is something called manual following response. "If you stand in a blizzard and reach for your car door," explains Whitney, "your hand will get dragged in the direction you perceive the snow to be blowing."The best way to create MFR is to use synchronized motions of a high-contrast background that resembles zebra stripes. "If you had fans dressed in all white alternating with fans dressed in all black, and everyone stepped in one direction simultaneously," says Whitney, "we'd expect that free throws would tend to err in that direction." The movement has to be simultaneous, and it has to happen a quarter-second before the shooter pulls the trigger. To a true-blue heckler, the extra work is well worth the effort if there's a chance an opponent will brick a game-tying shot.