Clever heckler is an oxymoron. Most all hecklers are loudmouthed boors. The only bigger jackasses in the seats are the sycophants who hold up signs with the letters of the network televising the game, spelling out something like NETS BEAT CELTICS, keen observations on that order. But at least they're quiet oafs, letting their way with words speak for them.
But hecklers. They are, as we say, part of the game. Most times they're only intrusive, individual versions of a loud recorded version of We Will Rock You. Sometimes, though, hecklers do grow offensive, as they did last week in Boston, where a nitwitted number of the clam chowder cognoscenti bellowed, "Wife beater!" at the Nets' Jason Kidd. To be sure, Kidd had once assaulted his wife, Joumana, who was herself in attendance with their three-year-old son, T.J. (a classic case of valor over discretion), but the sports etiquettists were up in arms. Look, they howled, it's fair game to attack a player for his game, but not for anything personal.
Probably, yes, this is the standard for decency, and most times it is upheld. Some, though, have suffered worse than the Kidds. Perhaps the most tasteless heckling in American sports history came in February 1988, when Steve Kerr was a senior guard at Arizona. His father, Malcolm, had been murdered by terrorists in Beirut in January 1984. Heartless Arizona State students screamed " PLO!" at the bereaved young Kerr as he manfully carried on upon the court.
Duke students have become famous for being inventive with their invective. At various times, saluting rival players who have been caught at some malefaction, Dookies have hurled women's underwear, aspirin, pizza boxes, sneakers and condoms onto the court. (You do not need to know the particulars.) For an opponent who had suffered a collapsed lung, the Dookies yelled, "IN-hale! EX-hale!" Go on, it's O.K. to laugh at that. That's pretty good. And the kid had recovered.
Professionally—witness L'affaire Kidd—the most profuse taunting has occurred in the grittier Metroliner cities. The bar for mean-spiritedness was raised, surely never to be reached again, by Philadelphia fans at old Shibe Park. There, so the grand old story goes, between games of an Easter doubleheader, children were allowed into the outfield to search for eggs. And, yes, the fans from Brotherly Loveville booed their own local tykes who performed poorly in the hunt.
Yet it is a curious grandstand we now inhabit. At the same time that society has grown more politically correct, it has also become less civil. "As soon as you struck out, not only were you a bum," Hank Greenberg said once, "but you're a Jewish bum." Only the worst creeps with large lungs dare shout out ethnic slurs today. But at the same time the ears of children are burned by the coarsest vulgarities shouted in public unison. And, of course, what with talk radio, everybody's a bleeping expert, ready to express loud, idiotic opinions. Sometimes we long for another high-decibel burst of We Will Rock You.
Now, incivility has even reached gentlemanly golf, where churlish America-first louts taunt the chunky Scot, Colin Montgomerie. Golf Digest will distribute buttons reading BE NICE TO MONTY at the U.S. Open next week.
Fair enough. But heckling, in its place, judiciously exercised, is an honorable pursuit. Namby-pamby golfers could stand a bit. If some of the chokers on Masters Sunday had heard a few choice raspberries at Amen Corner, maybe they would have had their nerves bounced out of their throats. After all, look at what heckling did for Jason Kidd's game.