LeBron's Return to Cleveland: Why They Boo

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Nikki Boertman / Reuters

Miami Heat forward LeBron James is defended by Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley during a game in Memphis

The most eagerly anticipated game of this year's NBA season tips off on Thursday night in Cleveland, where LeBron James, now toiling for the Miami Heat, will make his homecoming against his former team, the Cavaliers. As a pure sports matchup between two mediocre teams, it's not much to get worked up about; the Heat, despite stockpiling free-agent stars like James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade, have underachieved so far this season, and James' abandoned Cavaliers no longer have any superstars. But there is no shortage of drama building around the game, and at its most basic level, the reason is simple: fans love hearing a bunch of people boo.

When James announced this past summer on live television that he was ditching Cleveland, the team for which he starred for seven years and the city that's a few miles north of his beloved hometown of Akron, for South Beach, northeast Ohio was not happy. Fans burned his jersey; a Nike billboard declaring that "We Are All Witnesses" to James' greatness was shredded; and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert shot off an invective-laced memo bashing James in front of the masses. Cleveland's anger was raw, and it hasn't really subsided. For Halloween, a woman from a Cleveland suburb even hung a skeletal effigy, draped in a James-Cavs jersey, in her front yard. "This is our way of hanging him out to dry like he hung us out to dry," she said. In fact, booing could be the least of James' problems. Since August, the Cavs have worked with NBA and city officials to make sure that Quicken Loans Arena will have tightened security for the star's return.

So let's hope that instead of throwing dangerous objects at James, Cleveland fans will simply shower him with the universal sound of derision. It is, after all, an age-old ritual, a cathartic expression of disapproval that usually makes angry fans feel just a little bit better. But why is that? Why do people shout "Boo" — and hold that oo sound — as a form of disapproval to begin with? Why not be more direct, perhaps shouting something like, "I hate LeBron! I hate LeBron!," instead of letting out some silly sound?

"If you're a fan and you step back and think about what you're doing," says Edward Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University, "you've got to wonder, What's the point?"

It seems humans have been booing for ages. "Just about every behavior modern American sports fans use to show contempt or disapproval is ancient," says Douglas Harper, founder of the Online Etymology Dictionary. "The accounts of the audience's reactions to flubbed lines or unpopular characters in theater in Athens included scraping or stamping the feet, catcalls, wolf whistles, hissing, booing and banging on benches."

According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, boo was spelled bo in 15th century Middle English and defined as an interjection "used to express contempt or disapproval or to startle or frighten." Harper suspects it's no coincidence that the word rhymes with moo. "Common people had few opportunities to gather in a mass and express disapproval through much of Western history, but when they did, loud, insulting barnyard noises tended to be their weapon of choice," Harper says. "They not only mocked the target; they also drowned him out. These included hissing, like a goose, or booing, like a cow."

According to Harper, booing really blossomed in 19th century Europe. In Parma, Italy, booing was a common reaction to opera performances. The Brits took booing to another level. In England, schoolboys were fond of taunting their teachers, though they'd do it with their mouths closed, to avoid getting busted. "London theater crowds were notorious booers," Harper says, "while in Scotland, it seems to have been reserved for political targets and labor disputes. You could even be arrested for it in the right circumstances."

Americans started booing fairly late in the game, in the early 20th century. According to a few newspaper reports from that era, Americans had never heard such a thing until some met boobirds in Britain. A story in the March 18, 1910, Boston Evening Transcript headlined "How Patten Was 'Booed' " — note the quotes around the word, as if it were unfamiliar — describes the harsh treatment an American cotton broker, James Patten, received on the floor of the Manchester Exchange in England. "I began to hear cries of 'boo,' which I did not in the least understand until by physical pressure it was borne in on me that the crowd meant to push me out of the exchange," Patten said. Turns out that a bunch of blue collar factory managers blamed brokers like Patten for driving up the price of cotton, forcing their mills to shut down. A few British financiers apologized for the antics of the commoners.

Another report, from the May 16, 1907, Meriden (Conn.) Morning Record and headlined " 'Booed' Americans," tells the story of two American actors getting jeered by a London audience. The writer calls booing a "silly custom" that is "heathenish," and then makes a plea: "Americans are uncouth enough, but here is something which they may well afford not to acquire from their English cousins across the sea."

Though it may seem a great way to let off steam, psychologists say people boo less out of pure anger than because they're trying to fit in. Picture yourself alone at alone watching a bad call against your favorite team. Are you going to get up off your couch and start booing, all by yourself in your living room? Probably not. However, "if you're surrounded by 70,000 other people who are booing, there's social pressure to do it," says Christian End, a psychology professor from Xavier University who has studied fan behavior. "You might be judged negatively by others if you're not booing." Psychologists call this phenomenon "deindividuation." You surrender your identity to the collective group. "We become very sheep-like," says psychology professor Hirt. "We just follow along."

Back in 1983, a couple of academics studied the effect of booing at basketball games and found that when fans booed for longer than 15 seconds, the home team performed better.

Maybe so, but there's a lot of anecdotal evidence to show that Cavs fans shouldn't expect their booing to help defeat James and company. Many great current and former players, like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, say booing motivates them to destroy the opposition, which they often do. "Once the game starts, everything shifts over to playing ball, something you've done your whole life," says former Celtics great Kevin McHale, now an analyst for TNT and NBA TV, who was booed incessantly in Philadelphia during the Celtics-76ers battles of the early '80s. "The switch goes off. Look, when he comes out and sits on the bench, that's when he gets pummeled. Best thing he can do is play 48 minutes, play really well, get the win and get out of there. That way he's never sitting on the bench."