Dear Most Illustrious Expert:
I have a good friend on the women's swim team and go to a lot of their home meets. The fans here seem to be getting rowdier. I was at a meet recently against X University, and people cheering for MIT were really nasty, not just yelling in support of the MIT swimmers but running down the opposing team. I heard one guy right behind me scream, "Girls from X are all fat pigs!" I saw one of the X swimmers turn her head, as though she had heard the comment.
I was embarrassed for MIT, that our fans could be so cruel. Is there anything I could have done?
– A Loyal Fan
As in so many bystander situations, there is no clear right and wrong. People do get emotional when cheering for their team, but they can go too far. I sense from your letter that you think this fan went too far. Like you, I can imagine an X University swimmer being very hurt by that comment.
So, you took the first step, noticing that something was out of line here. Let's assess your options at that point. Two possibilities come to mind: speaking to the X swimmer and speaking to the fan behind you. It would not be easy to speak to either one but might be worth the cost. If you had approached the swimmer and said that you thought the guy was out of line, she probably would have appreciated your support. If you had made a casual comment to the fan about going too far, though he might have been annoyed at the time, it might have prevented him from doing something similar in the future. Don't underestimate the power of peer pressure.
I bet you'll see something like this at another meet or other athletic event, and next time you will have your strategy ready.