OPINION: Player and fan interaction

There needs to be discipline for fans who cross the line

By on April 9, 2019

On March 11, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook informed the media that a Utah Jazz fan racially taunted him and told him to “get down on your knees like you’re used to” while he was on the bench. Upon hearing these comments, Westbrook is on video retorting, “I’ll [expletive] you up, you and your wife.” He later explained to the media that both the man and his wife verbally assaulted him and, “As for beating up his wife, I’ve never put my hand on a woman. I never will.” The Jazz fan, Shane Keisel, was permanently banned from Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City.

In a team statement, Jazz president Steve Starks explained that the team “will not tolerate fans who act inappropriately” and that “there is no place in our game for personal attacks or disrespect.” On March 14, Jazz owner Gail Miller responded to the most recent inappropriate behavior by one of her fans: “This should never happen. We are not a racist community. We believe in treating people with courtesy and respect as human beings.” Additionally, she said, “We have a code of conduct in this arena. It will be strictly enforced.” Even though the Jazz organization handled the situation swiftly and harshly, this is not the first incident between one of its fans and Westbrook.

In Game Four of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, a Jazz fan was caught on video repeatedly calling Westbrook “boy” in an attempt to racially demean him. This Jazz fan’s lifetime ban was announced two days after Keisel’s. The Jazz again did not hold back in regard to punishment, but they did covertly reveal they never enacted punitive measures on the fan who crossed the line with Westbrook a season ago. The Jazz organization knew that if it did not respond harshly to the nameless fan from last year’s’ playoffs and Kiesel, they would have given credence to its reputation as one of the most racist NBA fanbases.

Although the Utah Jazz most definitely has one of the least liked fans in the NBA, there have been many moments in past years and even this season when NBA fans crossed the line.

In a game against the Milwaukee Bucks last year, the Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson fell near a fan on the baseline and received some harsh words. According to then teammate David West the fan said, “F—- you, b——. You m——-f——-.” Thompson told ESPN that, “It was just unnecessary.” In 2017 Draymond Green told ESPN’s The Undefeated that “I’ve gotten the N-word, all of that.” This year, teammate DeMarcus Cousins has experienced similar things. The Boston Globe reported that Cousins believed he saw a fan mouth the N-word to him during the Warriors’ only visit to Boston. The fan, who was under 18, was given a two-year ban from Boston’s TD Garden.

The Detroit Pistons’ Blake Griffin was called “boy” by a Minnesota Timberwolves fan, which ignited Griffin to try and make his way to the man who insulted him. On April 3, Anthony Davis, who is having a notably difficult season, was caught on video giving a fan in his home arena the middle finger after a close loss to the Charlotte Hornets. On Davis’ Instagram page, he explained in a direct message that, “Some fan disrespected me. Said something I didn’t like.” He was still fined $15,000 for the gesture.

This exhaustive list of player-fan incidents can easily be summarily dismissed as random examples of confrontations instigated by deranged people. But are these really isolated events?

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the NBA sent a memo to all 30 teams telling them to make a public service announcement that stresses the “importance of respect and civility in NBA arenas.” It is almost impossible to know whether the league thinks that more inappropriate behavior from fans has been happening across the board or if only more of these occurrences are caught on camera. Regardless, these situations are bad representations of the NBA’s passionate fanbase.

Part of the NBA’s brand is its level of intimacy fans have with NBA players via social media and front-row seats. Unlike major sports leagues like the NFL, MLB and NHL, the NBA has a seating arrangement that gives the fortunate front-row ticket holders seats that make it seem like they are a part of the action. Also, players do not wear equipment that inhibit the fans’ view of these athletes’ athletic prowess and preternatural skill. However, those seated near the action may be misled in believing that the price of admission gives them the license to treat players callously.

In basketball, and really all sports, there is a figurative line that viewers know they cannot cross in regard to what they can say directly to players. This imaginary line determines whether what a fan says or does is deemed malicious towards an athlete. Understandably, the inherent nature of sports includes trash talk and foul remarks. Fans utter these things to hopefully increase their opponents’ chances of failure. Nonetheless, fans like the ones in Utah should never feel comfortable enough to use racial epithets that degrade players. Especially in a league that is more than 74 percent black with arenas that are routinely filled with a majority white audience. What makes this more egregious is that all the people who dare cross this line would never announce these things to people who aren’t professional athletes. Specifically, the ones who tower over most people and are visibly fit. These viewers express themselves truly only because they are protected by their position as “fans” watching basketball. It has been proven that a player who hits a fan, no matter the reason, will suffer an exorbitant punishment. This is evidenced by Ron Artest’s season suspension and approximately $5 million salary loss after attacking a fan during the 2004 Malice in the Palace.

The memo sent by the league is a step in the right direction. In many of the aforementioned cases, there were bans and ejections issued to the people involved. These punitive measures must not be a blip in the NBA’s mission to repair some of the mishandling of player-fan interactions. They must repeatedly punish these people so they can hopefully eliminate repeat offenders. It would also be best if they do this without releasing the names and images of the accused so no one is encourage to mimic their behavior for the potential five seconds of fame.

NBA players have a public presence, are subject to criticism constantly and are paid millions of dollars for the job they do. Their livelihoods can never be fully understood by anyone who doesn’t experience anything comparable to those three things. Westbrook should not have threatened Kiesel’s wife. He was wrong and admitted he would never harm a woman. However, players like Westbrook should be protected by the league from ever being in that type of circumstance. As much as they are paid, it is difficult to play in the best basketball league in the world and properly tolerate behavior no person should ever encounter.

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