This piece is inspired by a semi-recent Marcus Smart story, where he told of an interaction between him and a Denver Nuggets fan. The altercation happened after Smart dove for a loose ball and slid into the stands.
“My foot got stuck in a chair and a fan told me, that’s right stay on the ground, get on your knees,” Smart said after the first Boston Celtics – Denver Nuggets game.
“I told (security) who it was,” Smart also said. “They just looked at him and didn’t even say anything to him, didn’t even get him out of the game. Probably if I was a superstar, they probably would have done something for it, but it is what it is. … We’re going to end up protecting ourselves eventually and it’s not going to be pretty for those fans and we don’t want that.”
The Denver Nuggets said security “couldn’t determine what happened”, which seems like bogus to me. Anyways, Smart stressed that the NBA must “fix” the growing problem of fans acting inappropriately. Smart also said, “[NBA players] are going to end up protecting ourselves.”
There have been lots of other instances where fans feel they have the right to abuse NBA players. One of these is the infamous “Malice at the Palace”. It actually started with an on court brawl, after a hard foul at the end of a blowout game, between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. It was a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals, and was aired on ESPN.
The brawl started with Detroit’s Ben Wallace and Indiana’s Ron Artest. Nobody was really worried at this point, since NBA fights never last long. Artest didn’t seem worried either, as he tried putting on a headset to speak with Pacers radio broadcaster Mark Boyle. He didn’t get the chance, however, because the microphone wasn’t live, since the broadcaster knew not to give Artest a microphone in this type of situation.
The fight was mostly calm now, besides players and coaches trying to get Ben Wallace under control. But then John Green, a spectator, threw a cup full of Diet Coke at Artest. Artest rushed at a different guy, mistaking him for the Coke-thrower. It eventually turned into a massive NBA player vs NBA fan ultra-fight.
The end of the 2018-19 NBA regular season caused a lot of attention to be drawn to the perverse and improper comments thrown at NBA players.
The first scenario last season, that we know of, was one that involved Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, then with the Oklahoma City Thunder, was playing the Utah Jazz in Utah. A Jazz fan, Shane Keisel, and Westbrook had a verbal altercation, in which Westbrook could be heard saying, “You think I’m playing? I swear to God. I swear to God. I’ll [mess] you up! You and your wife. I’ll [mess] you up.”
He was fined $25,000 for his reaction.
After the game, he said he was responding to a fan’s comment that he took to be ‘racial’. He said that Shane Keisel said to him, “get down on your knees like you’re used to”, which is when Westbrook went off at Keisel. This incident led to one of the biggest revelations between player-fan interactions.
Westbrook revealed that there were instances like that one previously, just not bad enough for him to respond.
“Every time I come here, it’s a lot of disrespectful things that’s said.”
Keisel and his girlfriend, Jennifer Huff, recently filed lawsuits against the Utah Jazz and Russell Westbrook. Keisel is suing for $68M and Huff is suing for $32M. The claims are of defamation and emotional distress. Both Westbrook and the Jazz denied the allegations that come along with the lawsuit, and we’ll all be watching carefully as this dreadful and appalling situation comes to a close.
Later that season, there was a Boston Celtics fan in TD Garden that directed a racial slur at Golden State Warriors’ Demarcus Cousins. Cousins also said that it wasn’t the first time something of that nature had happened.
“Oh, I’ve been called n—,” he said while participating in a Yahoo Sports video podcast, “Posted Up”. “And it’s crazy because this has happened to me on a few occasions. I reported it to the league, and, you know, I may have said whatever I said back and I was still punished for it. But obviously it became a bigger issue when it was Russ [Westbrook], and he was still fined for it. I don’t really understand it. We’re the product. We push this league, so I don’t understand. When does our safety, when does it become important?”
The Celtics fan received a two year ban, because the Celtics couldn’t determine what he or she exactly said. Marcus Smart, after the Cousins incident last season, put in his two cents on the issue.
“I’ve dealt with a lot of things, here in my own city, and out of this city,” he said. “I get it. I’ve seen it. I’m not surprised, and it has to be fixed, plain and simple.”
After those major incidents in March earlier this year, Malcolm Brogdon tried to explain why fans did this. First, he agreed with Westbrook that the NBA needs to do more to ensure that this happens less and less. Then he said that the fans “don’t see us as human beings. They see us as entertainers. That’s a view and perspective that has to change.”
Brogdon is right, it does have to change, and NBA players are human beings as well. Fred VanVleet, of the Toronto Raptors, also said something along the lines of what Brogdon said.
“Realize that we’re still people at the end of the day,” VanVleet says. “It’s not the zoo. And when you go to the zoo, you don’t jump over the fence and taunt the tigers and [stuff] like that. It’s real consequences behind stuff like that.”
One of the consequences of jumping into a tiger’s cage is that you get beat up. And NBA players have said things about the incidents suggesting that if it were a different circumstance, they would beat up whoever directed a racial slur or derogatory comment at them.
“We’re expected to be the bigger person,” VanVleet says. “And it’s unfortunate. Money is the sole deciding factor in that. We’re paid a contract, and we have to relinquish some of our rights. And some players aren’t really willing to do that all the time.”
The athletes shouldn’t have to ignore demeaning words from spectators, but they are going to have to be the ones to do something about it. Sure, the NBA has updated its ‘NBA Fan Code of Conduct’, but I never read it before writing this, and there is only so much a list of rules can do. It’s like at pools when there are always signs that say ‘No splashing’, but you do it anyways because you won’t get caught very often. And even if that lifeguard that feels overqualified does blow their whistle at you, that’s not a very big punishment.
It’s the same for NBA fans. There’s a rule, and most fans follow it. But there are fans that do “splash”, and there aren’t very big consequences for it. Sure, they can get banned, but that two year ban probably just made it so they can’t go to a few games. The lifelong ban for the Jazz fan was a great response, but what precautions do the NBA have in place to ensure the fan can’t get back in? They need to upgrade that ‘No splashing’ rule to a whole list of rules including ‘No running’, ‘No pushing’ and ‘Shower before you get in the water’ (just kidding on that last one).
One solution is to move the seats back, so it’s harder for fans to get to the court and yell at the players, and vice versa. If you move the seats back, you will have to get rid of a row or two. But then you could change the court dimensions and get rid of the short three, making it the same distance as every other spot. Killing two birds with one stone here at Phenom Media.
The Athletic conducts an annual, anonymous player poll, where one of the questions is, What is the association’s most pressing issue? 13.7% of the players in April of 2019 said it was fan behavior.
But it’s not just ‘The Association’ where this is happening. It is also a big thing in European football (soccer). English forward Raheem Sterling is one of the most vocal in this front. And, unfortunately, he has been on the receiving end of racial slurs and actions. On March 25th, in a match between England and Montenegro, opposing fans made monkey noises whenever Sterling or any of his black teammates touched the ball.
Adam Jones (professional baseball) and PK Subban (professional hockey) have also heard inappropriate comments directed at them, and are both very outspoken about it.
Since the NBA is 80% black individuals, this has been a huge issue since the league was formed. Almost all of the derogatory comments are made at black players and are racial.
And while this is ever prominent in the NBA, it is a direct reflection on America. If we want to see players treated with the immense respect they deserve, it’s going to have to start from the bottom up. It’s going to be hard, but hard does not mean impossible.