Las Vegas Sun

March 19, 2019

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Right to abuse the players is not built into the price of a game ticket


Rick Bowmer / AP

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

So far, the ugly confrontation between NBA star Russell Westbrook and a fan last week in Utah has resulted mostly in negative consequences — a $25,000 fine for Westbrook and a permanent ban for the fan.

But it doesn’t have to end this way, and it shouldn’t. Rather, the incident should prompt the sports world to take a hard look at its fan policies, and establish some higher standards for acceptable behavior in the stands. In that way, something constructive could emerge from the nastiness.

Heckling is as much a part of live sports as popcorn and fist-bumps, but what happened in Utah went much deeper than that. It cut into racial culture wars that have worsened in recent years, accompanied by a coarsening of our national dialogue.

For those who are unfamiliar with the incident, Westbrook said he lashed out after the fan, who is white, told him to “get on his knees like he’s used to.” Westbrook responded by shouting, “You and your wife. I’ll f*** you up.”

The fan claimed he’d told Westbrook to go ice his knees, but information that emerged later about the fan’s social media posts showed that he’d profanely insulted Westbrook on numerous occasions and had posted before the game that someone needed to “kick his a**.”

We won’t defend Westbrook’s response. But if his account is true — and it seems plausible, especially given the fan’s social media posts — it’s perfectly understandable why he was angry.

No one should have to absorb such racist hatred.

The incident has sparked calls for teams and leagues to set firmer rules for fans.

In an interview with National Public Radio, sports journalist William C. Rhoden made a strong case for why stricter policies are needed.

“I think we’re in this period of time when being uncivil has become the new norm,” said Rhoden, a former New York Times columnist who now is a writer-at-large for ESPN’s The Undefeated. “And what better place to totally be uncivil than these basketball arenas, where frankly you have large numbers of white fans and large numbers of young black men and women as participants?”

Against that backdrop, the incident in Utah shouldn’t be written off as a one-time blow-up. It’s time for teams and leagues to further define the line between harmless heckling and verbal abuse, and communicate that distinction very clearly to fans through signage and announcements.

Granted, there are complexities involved in determining what’s appropriate and what’s not. Language that strikes one person as offensive might seem harmless to another. And no policy will prevent all uncivil behavior.

But given our societal state of affairs, the responsible thing to do is to draw a very bright line on hate speech and personal attacks.

The good news here is that incidents like the one in Utah don’t happen often, and that the vast majority of fans would never step over the line. In fact, Jazz fans even started a GoFundMe account to pay Westbrook’s fine, which is a commendable gesture.

But it’s still sickening that the incident happened.

That being the case, fans should be made very well aware that while buying a ticket gives them an opportunity to rib players, it doesn’t entitle them to commit verbal assault.