Op-ed: Racist NBA Fans Are Creating A Hostile Work Environment For Players

Black athletes making salaries in the multi-millions creates jealousy and animosity among certain “fans.”

NBA arenas are becoming increasingly hostile work environments for the players. What gives? Why does it seem like there is a segment of fans who routinely cross the line when engaging with NBA players? What is the “imaginary line” fans shouldn’t cross when speaking about athletes? Why do some fans feel entitled to say whatever they want to athletes?

Let’s look at the relationship between fan and athlete. Among the four major team sports, the relationship between fan and player is most intimate in the NBA. The best seats in any NBA arena are literally on the floor, steps away from the action. NBA players don’t wear helmets or masks or equipment that obstructs them from the fans’ view. This “closeness” makes the relationship different because these players are recognizable. Couple that with the social media era (which NBA players dominate) and you have a situation where fans think they “know” these players.

Two instances during this current NBA season have placed the athlete-fan relationship under the microscope. Oklahoma City Thunder all-star Russell Westbrook engaged in a back and forth with a fan in March, where the fan and his wife reportedly told Westbrook to “get on your knees like you’re used to.” Westbrook responded and said, “I’ll fuck you up, you and your wife.” Westbrook was fined $25,000 by the NBA for engaging with the fans using threatening language, and after an investigation was concluded, the Utah Jazz banned the fan from the arena for life. In January, Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins was called a n***er by a Celtics fan at TD Garden in Boston. Cousins reported the fan to the arena security and, according to reports, the Celtics banned the fan for the remainder of this season and all of next season.

Behavior like this from fans towards athletes should not be a surprise to you. If you’ve ever been to an arena or stadium, no doubt you’ve heard some wild things being said by fans, directed towards athletes.

What is a fan? A fan is shorthand for fanatic. A person who is extremely enthusiastic about and devoted to an interest or activity. A person exhibiting excessive enthusiasm and intense uncritical devotion toward an interest or activity.

Whether in attendance or watching on your HD television, how many people do you see either dressed excessively in team gear, or mascot costumes, or in full body paint of their teams' colors? This type of devotion is valorized by many of my fellow colleagues in the media and is often depicted as “true fandom.” To be fair, if that’s how you want to show support for your team, it’s your business.

But at what point do we go too far in legitimizing this type of behavior? Why is this overzealous behavior deemed OK and a prerequisite for being a “true fan”? At what point did the fans become an actual part of the game?

Fifteen years ago at the Palace at Auburn Hills, during a Pacers versus Pistons game, the unthinkable happened. A hard foul occurred in the game and a fight ensued on the court between several of the players. In the aftermath of the fight, as the officials were restoring order and determining fouls and ejections, a “passionate Pistons fan” who embodied the feelings of “his team” threw a cup of beer at then Pacers player Ron Artest. All hell ensued as Artest charged into the stands and a melee erupted and spilled out onto the floor between some fans and the players.

The NBA took swift action, recognizing its customer base (which is overwhelmingly white) would likely not react well if severe punishment was not meted out to these Black players. A precedent was established by then commissioner David Stern. The league was on the side of its customers and the players had to be kept in line. This was backed up by the mandatory dress code and a few other, if we’re being generous, “coded policies.”

That was a dangerous moment for the NBA. The action, while seemingly just in the moment, had unintended consequences and reinforced an old adage: The customer is always right. But are they?

In the time since that incident at Auburn Hills, the league’s profitability, popularity and value have increased. The fan experience has changed as well. With the addition of backboard, and sideline tracking cameras. The league’s push on social media to deliver more content to the fans, the game and sport — one could argue — has been catered towards them. On the surface as a business, any rational person could understand the importance of that and why it is necessary. The NBA is competing for mindshare and fan interest with millions of other things. There needs to be a revenue stream from a fan base to continue to support this multibillion-dollar business. But at what cost?

Fans have long held onto the right that they can say whatever they wish to players in an arena because their ticket allows them to do so. Of course they are wrong. While a fan is well within his or her right to boo the opposition or heckle at a grade school level, comments about race, sexuality, players’ families cross the line. All fans know this. But some choose to cross the line anyway for whatever reason. The biggest one being that they fear no repercussion. These fans have come to believe that they are a part of the game. While it’s true they are part of the atmosphere, they are not a part of the game on the floor.

In wake of these recent incidents, the NBA has sent a memo to its 30 teams asking them to create a PSA or a league-developed spot to stress the “importance of respect and civility in NBA arenas.” But will that be enough? Why do people at their place of work (players) have to now engage themselves in the process of alerting security and team personnel about abhorrent behavior?

Yes, sports are a microcosm of the larger society in which they inhabit. Athletes making salaries in the multimillions no doubt creates a level of jealousy and animosity among some fans. In the larger society, it is safe to say racial animus has grown, and yes, some fans have feelings about their income relative to the income of these players, playing a game. We can’t escape the realities. They are a part of life.

The intimacy and fan experience should be treated the same way we often tell players their experience as a professional athlete is: it is a privilege. Being a fan of the NBA and one of its teams is a privilege. Just because you decide to spend money on a ticket, that does not give you permission to engage in activity that in larger society nobody would find appropriate. We must put the onus on the league and its teams to stress that fact. We would love to have you be a part of our fan experience and enjoy our beautiful game, but we expect you to honor the hallmarks of basic humanity and decency. The memo by the league to its teams was a step in the right direction. But will it have the desired effect? Time will tell.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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