By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook seems to always have bad blood when it comes to fan interactions when on the road in the NBA, especially in Utah.
A particular series of episodes with fans in Utah who look to provoke the explosive point guard has been highlighted with his conflict with a Jazz loyalist who tried to record him as he came off the court following a loss in Game 6 of the series between OKC and Utah in last season’s playoffs.
An even more bitter exchange inflamed the sports news cycle this week, though not nearly as much as Westbrook himself was in firing back at the Jazz fan who reportedly told him to “Get on your knees like you’re used to” during a contest Monday night.
After an investigation into the interaction, the Jazz organization saw it fit to ban the fan from any future events in their arena while the NBA fined Westbrook $25,000 for his explicit comments toward the fan, which including him stating he would “f*** up” the fan and his wife.
In the aftermath there’s much to be pleased about with how the NBA has handled this situation, from individual players speaking up about their own nasty fan interactions to the Jazz and the league’s fair conclusions and punishments to Westbrook and the fan.
Utah star Donavan Mitchell wrote a statement showing his disappointment in the situation and how he will do what he can to improve racial interactions between fans and athletes and Jazz owner Gail Miller addressed her stadium prior to their game Thursday evening, saying “this should never happen, we are not a racist community.”
But some notable players past and present have used this week to state how in Utah and in many other cities, such as Boston, generations of African-American players have had to face racial slurs and derogatory comments and actions while doing their jobs.
As naturally fitting our current social media age as this incident was, it can’t be seen merely as a byproduct of a current coarse trends extending from the lawless social media sphere.
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Negativity spewed toward African-American athletes from the stands has a historic representation across America’s major sports, in particular when color barriers within respective professional leagues were being challenged and broken.
Jackie Robinson, the hero that broke the color barrier in professional baseball, experienced racial slurs on a daily basis on and off the field, including numerous instances where he was getting called “n*****” at the batting plate to experiencing beanball pitches, which is a pitch purposely targeted to hurt a player, more specifically aiming toward the head area.
In 2018, Devante Smith-Pelly of the Washington Capitals experienced racial taunting in Chicago while serving a major penalty in the penalty box. Four Blackhawk fans were reported to yell “basketball, basketball, basketball,” indicating their belief that an African-American man does not belong in the NHL, but the NBA, where the league’s player population is over 75% African-American.
In 2017, former Baltimore Oriole Adam Jones was berated with racial taunts while having a bag of peanuts being thrown at him. USC woman’s basketball player Minyon Moore claimed that Oregon State fans called her and her teammates “black b******” and “you n******” following their win last season. Jaguars’ running back Leonard Fournette claimed to have experienced similar racial slurs after being called a “c**n” and “servant” by a fan during his game against the Tennessee Titans.
The fact that so far from these initial breakthrough moments we are still seeing such venom spewed freely and without provocation means pro leagues should create explicit policies protecting their players in these types of situations. Given the timing of this incident the NBA has a chance to take the lead in such progression.
Bill Russell, legendary Hall of Famer and trailblazer for African-American athletes, wrote in his 1979 memoir that even though he won 11 championships for the Celtics, Boston as a city overall was “a flea market of racism” during his time in the fifties and sixties. According to the Boston Globe, he said.
“[Boston] had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists … Other than that, I liked the city.’’
I am glad that the league has shown, and continues to show, that they do not condone racism or derogatory comments in any way, shape or form. Commissioner Adam Silver has been very vocal about his support for the players, discouraging the derogatory and racial comments the players receive and the importance of using their platforms to create change.
Recently, Silver sent a memo to all 30 teams asking them to create a PSA or a league-developed spot that stresses the importance of respect and civility in NBA arenas, according to senior lead NBA insider of the Athletic and Stadium Shams Charania. Though PSAs are needed and welcomed, more action is needed.
More than ever the league is dealing with a different generation of athletes across the board, and living in a world of social media that exposes everything psychologically with a player-first business, athletes are more empowered than ever to fight back or expose their true feelings in ways that past athletes could not. We are all aware of the historical “Malice in the Palace” that featured NBA players and fans fighting across the arena and that could be considered to have happened a generation ago as far as the NBA is concerned.
That incident was not sparked with racial slurs, but with fans throwing food and beverages at the players. In either such case, a certain callous attitude exhibited by fans can be seen as aiding in their viewing the people on court as something similar to zoo animals, something there merely for their entertainment and not worthy of the same respect they would like people to show them.
Westbrook hasn’t ever been provoked to fight a fan, but can you be surprised if he ever is provoked to such a level? With Westbrook’s demeanor, similar to other NBA superstar athletes, imagine if they let their aggression that they use in the game carry over to this type of dispute? Could another “Malice in the Palace” be on the horizon for the NBA?
Hearing racial slurs at a sporting event is not new and not surprising. As an African-American I have experienced racial slurs or derogatory comments throughout my life and I do not expect it to end anytime soon.
Silver knows that he cannot stop fans from saying horrible comments to players/coaches, but he has to step it up and implement a zero-tolerance policy that protects players while also creates urgency in security within their respective arena to limit the disputes between athletes and derogatory comments from fans to avoid another potential incident that will embarrass the entire league and that can’t be walked back.
Joshua M. Hicks is the lead columnist of WARR