Discover more from The Sports Column
HATRED IN THE STANDS: FANS VS. PLAYERS IS A DISASTROUS GAME
The NBA and other sports leagues have allowed the return of live events to spill into ugly episodes, with dire consequences ahead in a nation already divided by racism
Did it occur to America’s sports leagues, in their furious rush to recoup lost revenues, that some fans no longer are human beings? They are feral animals, cooped up for much too long in pandemic prisons. They are lunatics, treating reopened live events like primal-scream therapy sessions.
And they are racists, which NBA commissioner Adam Silver should have considered when he whipped open the doors of his postseason arenas and didn’t ramp up security.
The result is a new wave of angst in our divided land, which we need like a mass enema. A Knicks fan spat on Atlanta’s Trae Young at Madison Square Garden. A 76ers fan threw popcorn on Washington’s Russell Westbrook, long a target of such abuse, at Wells Fargo Arena. Kyrie Irving, feeling a need to be pre-emptive, fears Celtics fans will shout racial taunts at him Friday night in his playoff return to TD Garden. These are some of basketball’s most storied buildings, and they’ve been reduced to dens of detritus and disgust as sports recklessly welcomes back paying customers to cobwebbed seating sections.
‘‘To be completely honest, this shit is getting out of hand, especially for me," Westbrook said. ‘‘The amount of disrespect, the amount of fans just doing whatever the f--- they want to do — it's just out of pocket. There are certain things that cross the line. Any other setting ... a guy were to come up on the street and pour popcorn on my head, you know what happens. In these arenas, you got to start protecting the players.’’
‘‘Damn… Crazy. Keep ya mask on my boy #ThatsJustChildish,’’ tweeted Young, who was goobered as he inbounded the ball, near rapper 50 Cent and actress Julianne Moore, while fans heckled him with comments about his hair and ‘‘F— Trae Young’’ chants.
Wisely, Irving is alerting Boston authorities what could happen in a city known for ugly incidents victimizing Black athletes. ‘‘Hopefully,’’ he said, ``we can just keep it strictly basketball, there’s no belligerence or racism going on — subtle racism — people yelling s–t from the crowd.’’
When Brooklyn teammate Kevin Durant interjected, ‘‘The whole world knows it,’’ Irving seconded the motion. ‘‘It is what it is,’’ he said.
Gee, isn’t it just wonderful how the re-emergence of fans in arenas and ballparks has united the country? When they aren’t aiming their hatred at athletes, they’re pummeling each other. In Houston, Dodgers fans who’ve waited two years to lash out at the scandalized Astros chanted ‘‘Cheaters!’’ at Minute Maid Park, which led to a Dodgers fan knocking out an Astros fan with two punches. The night before, some of Chicago’s classier ladies brawled in the left-field bleachers at whatever they’re calling Comiskey Park these days. The atmosphere inside major-league ballparks is creepy, with fans waiting for a rare hit or burst of action while pitchers — is Rob Manfred still alive? — rub illegal substances all over their uniforms, from caps to crotches to calves.
It’s in the NBA, though, where the escalation has reached a flashpoint. Players who spent last year in valiant Black Lives Matter protests, inside the Disney World Bubble, now are subjected to dangerous actions in arenas. This is a league, remember, where 75 percent of the players are Black, and most of the spectators are White. It took the best efforts of arena security guards and Wizards staffers to restrain Westbrook, who had been limping into the tunnel with an ankle injury, from confronting Orville Redenbacher in the stands. The last episode the NBA needs is another ‘‘`Malice at the Palace’’ fracas, where players and fans duked it out in an all-time debacle. But sports is headed toward another violent confrontation if the commissioners are too busy counting their newfound revenues.
Not until the damage was done did the league respond, with the 76ers banning the season-ticket-holding miscreant from all arena events and the Knicks banning a non-season-ticket-holder from all home games. The requisite apologies were made to Westbrook and Young in official team statements, but, realistically, does anyone think these episodes were an aberration? Too many Americans view the gradual resumption of normalcy as a license to further a racial divide, which can be perpetrated from a short distance in an arena or ballpark. Donald Trump may be gone from office, embalmed in Bedminster, but the political climate remains poisonous. For instance, what would possess New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to fan the flames, warning Young to ‘‘stop hunting for fouls’’ at a news conference and on his Twitter feed? Wrote the beleaguered doofus, who is desperately hunting for votes: ‘‘MSG is hallowed ground. Don’t desecrate the Garden with cheap foul-hunting. Not in New York City.’’ When he should be setting a responsible example, all de Blasio did was embolden the idiots.
The league was too late with a response, saying Thursday, ‘‘The return of more NBA fans to our arenas has brought great excitement and energy to the start of the playoffs, but it is critical that we all show respect for players, officials and our fellow fans.’’ The playoffs aren’t 10 days old, and, already, there have been three fan incidents. In Utah, where Westbrook heard racial taunts two years ago from a fan who was banned, the Jazz didn’t provide specifics but announced Thursday that they’d banned three fans indefinitely after a verbal altercation in Vivint Smart Home Arena. ‘‘The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior,’’ the team said. Later, it was reported the fans made racist comments to family members of Memphis star Ja Morant. Obviously, the lessons from 2019 weren’t heeded.
Rather than focus on his current obsession — deriving income from legal gambling — Silver must direct teams to increase police presence. If not, the consequences could be crippling for a league with lukewarm TV ratings and a summer playoff schedule that won’t grip a vacationing America. Most of all, protect your superstar assets, Adam Silver. Prosecution and jail time are the sensible solutions.
``These arenas, they’ve got to start protecting the players. ‘‘We’ll see what the NBA does,” Westbrook said. ‘‘I’ve been in a lot of incidents where fans, they say whatever, and the consequences for me are a lot more detrimental to those people in the stands because they feel like they’re untouchable.”
Said Atlanta coach Nate McMillan: ‘‘We’re just living in a society where people don’t have respect anymore.’’
We’re living in a society where people want to hate. It’s up to sports, in its latest and most reckless money grab, to address the hostility with more than prepared statements. And to think a football season, with full houses in the NFL and on SEC campuses, isn’t far away. Have mercy.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns and a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and appears on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.