Fan behavior

I started writing this post about Marcus Smart. While I was out tonight, the Michael Sam story broke. I will address that briefly at the end of this post and come back to it over the next few days.

A quick update on the incident in Lubbock ,Texas, Saturday night between Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and a Texas Tech fan, Jeff Orr. Marcus Smart has now been suspended for three games by the Big 12 conference after having shoved Orr at the end of the game. The shove came in response to something Orr said to Smart after Smart fell into the stands following an attempted block. Some reports have said Orr made a racial slur. Orr, a previously identified “super fan” who travels long distances to attend all Texas Tech games, has issued a statement apologizing for his own behavior, including to Smart specifically, though he denies he used a “racial slur of any kind.” Instead, Orr says, he called Smart “a piece of crap.” Furthermore, in reporting on Orr’s statement, ESPN says that Orr offered to stop attending all Texas Tech games for the rest of the season. Smart has now also spoken, apologizing to Orr, saying that he “let my emotions get the best of me” and that he “let my teammates down.” Smart did not say what he heard, instead proclaiming that he takes “personal responsibility” for the issue.

Two former Big 12 opponents of Tech, Bryan Davis of Texas A&M – whom Orr apparently gave the finger to during a 2010 game – and John Lucas III, both tweeted that they well remember Orr repeatedly saying “crazy ish” during their years in college.

More generally, of course, players enduring invective from fans has been going on as long as spectators have been watching athletes. Which made John Saunders’ statement on The Sports Reporters yesterday morning especially baffling. At the end of their discussion of the Orr-Smart incident, after the panelists had (appropriately) raised the question of whether there needed to be clearer rules and sanctions for inappropriate fan behavior, Saunders said:

“The reason they’ve never had a rule for this [fan behavior], is that they’ve never needed it, obviously. So, the fans, perhaps, used to be civil, but things are getting a lot worse.”

I’d venture to say that fan behavior in American sports today is, on the whole, much tamer than it has been historically. Check out this wikipedia entry of violent fan behavior for a sense of the frequency of true fan ugliness in American sports history (and while you’re at it, you can take a moment to marvel at the genius in the Cleveland Indians’ organization who, in 1974, thought ten cent beer night was a good idea. Long story short: the fans were so out of control that Cleveland had to forfeit the game). From fans running on to the field to attack players and coaches, to a long history of racial and homophobic slurs directed at athletes, to the fan-incited Malice at the Palace in 2004, belligerent and nasty fan conduct is, quite simply, part of the landscape of sports.

In any event, in the case of Smart and Orr, the player in question was not subject to any physical threats or violent actions. He was insulted with words and reacted. It remains true that in the vast majority of cases, players ignore all the crap they hear from fans – including what many in the past couple of days have said are persistent resorts to racial epithets. There is more opportunity for player-fan interaction in basketball than in any other sport because of the simple physical proximity of the playing area to the fans sitting courtside. And the fact that basketball has the highest participation rates by African Americans of any of the major sports, juxtaposed to the predominantly white fan base that sits near the court contributes to an atmosphere of tension. It’s easy enough to say that it doesn’t matter what a fan says, players cannot ever put their hands on spectators. But I think we take for granted the degree of restraint players on the whole show such that incidents like the one Saturday night – which resulted in no physical consequence to anybody – are as rare as they are.

Dave Zirin noted in his column yesterday that people like to cite Jackie Robinson as a model of heroic discretion in the face of unparalleled vitriol and hatred. But, Zirin wrote:

Robinson wrote in his memoir that he had real regrets about not going into the stands and pummeling racists with what he called “my despised black fists”. Jackie Robinson died way too young at age 53. He and his family always believed that his early death was connected to the stress that he had to carry precisely because he kept it all bottled in on direct orders from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and on society’s orders, shaped by the pre-civil rights times in which he played.

And while world today is different than it was when Robinson first arrived in Brooklyn, it was noteworthy to hear former Oklahoma State star and retired NBA player Desmond Mason say that he heard the n-word every time he went to Lubbock (that would have been during the late 1990s). That’s just one of many tiny glimpses into a reality the implications of which a mostly white sports media still struggles to fully grasp.

Speaking of restraint, no doubt Michael Sam will be called upon to exercise a lot of it in the coming months and years. The SEC co-defensive player of the year is not yet in the NFL. Mel Kiper projects him as a fourth-round pick, so he could well be there in a few months. Before then, he has already become and will continue to be a focus of media attention. While the climate in which to come out is vastly different today than it’s ever been, San will certainly have to endure prejudice and hate. Assuming he handles it with dignity and grace – he seems to be an impressive young man – he will receive plenty of praise. But most of us won’t really understand the inner reserves necessary to avoid lashing out in ways I suspect most of us would instinctively want to if we faced similar belligerence from ignorant morons.

Update, February 10: in an interview with Dick Vitale this morning, Greenie said the surprise to him was that there weren’t more incidents between players and fans, especially in basketball. Greenie covered the Bulls during the 1990s and said he heard awful and vile things repeatedly directed at athletes by fans and that in 99 cases out of 100, the players simply ignored it. I’d say it’s a much lower percentage than even 99 out of 100, but obviously, Greenie’s point is taken.

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