History tends to repeat itself either by theme or by circumstance.
Fifty-one years ago, more than 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis walked off of their jobs and went on strike to protest unsafe working conditions, abuse and discrimination by the city. The lasting images of the strike were more than 200 workers carrying signs that read in bold black letters “I am a man.”
Three nights ago, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook stood on the visitors’ sideline of Vivint Smart Home Arena, in the midst of a hostile Salt Lake City crowd with a rep that precedes them and absorbed the over the top and racially charged comments from Jazz fan Shane Keisel before snapping and vehemently confronting Keisel and his wife.
Different circumstances. Same theme.
A superstar like Westbrook and the other 449 players in the league live an enviable life. They are getting paid handsomely for playing a game that they have loved ever since they were kids. Their brands and influence spans the globe. They’ve never endured the same conditions as what the Memphis sanitation workers were protesting. But they share the same theme.
“I AM A MAN”
This is what Raymond Felton was trying to express in his defense of Westbrook.
Raymond Felton: “I’m going to speak on this, and I want everyone in here to really tune into this and understand...” pic.twitter.com/2rXjcQhAMV— Maddie Lee (@maddie_m_lee) March 12, 2019
... what Patrick Patterson seconded ...
Fans can say shit about a mans family, wife, & kids.. Tell a player “Get down on your knees like your use to.” As men, what do you expect us to do? Shut up & dribble? No one is held accountable for their actions except for us. Fans are protected in every way possible but not us.— Patrick Patterson (@pdpatt) March 12, 2019
... and what Westbrook himself told the same Utah Jazz crowd during last year’s playoffs.
To Russell Westbrook’s defense, here is even further proof of his previous interactions with Utah Jazz fans. In this video, @russwest44 is called a “boy” by a Jazz fan ahead of Game 4 of OKC’s first-round playoff series against Utah on April 23, 2018 at Vivint Arena. pic.twitter.com/lc6slA7fTo— Eric Woodyard (@E_Woodyard) March 13, 2019
With even more receipts, some Warriors past and present have endured out of pocket comments from some fans.
Draymond Green, who receives his fair share of taunts from opposing fans, said that he was subject to racial slurs.
“I’ve gotten the N-Word. All of that,” Green told the Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears a couple of years ago. “I’d rather not get into where. A few places especially being that it’s me.”
Matt Barnes would also like to have a word at the 5:48 mark.
Context matters here. Keisel’s taunt of “Get down on your knees like you used to” and the other Jazz fan’s “boy” is racially charged. It’s not what’s said, but what’s implied. And that’s what set Westbrook off two nights ago and rightfully so.
The NBA is a predominately black league and sadly, there are some fans like Keisel that cross the line from benign taunting, trash talk and heckling to the more malignant and loaded comments. The influx of social media has empowered fans to believe that they can say whatever they want to the players without impunity because they’ve done it religiously with their fingers instead of their mouths.
So when these fans attend games, there are no barriers and they believe that since they paid hundreds of dollars for a seat and apparel, they think that it gives them license to say and do whatever they want. They also think that since these players are making millions, they should take it.
Athletes, black athletes in particular, are expected to go and stay high whenever a racially charged incident occurs. The reasoning? “These guys make X millions of dollars a year. ‘Taunts come with the territory or ‘For that amount of money, you can say whatever you want to.”
First of all, considering the kind of money that they are bringing in versus how much the owners and the league make, the players make less regardless of the amount of zeros on their paycheck.
Second, that still doesn’t give fans the right to talk reckless to these players. Before the money, these players are men and they don't get paid to be berated. Game related taunting, heckling and smack talk go with the territory. Derogatory comments about a player’s family, race, etc does not.
Prior to the Jazz permanently banning Keisel, he was issued warning cards. Warning cards are well meaning, but they aren’t nearly enough to deter extreme fan behavior. This slap on the wrist does little to protect the player.
Security in arenas could do a better job of enforcing fan conduct and be more proactive in diffusing situations. What stood out in the Westbrook incident was the role of security. Granted, there was a presence, but it wasn’t the most effective. Keisel was able to be in the immediate vicinity of Westbrook and the Thunder bench and was able to yell what he yelled loudly and seemingly with no repercussions until Westbrook confronted him.
Had Westbrook lost all control and started the second player-fan altercation since the Great Malice at The Palace of 2004, one of the first questions would have been “Where was security?”
An improvement in security is great. A no-tolerance policy is better. The Utah Jazz did the right thing by banning Keisel. The other 29 teams in the league could and should implement the same thing.
If not a permanent ban, how about ejection and fining the offending fan the price of their ticket? When there’s consequences to actions and when they are enforced, the behavior is way different.
There’s a fine line between heckling and being offensive. The onus on the players having thick skin isn't really the issue. To a certain degree players have to have thick skin, but there’s limitations to everything and we are now at that point.