By Zach Naidu
This week’s column was supposed to be about Colin Cowherd. About how out of all of the sports analysts and radio/talk show hosts, he was the one people should listen to and why. But then Game 6 of the Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder occurred Friday night, and something that has happened far too frequently transpired once again: a player lashed out at a fan.
To be more specific, the incident occurred as Thunder star point guard Russell Westbrook, still hot after a controversial loss that ended his team’s season, was on his way towards the visitor’s tunnel. Right before entering the tunnel, Westbrook swiped at a middle aged man’s phone that was too close for comfort, saying “Get the f*** outta my face bro, get that sh** out.”
All the headlines Saturday morning read, to some extent: “Russell Westbrook confronts another fan …” (Bleacher Report) and “Russell Westbrook tries to swipe phone …” (CBS Sports). However, little to no blame should be placed on Westbrook. For starters, Westbrook was in the heat of the moment, fuming after a blatant foul wasn’t called against the Jazz that would have given the Thunder three free throws and a chance to tie the game with less than 20 seconds remaining.
Westbrook shed light on the situation in his post-game press conference: “Here in Utah, a lot of disrespectful, vulgar things are said to the players. It’s truly disrespectful. Talk about your families. Your kids. … It’s disrespectful to the game. I think it’s something that needs to be brought up.”
Westbrook broaches a topic greater than a fan sticking a phone in his face. Clearly, his actions were sparked by other fans’ hateful speech and overall uncouth behavior.
This is not an isolated incident in basketball, or any sport for that matter.
The audacity of some fans to spew such hate is baffling. In May of last year, All-Star Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones had to stand in center field of Fenway park as a bag of peanuts was thrown at him and a fan shouted racial slurs.
Avid sports fans fervently follow their team. Anybody not on their team is the enemy and they make that known. There is nothing wrong with this sense of allegiance and loyalty. But such people need to compartmentalize what belongs in the realm of sports and what doesn’t.
Players don’t get a pass for retaliating to jeering or simple heckling. The majority of these athletes are paid millions, and with that high payday comes a degree of public exposure and criticism — especially during a contest — some may find inconvenient but need to accept and cope with.
When athletes steps onto their playing surfaces, they are enveloped with a veil of immortality, making them seemingly insusceptible to anything that elicits an emotional response. But this is not the case, and sports fans must calibrate their own emotions and bite their tongue when it comes to talking to players.
All sports need a healthy dose of passionate fandom, and fans should voice such allegiance.
But to insult a man’s family or degrade him with a racial slur while he has no choice but to stand there and take it, that’s simply despicable. There is no room for such barbaric behavior by any sports fan.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu