There’s a saying that the customer is always right. That adage is dead wrong when it comes to out-of-bounds fan conduct at professional sporting events. A ticket to a game does not entitle a fan to inveigh against athletes in any way they desire, to subject them to demeaning and dehumanizing taunts. In those cases, the customer should be right out the door for good.
Fans need to be on better behavior. In recent months, the NBA has had multiple incidents of players alleging they were subjected to racially charged taunts from fans. One of them happened in our corner of the sports world.
It came to light last week that the Celtics instituted a two-year ban on a fan under the age of 18 who was singled out by Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins for mouthing the n-word at Cousins during the Warriors’ win over the Celtics at TD Garden on Jan. 26. A subsequent investigation by the Celtics confirmed that the fan had been verbally abusive toward Cousins, but the team said it could not conclusively corroborate through testimony or video evidence that the fan directed a racial epithet at Cousins.
In a shocking development, the young Celtics fan in question, who is subject to lifetime probation, plus a potential lifetime ban from TD Garden if he violates the fan code of conduct, vehemently denied using a racial epithet. You know, because those using racially abusive language always cop to it right away.
Having an impact on the action is part of the allure of attending a sporting event live, especially in this age of Ultra-HDTV that renders your couch the best seat in the house. There’s pride in creating a hostile environment for visiting teams and a home-court, home-ice, or home-field advantage for the home teams. But there’s a difference between noise-making and good-natured heckling and vile, vitriolic speech intended to degrade.
Regardless of their salaries or their success, professional athletes are human beings. They should not be treated like animals at a zoo. They do not exist solely for your entertainment. They are merely showing up for their job, one few people on the planet possess the talent to do, certainly not some boorish lug-head with courtside seats.
Lest we forget, fan is short for fanatic. Sports inspire people to conduct themselves in a manner they usually would not, for better and for worse. Couple that with a culture of cowardice spurred by the cover of anonymity provided by large crowds and on social media, and it’s easier than ever to feel empowered to disrespect athletes with impunity.
Fans feel untouchable.
It’s not surprising that the NBA has encountered the problem of abusive fan behavior most recently with Cousins and Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook, who endured two separate incidents of racially tinged taunting that led to lifetime bans for Utah Jazz fans.
The NBA is the league that allows fans closest to the action with seats adjacent to the team benches. It’s the league where the players don’t have a hat or a helmet shielding them. It’s also the league with the highest percentage of black players. Highly paid black athletes spark resentment and oratory objectification for some fans.
Westbrook got into a verbal altercation with a Jazz fan on March 11 in Salt Lake City, after the fan, Shane Keisel, told Westbrook to “get down on your knees like you’re used to.” Westbrook responded by telling him in an explicit fashion that he would hurt him. Video of that retaliatory response went viral.
But two of Westbrook’s teammates corroborated his account, and the Jazz gathered evidence that backed up Westbrook, leading to a lifetime ban for Keisel. However, Westbrook still received a $25,000 fine for directing profanity and threatening language to one of the paying customers.
The Jazz banned a second fan after they discovered video of that fan repeatedly calling Westbrook “boy” — a racially charged reference that goes back to the days of slavery and Jim Crow — before Game 4 of the teams’ first-round playoff series last April.
It’s not just the fans that need to change their attitude. It’s the NBA. You can’t give your audience carte blanche. There is a despicable double-standard when athletes are subjected to this type of abuse, but an incompetent, clueless, thin-skinned owner like James Dolan of the New York Knicks, possessors of the league’s worst record and non-playoff participants for the sixth consecutive season, can ban a fan for merely yelling at him to sell the team.
As the president of the NBA’s players union, Michele Roberts, pointed out in comments to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, “Players don’t have the luxury of being able to unilaterally ban unruly fans from the arenas, a la James Dolan. The arenas, therefore, have to do a better job of insulating our players.”
These incidents can happen anywhere. Still, it’s probably not a coincidence that the two garnering headlines happened in two of the NBA’s most traditionally white settings, Salt Lake City and Boston.
Boston has long grappled with its dishonorable racial past — which includes the mistreatment of Celtics legend Bill Russell, a repeated sore spot for the city. Any alleged incident like the one involving Cousins triggers raw emotions, visceral reactions, and reflexive defensiveness in Boston.
Here’s a little advice: It’s time to dial back the denial and racism atheism. If you want to ask questions about Cousins account, fine, but the tone shouldn’t be hostile or inherently dismissive.
Between Cousins, outfielder Adam Jones saying he was called the n-word at Fenway Park in May of 2017, and the racist tweets that rang out after Joel Ward, who is black, scored the playoff series-deciding goal for the Washington Capitals against the Bruins in 2012, there’s too much smoke for there not to be some fire. (I verified some of the since-deleted tweets directed toward Ward came from locals back in 2012.)
Even if you don’t want to believe any of those situations were real, then listen to the African-American athletes who don the preferred laundry of the local teams.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart, a fan favorite, told the Globe that he had dealt with racist behavior at TD Garden. Following the Jones incident, prominent African-American Red Sox players told Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy they had heard racially insensitive or abusive language used at Fenway.
Are all of these athletes fabricating racist behavior? That strains credulity.
What should really be questioned is why fans anywhere feel entitled to cross the line.