It shouldn’t be up to the athletes to have to police their own treatment as human beings.
November 2019 marks the 15th anniversary of the Malice At The Palace.
The event, a brawl in which Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson ran into the crowd and punched fans during a game between the Pacers and Pistons. What resulted was a massive fracas in which players and fans threw punches, chairs, and sodas.
It was one of the more unforgettable moments in sports history and a transformative incident in NBA history. The Malice was supposed to usher in an era of more safety for fans and understanding of how athletes should be treated.
However, incidents in the last few weeks involving fans heckling NBA players reveals that the league needs to do more to address the way its spectators treat the people they paid to go see.
There’s an easy, largely superficial approach to protecting players that revolve around the idea of hate speech. Call a player an N-word and a fan gets ejected. Easy enough. But as the situations with Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin have shown, the NBA needs to go beyond just what they consider to be conventional hate speech.
On March 11th, during a game in Utah, cameras caught Russell Westbrook yelling threats at a fan, Shane Keisel. After the game, Westbrook revealed exactly what Keisel said: “get down on your knees like you’re used to.” Since that altercation (in which Westbrook was fined $25,000), old videos have resurfaced of Griffin and Westbrook confronting fans who called them “boys.”
I don’t think I have to, but it’s worth mentioning that all the fans in these instances are white. Keisel and the man in the old video who called Westbrook “boy,” – both Utah Jazz fans – have been banned for life from Jazz games.
These men who insulted Westbrook and Griffin didn’t use racial slurs but their comments were racist in nature. Without questions, and especially in the case of Keisel, all deniability of such goes out of the window with the fact that his Twitter feed was full of xenophobic and racist ideologies before he deleted the account after the Westbrook fallout.
White men telling black men to get on their knees and calling them “boys” is a racist aggression that’s more “macro” than “micro.” The problem, though, is that these men would never have faced any consequences if not for the players raising a fuss.
Fans across the country use these same racist insults and are allowed to keep yelling whatever they want short of a slur, but it’s only when players themselves risk fines by confronting fans that there are any repercussions for the actual aggressors. And while it’s great that these fans do get removed from games and later face expulsions, it shouldn’t be up to the athletes to have to police their own treatment as human beings.
The NBA (and all sports or endeavors in which fans are present) needs a more proactive and nuanced look at how fans should treat athletes. That requires everyone from ownership down to the security staff they employ. The league needs a concerted policy that outlines exactly what it means to insult someone based on race that goes beyond the most histrionic of racial slurs.
Westbrook and Griffin were victims of racist insults, but they were the only two people to say anything initially. That’s a problem. That’s the problem. When Jazz owner Gail Miller took the microphone for the team’s first home game post-Westbrook incident, she lambasted racist comments and called for a more inclusive fan base.
Her speech was widely celebrated, and rightfully so, but it also showed a shortcoming that many white folks face in reckoning with the fan environments – and environments in general, black people are put in. “We are not a racist community,” she said. “We believe in treating people with courtesy and respect as human beings.” While her defiance is admirable, it’s also stopping short of truly interrogating the atmosphere in which fans feel comfortable yelling racist epithets without fear of recourse.
All Miller, Adam Silver and anyone else in the league has to do is look around at the state of American discourse to know racists and racist ideologies are as prevalent as ever with the most bigoted around us as empowered as they’ve ever been to act on their most base white supremacist desires. That requires more proactivity in addressing racism than at any time in recent memory. Even the prospect of a confrontation needs to be taken out of the athletes’ hands and settled before tempers flare.
That means widening the type of language that constitutes racist hate speech. “Boy” and “get on your knees” aren’t up for debate or discourse. And there’s a whole slew of other words and phrases that should fall in those categories. Because here’s what’s going to happen: racists are going to try to push back on the bans, reprimands, and calls for unity by being even more divisive, more racist and more hateful.
The only thing racists hate more than other races is being called out on their hatred towards other races. So these “fans” are going to be even brasher than before and the NBA needs to be prepared and ready to defend the people who are actually responsible for the billions the league rakes in.
I don’t want to hear about slippery slopes or free speech arguments – hate speech in any form, even in the face of plausible deniability needs to be erased. There’s a small window to be proactive and the NBA needs to act now before things get ugly.
And we’ve seen the ceiling for that ugliness before.