For good reason, all fingers pointed at Utah Jazz fans after Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook said he was called “racial” and “inappropriate” words on Monday night. But this problem is bigger than Salt Lake City. Fans saying racist and demeaning things to players during NBA games has been a leaguewide problem dating to the early 1950s, when black pioneer Earl Lloyd was asked if he had “a tail” during a game.
The question is, what can be done to fix it?
Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, believes it’s time for “zero tolerance.”
“We should all insist that a zero tolerance policy needs to be implemented at arenas in the face of misconduct by fans. Players don’t have the luxury of being able to unilaterally ban unruly fans from the arenas a la [New York Knicks owner] James Dolan. The arenas, therefore, have to do a better job of insulating our players,” Roberts told The Undefeated.
Westbrook offered no regrets after the Thunder’s win on Monday for responding to what he deemed “completely disrespectful” comments from a couple sitting close to his team’s bench. Westbrook said the man told him to “get down on your knees like you’re used to” and his wife repeated those words. Westbrook’s response was partially caught on video by the Deseret News, as he replied to the couple by saying, “I’ll f— you up.” That resulted in a $25,000 fine from the NBA.
Several Thunder players said after the game that Westbrook’s account of what he heard was accurate. Jazz players Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Thabo Sefolosha also came to Westbrook’s defense on Tuesday. Mitchell said in a statement that he was “personally hurt” by the incident.
“As a black man living in a community I love and playing on a team that gives me the opportunity to live out my dreams, this incident hits close to home,” Mitchell said. “Racism and hate speech hurts us all, and this is not the first time something like this has happened in our arena. The Utah that I have come to love is welcoming and inclusive and [Monday’s] incident is not indicative to our fan base. We don’t want to create a negative environment for our athletes who potentially want to come to Utah.”
The Jazz banned the fan for life from Jazz games and any other events at Vivint Smart Home Arena. After conducting an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts, the Jazz said the fan was banned “based on excessive verbal abuse directed at a player during the game.” While African-Americans make up a small percentage of Utah’s population, Jazz ownership takes diversity seriously and has implemented a diversity committee in recent years that brings in speakers to talk to employees.
“Everybody deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment,” Jazz president Steve Starks said. “Offensive and abusive behavior does not reflect the values of the Miller family, our organization and the community. We all have a responsibility to respect the game of basketball and, more importantly, each other as human beings. This has always been a hallmark of our incredible fan base and should forever be our standard moving forward.”
That should also be the standard of all 30 NBA teams and the league.
Portland Trail Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard, who played in college at Weber State in Utah, said: “It was good that they took a strong stance right away. I don’t think it’s something you take lightly, especially if you want to put that message out there that it won’t be tolerated. … That’s not what you want in that environment, especially a sports environment, where you’re that close to players.”
Lillard recalled an incident with a fan in Minneapolis who called him the N-word.
“It’s always going to be around,” he said. “But if you spot it, you’ve got to do something.”
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Some of the most heckled NBA players, including Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, former NBA All-Star Kenyon Martin and former NBA sharpshooter Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, said Utah’s fans were the most demeaning. Martin added that Boston was a close second to Utah. But rude and racist comments are commonplace throughout the league.
Martin said he could take the typical boos or such words as “you suck” and “you can’t shoot” but said the game changes when it becomes racist and personal.
“There were some borderline things said in Utah where they might as well have called me the N-word,” Martin said. “But if I get close to them with the same energy, they are going to play the victim. There are things said everywhere else too. I’ve heard things in Boston. Utah is the worst. Fans think they can say whatever. …
“There is no solution for some fans. Fans think they’re entitled to do whatever because they bought tickets. I’ve been booed. Told, ‘You suck.’ Told, ‘You can’t shoot.’ But you can get called ‘coon’ and asked if you want a banana and look into the stands and not know who said it.”
Abdul-Rauf said that the fans in Utah, which is majority Mormon, gave him a very tough time because of his religion and his refusal to stand for the national anthem when his teams played in Salt Lake City in the 1990s. Abdul-Rauf, who played in the NBA for nine seasons, is a devout Muslim and also African-American. The racist and demeaning words about his faith are still a painful memory for him today.
Changes should have been made “a long time ago,” he said.
“Some of these fans are out of hand, and too much is going on with the treatment of blacks and minorities to allow this,” Abdul-Rauf said. “I dealt with similar stuff with people trying to attack your religion, etc. And people, in particular white folks, are sitting there smiling like it’s funny. But the minute you come back at them, you’re the wrongdoer.
“Black folks continue to go through racism, and to expect us to sit back and continue to say nothing is too much. If the shoe was on the other foot, it would be a totally different language.”
Boston has a reputation for race issues, and sports events are no exception. There have been incidents in recent years at Boston Red Sox and Boston Bruins games. But on Sept. 28, 2017, the Red Sox, Bruins, Boston Celtics, New England Patriots and New England Revolution released a joint public service announcement through the Take the Lead initiative to fight racism and hate speech. Celtics Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart represented their team in the public service announcement.
“We need to take responsibility when the words we say cause pain and anger. It seems to just grow. It starts here in our house. If you hear something wrong, offensive or hateful, speak up, say something. Stand for our teams, but don’t stand for racism. We can change the game in a way that is more positive, more inclusive, more positive, more empowering and just as loud,” were among the words read in the public service announcement.
The NBA should push every team to take part in a similar public service announcement that can be aired before every tipoff to remind fans of what is expected.
Thunder fans have also been guilty of being disrespectful and hateful to players. Former Thunder forward Kevin Durant was called choice words during his return to Oklahoma City, and one sign put his face on a picture of a woman in a dress being held from behind by Green, his Warriors teammate. Green also said once that a Thunder fan made a racist comment to him during a game.
Durant and Green return to Oklahoma City on national television on Saturday night. If the Thunder and the NBA truly want to curb fans from being racist, hateful and disrespectful, Westbrook speaking to fans before the Warriors game and asking them to respect their foes, including Durant, would be a strong message seen not only in the arena, but worldwide.