During last season, I reached out and asked a couple NBA league officials about the seeming growing volume and line-crossing nature of things being yelled at players on the court, and how the league is quick to punish players who come back at fans but the gate doesn’t really swing both ways. The response was along the line of “you don’t know how many people do get thrown out” but that it wasn’t that big an issue.
It is now — Russell Westbrook yelled profanity at a Jazz fan and his wife after their comments that completely crossed the line. The incident went viral and became the talk of the sports world.
The Utah Jazz organization was swift to act, investigating the matter and deciding to ban the fan from the arena for life. Here is a statement from the Jazz:
The Utah Jazz and Larry H. Miller Group announced today a permanent ban of the fan who engaged in the inappropriate interaction with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook last night at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The ban is effective immediately and includes all arena events.
The organization conducted an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts. The ban is based on excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player during the game that violated the NBA Code of Conduct. The Utah Jazz will not tolerate fans who act inappropriately. There is no place in our game for personal attacks or disrespect.
“Everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment,” said Steve Starks, president of the Utah Jazz. “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.”
The league also fined Russell Westbrook $25,000 for
sticking up for himself “directing profanity and threatening language to a fan.” Of course, if Westbrook hadn’t gone back at the fan then said fan would have gotten off with a warning and this entire incident would have been ignored (or swept under the rug, if you prefer). Just like happens most of the time fans cross the lines with players around the league.
Jazz star Donovan Mitchell — the face and future of the franchise — stepped forward with this wise statement.
Players’ union Executive Director Michelle Roberts came down on the league to step up enforcement.
She’s right. There is no consistency on this issue and, as of last year, the league office didn’t seem terribly concerned about it. Throwing fans out of the building is a decision made by arena security, and in some buildings the bar is much higher and things have to progress much farther than others. These are paying fans yelling at the opponent, and that has some security staff giving fans a lot of leeway. There need to be better guidelines and those need to be enforced consistently across the league. If a fan wants to taunt a player after an airball or because of something on the court, fine (Pacers fans have been very creative lately), but comments about wives and children, and racist comments, should not be tolerated.
Jazz players, by and large, have said they felt accepted and welcomed in predominately white Salt Lake City (75 percent white and two percent black in the last census). However, ask visiting players what city they hear the most — and most virulent — trash talk during a game and Utah is always near the top of the list.
This is not just an NBA thing — hate speech and hate crimes have been on the rise nationally. While this may be reflected in NBA arenas, the league has to do more to squelch it. Whether it’s Salt Lake City or Memphis or Portland or Miami, there needs to be guidelines and fans who cross the line should be tossed the same way players who cross the line should be ejected and fined.