LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Frankly, I'm surprised this doesn't happen more. Sit courtside at any NCAA basketball game and you're going to hear abuse of a type that you can't believe is allowed in public in this country.
There are plenty of people who will condemn Oklahoma State player Marcus Smart after he shoved a fan near the end of last night's loss at Texas Tech. And let me be clear — he deserves punishment. You can't allow players to physically interact with fans in a violent way. Whatever action is taken by the school or Big 12 Conference, Smart will have to pay for his mistake.
Now let me paraphrase an old line from Chris Rock where the fan is concerned: I'm not saying Smart should've shoved him, but I understand.
Smart crashed to the floor near the baseline stands after contesting a layup in the closing seconds of Oklahoma State's loss to Texas Tech. As he was getting up, a Texas Tech fan said something that set him off. He immediately stepped to the fan and pushed him, setting off a round of finger-pointing and fan outrage as Smart's teammates stepped in to pull him away.
The morning after, we still don't know what was said. Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said he didn't know. An Oklahoma State radio analyst said on air that Smart was referencing use of the N-word with his teammates on the court. The fan, according to CBS Sports' Doug Gottlieb, denied that through a text exchange with a mutual friend, but acknowledged saying something he shouldn't have said. Stuart Scott of ESPN this morning referenced via Twitter some Oklahoma news stations saying that Smart was told to, "Go back to Africa." I have not been able to find any such report. We need to be careful with this. We have no idea, still, at this point, what exactly was said.
If you knew what was said, would it change your view of Smart's action?
It probably wouldn't justify it in your mind, but it might well help with your understanding of what's going on.
Regardless, my view is this: Smart is a college player who already was frustrated, and he is, literally, in the heat of competition. He's expending everything he has, and crashes to the court in the closing seconds of a disappointing loss, and hears some idiot say something to him.
Now, the mature reaction, the only correct reaction, is to walk away. But how many of us would? We can't even let someone say something moderately confrontational to us on social media without reacting strongly. Smart is an athlete in the heat of competition and reacted badly. That's his excuse.
What is the fan's excuse for behaving badly?
I long ago gave up the notion that because you pay for a ticket you get to come to a game and heap abuse on whoever you want. No amount of money gives anyone the right to talk to college players like dogs.
University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino talked about this very subject for his book, "The One-Day Contract." In his chapter on making sports a meaningful distraction, Pitino said that he understood fans increasingly are working out aggression at sporting events, and maybe that's a good thing. He said as a coach, he's paid a lot of money to deal with all of that. But the athletes he coaches are not.
"There is a type of sports fan for whom players are simply robots in uniforms. They aren't real people," Pitino writes in the book.
Later, he writes: "I've seen just about everything in sports. We've all seen stories of fans behaving badly, and not just at pro sports events, but also at college and high school. There are some who will spew the most venomous language and behavior you can imagine. It's almost, for some, an acceptable forum in which to espouse hatred. But for me, sports need to be about the relationships you build over years and years of being a fan. They need to be about feeling like you're part of the process, so that when your team is down, you want to do something to lift them up, rather than do something to put the players down even more. They need to be about learning from victory and defeat, and whatever happens, going back to your work and family and life feeling energized, not demoralized.
"As the price of tickets increases, people more and more feel like they have the right to abuse the players on the court or the coaches. As a coach, I accept that. I'm paid to handle all of that and still do my job. I would just hope that more fans would view their allegiances as a meaningful distraction in their lives, and to treat them that way, as something that makes their lives richer."
I'm willing to bet that when Marcus Smart woke up this morning, he regretted his actions. I'm willing to bet that when the fan woke up this morning, he regretted whatever it was he said. I'm willing to bet that both wish the whole incident, and the media firestorm it kicked up, never happened.
My hope is that whatever discipline is taken against both is allowed to pass, they can pay for their actions and move on. No one was hurt. The incident didn't escalate.
If I tend to side with players during these events, it's because I hear what they put up with. A Kentucky fan just last night was trying to insult me on Twitter, intimating that I would go easy on Smart because I'm in Louisville. Whatever that means.
Except that when Kentucky player DeMarcus Cousins decked a fan at South Carolina during a court-storming a few years back, I tended to side with the player there too.
Sometimes, people ask for it. If you, being of sound mind and body, decide to go out onto a basketball court — where you're not supposed to be — and to say something or otherwise get in the face of Cousins after a frustrating loss, there is a very high percentage that something not pleasant is going to happen to you. And, I'm sorry, if you're willing to accept that risk, the consequences are on you, to a degree.
I'm not saying he had it coming, but I understand.
Coaches around the nation this morning are talking to their players about walking away from anything and everything that they hear — and they should. This situation underscores that lesson once again. There will be plenty of people talking to players about acting in a more mature way. But who will deliver a similar message to fans?
Fans do bear responsibility for what they say and do. The purchase of a ticket is not the same as buying an indulgence from civilized behavior. It's time people understand that, too.