Three decades ago, an NBA superstar had enough. Consistently being berated by a racist fan who kept lobbing slurs his way, his temper began to boil at the indignities. And then deep in the 4th quarter of a tight game that went into overtime the superstar spit on the fan. “He was walking toward me and I spit on him. I was tired and I didn’t have enough foam in my mouth. It went everywhere. I made a mistake.”
Spittle landed on an eight-year-old girl.
Charles Barkley, the offender, was apologetic and remorseful and apologized profusely to the child but the point wasn’t lost on him in the aftermath. His anger was triggered by someone he didn’t know who made him lose control. It was Barkley and not the fan who paid the price; the media went after Barkley with a vengeance. Later he reflected on his behavior. “I was sitting in a hotel room and I was like ‘dude what the hell is wrong with you? What are you so angry about?’”
Barkley was fined $10,000, suspended for one game without pay but the fan wasn’t punished.
30 years later, Barkley is still disgusted by the kind of excessive fan behavior we’ve seen demonstrated the last week in NBA arenas that border on treasonous to the sport. It is a brutal display of entitlement, privilege run amok, and amorality as fans assault players at their place of employment. It diminishes the sport.
Consider that athletes and cops are one of a handful of professions who go to work and fear assault from strangers.
When J.J. Redick played at Duke he was taunted by fans who chanted they had intimacies with his sister. After Steve Kerr’s father was assassinated by terrorists in Beirut, he was taunted by chants of PLO, PLO. Or, Where’s Your Dad. During a high school game, Kevin Love’s family was hit with popcorn, slurs, and screams of whore that made Love’s grandmother cry all because Kevin Love chose UCLA over Oregon.
We rationalize high school and college fan behavior, we call it immature and impulsive. We give the offenders the benefit of the doubt as we remember our own bad behavior at that same age. We are willing to give passes for verbal poison. But those high schoolers grow up. Or they don’t.
In 1993, #1 ranked tennis player in the world Monica Seles was stabbed by a rabid fan. The assailant, Gunter Parche, didn’t want to kill Seles but wanted her hurt so former #1 player Steffi Graff could reach the number one ranking again. While Parche was sentenced to a suspended two-year sentence and served no jail time, Seles had a two-year absence recovering from physical and emotional wounds, and Steffi Graff was ranked #1 within five weeks of the stabbing.
Fans rarely have consequences.
Years ago, CBS Sports analyst Jim Rome nicknamed the San Francisco Giants fans “battery chuckers” because liquored up fans in the bleachers threw batteries at the Los Angeles Dodgers outfielders because they felt like it. Once, during a Cincinnati Bengals-Cleveland Browns NFL football game, fans were annoyed and began throwing snowballs on the field at players which motivated Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche to take the mic and belt out “You don’t live in Cleveland. You live in Cincinnati.” So cut it out. None of these events were seen as prolific or bad behavior or even absurd fan behavior outside of a tsk tsk or a SportsCenter shaming. Fans are usually given license to act out their aggression, anger, and annoyance because of their monetization of professional sports and because of their loyalty and energy, and what they bring to the game.
After the NBA was embarrassed by the Malice at the Palace, they decided the players were responsible for the brawl that ensued, and as policy, the NBA reinforced fans were not to be touched. The NBA vaguely instituted a fan code of conduct while simultaneously implying the black players lacked control and it was their fault. Years after the Palace brawl, fans in Salt Lake continued with their usual racial vomit, and in Cleveland when LeBron returned after The Decision, fans were venomous and racist in their heckling, and in other arenas, fans felt emboldened by what they could say to players knowing the players could say nothing back.
As pendulums do, it has swung to a place where players have the leverage and demand a relitigation and rewriting of the rules on fan behavior. Today’s players aren’t pacifists, taking one for the team. The NBA has to fix this fan problem or someone is going to suffer and it may be the wrong person, an innocent bystander, or a child, like in Barkley’s case. The racial motivation of those who had no stomach for last year’s social justice imagery and messages is a macabre sort of payback.
Yet, all in the crowd aren’t acting out some racist fantasy. Some Boston fans just hate Kyrie and it has nothing to do with his skin color but Kyrie himself. Russel Westbrook, Ja Morant, and Trae Young are emotional players who trigger a response, and the playoffs only up the ante. Fans are excited but on edge as they berate and verbally humiliate the best player on the other team. It’s not yet clear if the returning fans are more hostile than they were in 2019.
To spit on someone like what happened to Trae Young, and lob objects like what happened to Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook, and throw racial slurs at Ja Morant’s parents is the inability to see the person in front of you as a human being. NBA players have morphed into objects that are repositories, like a bench or a wall or a table you strike when in a bad mood. Players exist to relieve fans of their burdens. I wish it felt surreal, in a perfect world it would, but all you have to do is turn on the news and there is a flight attendant getting her front teeth knocked out in a brawl. American Airlines is no longer serving alcohol because we are now a violent community that needs punishment. Maybe that’s the solution. No alcohol.
It feels like a one-sided relationship without a true middle. Clearly, it’s a bad look for the NBA, a league that sells tickets to bullies and racists, and pretends it doesn’t. As a business plan, the NBA markets its players as its most valuable commodity even when some of the fans look upon its employees as disposable. Not human. That’s a bigger problem as the NBA goes forward in the playoffs, the perception that player protection isn’t a part of the bottom line.