Written by Nick Grant (@NicholasGrant)
On Saturday night, in a close game with seconds to go at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart fouled Jaye Crockett on a fast break and subsequently fell into the stands. Upon getting up, Smart's demeanor changed noticeably. He approached a fan in the stands, and then Smart a 19-year-old black kid from Texas, shoving the portly, middle-aged white Texas Tech fan. Smart was assessed a technical, and later suspended for three games. The immediate reaction was the standard one for similar incidents: No matter what was said, Smart was in the wrong. Players seemingly have a responsibility to act professional, even if they're not yet professionals. But what about fans? Don't they have a responsibility as well?
I played D1 basketball, at Drake University in Iowa, and I heard my share of insults. My freshman year, during a close game at Creighton, I was at the free throw line. The student section was directly behind the basket. A student yelled that I had a little too much cream in my coffee, referring to my biracial background. I gave him the finger after I shot my free throw, the students made a ruckus, my coach saw it, and I got benched for a few minutes. That was the first time, but not the last. My sophomore year at Northern Iowa, the student section was behind our bench. I was called a "gangsta" because of my tattoos. My mom, visiting from Northern Virginia and sitting behind the bench, was the subject of constant insults. My coach said that game was the worst verbal abuse he had ever experienced and he had been coaching since 1971. Both incidents got to me. The only reason I didn't react physically was because I never saw the person hurling the insults. So at 19 years old, in an environment like Texas Tech's United Spirit Arena at that juncture of a hotly contested game, had I been called what Smart (allegedly) was called while within arm's length of the offender, I would've done more than shove him. That was the 19-year-old me. A teenage me who was still maturing, but knew my limits. Now imagine what the 19-year-old you would do?
Sports commentators across the U.S. are condemning Smart for his reaction, acting as though he alone is in the wrong because he is in the public eye, and that he shouldn't have crossed that player/fan barrier, no matter what the fan said. This is the part that blows my fucking mind. No matter what an opposing team's fan said to a 19-year old college kid? Even if the fan allegedly called Smart a "nigger" and told him to "go back to Africa?" No matter what was said, I think this incident poses an even larger question about the volatility of "fans" during college sports.
Where is Orr's publicly humiliating press conference to own up to his actions and confess that he verbally attacked a teenager in a family-friendly environment?
During Sunday's press conference held by Oklahoma State, Smart received a three-game suspension from the Big 12. He didn't point any fingers, owned up to his mistake and said he was "ready to accept the consequences that come with it." But much worse will come from this at the hands of opposing fans, at least during what will undoubtedly be his last year with the Cowboys (Smart was a projected lottery pick in last year's draft, but he returned to school with some other teammates to chase a title. Think he wants to put up with this stuff without getting paid much longer?). He will pay for this even after he moves to the next level because there will always be that asshole who wants to get Smart riled up to see whether he'll snap again. For Smart, it's only going to get worse.
Again, what Smart did was wrong. He embarrassed himself and let his team down in a close game as the technical free throws sealed the win for Texas Tech. And even if it happened in the heat of battle with frustration setting in from a close game, that's inexcusable. But there aren't enough questions being posed to Texas Tech and their investigation into exactly what was said by Texas Tech superfan Jeff Orr. Where is Orr's publicly humiliating press conference to own up to his actions and confess that he verbally attacked a teenager in a family-friendly environment? Yes, we know he wrote an apology on a piece of paper claiming to call Smart a "piece of crap." We know he denied using any racial slurs, and said that he said he will not attend any more Texas Tech games for the remainder of the season. But where is the acknowledgement that, just as shoving a fan is unacceptable, calling someone a "piece of shit" (assuming that's the nicest thing he said) is completely outside the bounds of civil society? This is only the tip of the iceberg to a problem that's been going on for too long.
How far is far enough for these fans? Spitting on players and coaches? Throwing insults at a player regarding his slain grandfather (in the case of Chris Paul at Wake Forest according to former Wake Forest head coach, Dino Gaudio). What exactly can be done to demonstrate that the fans' actions are as reprehensible as any players' reaction? For the NBA, it took the Malice at the Palace to begin a dialogue about fan behavior. Does it take a young, immature college student pushing a loud-mouthed adult for college fans to realize that, sure, you can relive your long-gone younger days and bleed Red Raider red and follow your precious team across the country, but calling another person—a person you don't know—a piece of shit (at best) is, you know, a little bit much? A ticket should allow fans to watch the game and cheer, not verbally assault opposing players.
Two good things can come of this. One will likely happen, one likely won't. First, Smart will adjust, shed his hot-headed image, and take all of his frustration out on the court. The other? Fans of college sports like Jeff Orr will realize that a basketball game is not an excuse to call a stranger a piece of shit. Then again, why should they change? As it is, Orr's reprehensible actions only helped his beloved Red Raiders, with no repercussions. The results of this—Smart's public shaming and suspension—only creates more Orrs. And eventually, a player will crack again. Where does it end?