The NBA’s fan problem illustrates why athletes deserve respect

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 6/2/21

As the number of vaccinated Americans continues to increase, so has capacity at many sports venues across the country.

For the NBA playoffs, seven of the 16 teams participating in the first round …

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The NBA’s fan problem illustrates why athletes deserve respect

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As the number of vaccinated Americans continues to increase, so has capacity at many sports venues across the country.

For the NBA playoffs, seven of the 16 teams participating in the first round have opened their stadiums to more than 80% capacity, including the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.

Other teams, like the New York Knicks, have planned to only sell tickets to fully vaccinated patrons if they advance further into the playoffs — by the time you’re reading this, however, the magic at Madison Square Garden may have already run out — in an effort to increase capacity even further. As of now, the Knicks are open at around 75% capacity with no vaccination required to attend.

Having the ability to attend games or watch them on TV with louder crowds and visibly full stands has many breathing a sigh of relief as a sense of normalcy slowly trickles back into sports.

But if these last seven days in the NBA have shown us anything, it’s that fans have clearly been cooped up for too long. Some of them have forgotten how to act like decent human beings, much less respectable spectators.

Since May 26, the NBA has had five incidents of unruly fan behavior targeted toward athletes or their families in Philadelphia, New York, Utah, Boston and Washington.

That’s five too many.

It all started with Wizards star guard Russell Westbrook leaving the court in Game 2 of his team’s series with the East’s top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers on May 26.

Westbrook, who had suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, was being escorted back to the locker room by team officials when a Sixers fan leaned over the railing and dumped a carton of popcorn on his head, immediately infuriating Westbrook, who had to be held back by Wizards staff.

That same night, Hawks guard Trae Young was spat on by a Knicks fan as he inbounded the ball in New York, and the family of Grizzlies guard Ja Morant was harassed by a group of Jazz fans in Utah, who allegedly berated them with lewd and racist remarks.

On Sunday in Boston, a Celtics fan threw a water bottle at Nets’ star guard Kyrie Irving as the team was exiting the court after a 141-126 victory, possibly upset after Irving stomped on the Celtics’ logo at mid-court. Irving and the Celtics have a rocky history, having spent two seasons with the team from 2017-2019 before leaving in free agency to join the Nets, causing a rift between him and the fans. Prior to the game, which was his first game in Boston since his departure, he said he hoped the fans would “just keep it strictly basketball” and attempt no other antics.

On Monday, a fan in Washington, D.C., ran out onto the court and jumped up to touch the backboard in the middle of Game 5 of the Sixers-Wizards series before being tackled to the ground by a security guard.

“It has been that way in history in terms of entertainment, performers and sports for a long period of time and just underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo,” Irving, who played for the Celtics for two seasons, said after the incident in Boston. “Throwing stuff at people, saying things. There is a certain point where it gets to be too much.”

He’s right.

Fans being belligerent, vulgar and racist towards the athletes they’re paying to see isn’t a new concept. Neither is them using various items as projectiles.

In 2013, Baltimore Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones, who is African American, had a banana peel thrown at him by a Giants fan in San Francisco. The fan has since said the incident wasn’t racially motivated, though the context might say otherwise.

In 2004, the infamous “Malice at the Palace” event took place in Detroit, where a Pistons fan threw a beverage at Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest (now Metta Sandiford-Artest). Artest went into the stands to confront the fan, resulting in an all-out brawl between fans and players which led to suspensions, fines and criminal charges.

While heckling and trash-talking have always been an acceptable form of opposing fan behavior — which doesn’t make it any less annoying for athletes — when those turn into slurs of any kind, way-too-personal jabs or throwing items from the stands, it’s gone too far.

Yes, there have always been — and will always be — examples of fans getting out of hand, such as the occasional streaker during an NFL game or excessive heckler at an NBA arena. But having this many issues with fans in such a short period is a sign that things are spiraling out of control.

The NBA needs to get it together.

Regardless of age or celebrity status, athletes are people, too.

If you wouldn’t launch a water bottle at a high school basketball player, what gives you the right to do it to a professional?

While it may seem as if their only purpose in life is to entertain us, that’s simply not the case. It’s their job, just like you might work on construction sites or in courtrooms or factories or schools. If someone came to your place of employment and dumped popcorn on your head, how would you like it?

As fans, we have the privilege of watching some of the greatest athletes in the world do something most of us could never dream of.

They give us some of our best memories, some of our most heartbreaking moments and provide us with something so many of us revolve our lives around.

If we want to keep the privilege of attending games, one we’re finally beginning to get back, then we must treat athletes with respect.

I’m not saying you have to like every player that appears on your TV screen. Part of the beauty of sports is passionately hating your team’s opponents no matter what. It doesn’t matter if your team’s rival had a player save a puppy from a burning building, you still can’t stand their face while they’re wearing their uniform. And that’s OK.

But you still need to treat them like humans. Stop the popcorn dumping, the water bottle tossing, the bodily fluid flinging. Don’t spew slurs or hateful language at them or their loved ones.

If you’re going to buy tickets to a sporting event, don’t be one of the fans who make sports less fun for everyone. It’s not cool or edgy. It’s embarrassing, appalling and flat-out disgusting.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.


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