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Westbrook-Fan Incident May Spur NBA To Do More To Shield Players


When you're a sports fan, there are times when you're in your living room. It's just you, your TV and the game. Yell at players - no one hears you. Or you might be in a stadium or an arena where everyone can see and hear you, even the athletes. Things got pretty out of control Monday night at an NBA basketball game in Salt Lake City. A Utah Jazz fan started harassing Russell Westbrook, who plays for Oklahoma City. Westbrook lashed out at the fan and his wife.


RUSSELL WESTBROOK: You think I'm playing. I swear to God. I swear to God. I'll [expletive] you up. You and your wife. I'll [expletive] you up.

GREENE: Westbrook said, after the game, he was not going to stand for what he thought was a racial insult.


WESTBROOK: Young man and his wife in the stands told me to get down on my knees like you used to. And for me, that's just completely disrespectful to me. I think it's racial.

GREENE: Now, the fan, Shane Keisel, described things differently to ESPN.


SHANE KEISEL: I just told him - I'm like, just sit down and ice your knees, bro. And he turned to me, and he's like, that's heat. That's heat. And I'm like, well, you're going to need it.

GREENE: Whatever happened, Westbrook was fined $25,000. The fan was banned permanently by the Utah Jazz. William C. Rhoden writes for ESPN's The Undefeated, and he told me that fans have long believed a ticket gives them license to become an entirely different person inside that arena.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Somebody who's normally quiet and intelligent becomes a sort of moron, where, you know, you paint your face or you curse or you scream. And you insult things, you say things to athletes that you never would even dream of saying if you met them before. But I think now, particularly with Westbrook being involved in a couple of incidents, we've reached either a tipping point or a point at which a combination of stadium management and teams have to really set down new guidelines for what that ticket allows you to say and allows you to do.

GREENE: Do they need to put teeth behind it? I mean, can the NBA or, like, arena officials actually threaten fans and enforce this?

RHODEN: Oh, yeah. People have been ejected, just like in New York with the Knicks, with James Dolan. Somebody just simply said, sell the team, and they kicked this guy out of the stadium.


RHODEN: So if you could kick a guy out of a stadium for simply telling the owner, sell the team, you could certainly kick fans out of the arena for conduct that crosses the line.

GREENE: What does cross the line? I mean, in this case, it's - I mean, this fan claims that he didn't really do anything, even though Westbrook has made some very serious allegations that he was very racist. But, like, where would you draw the line?

RHODEN: Well, I'd draw the line - for example, there's an instance with Marcus Smart, who now plays for the Boston Celtics. When he was at Oklahoma State, there was a fan who cursed at him and actually, I think, used the N-word. Clearly, that crosses the line.


RHODEN: Something that crosses your line may not cross my line.

GREENE: You brought the example of saying, sell the team. I, as a sports fan, have probably said things worse, screaming and yelling, that were worse than, sell the team, even though I feel like I've never crossed a line.

RHODEN: (Laughter).

GREENE: So I mean, can they go too far in enforcing this?

RHODEN: Well, you know, because it does get into freedom of speech, and it gets into what does that $150 ticket allow you to say? I mean, I'm always stunned with how could somebody - I don't know, maybe if you and I sit together, and I say, come on, man. You kidding me? (Laughter) You know, but...

GREENE: I mean, I'm an angry, angry Pittsburgh fan. I will use - I hate to admit it to my listeners - but, like, expletives and things that - you know, it never gets personal. But it's like, when I'm angry, I'm angry.

RHODEN: But let me ask a question. How close are you to the field where Ben Roethlisberger, you know, can actually...

GREENE: Yeah. No, we don't have - it's not the intimacy of a basketball arena.

RHODEN: Right. First of all, you're right; basketball is much more intimate. Maybe we have to have a proximity rule - if you are in shouting distance where the coach can hear you. And maybe we should just say that if the players to whom this is directed are offended, then, you know, you've got a problem.

GREENE: Well, can I just step back? Like, you say we're at a tipping point. Like, has something changed in sports? Like, is this moment in 2019 different than three, five, 10 years ago? Or...

RHODEN: I think the tipping point actually happened with POTUS 45.

GREENE: (Laughter).

RHODEN: When he gets to the...

GREENE: You're talking about Donald Trump. I guess - I know you don't - you're not saying that name, but I should just let our listeners know.

RHODEN: I'm not saying the name. I refuse. But when you get to that point, and he's in Huntsville, Ala., and he whips up this crowd of white supporters. And this is during the whole - you know, when players were protesting, and that then translates into in-stadium behavior. I think we're in this period of time where being uncivil has become the new norm. And what better place to totally be uncivil is in these basketball arenas, when, frankly, you have large numbers of white fans and large numbers of young black men and women as the participants.

And that's always a very combustible relationship, particularly when most white people, I'd say, don't really have this kind of intimate contact with a lot of young black men, except when they go to these games. And a lot of times, all this sort of racial insensitivity just kind of pours down, you know, in this kind of language, which is why I think this is probably a perfect time, and Westbrook is the perfect person to bring up a new code of conduct.

GREENE: Bill, thanks so much. Really nice talking to you.

RHODEN: Oh, pleasure's mine.

GREENE: William C. Rhoden, longtime columnist for The New York Times, writer-at-large for ESPN's The Undefeated.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In this report, William Rhoden says a fan called Marcus Smart the N-word. Smart told his coaching staff that the fan called him the N-word, but a Texas Tech investigation said no racial slur was heard.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 14, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this report, William Rhoden says a fan called Marcus Smart the N-word. Smart told his coaching staff that the fan called him the N-word, but a Texas Tech investigation said no racial slur was heard.