In the last year, sports fans have yearned for the return of sold-out stadiums. From earth-shattering cheers, the smell of hot dogs and even the annoying lineups to use the washroom to really bring your experience full circle.
The past 14 months without fans, then with minimal fans, the public and even athletes began to understand the importance of sportsmanship and community.
However, in late May as the NBA playoffs got underway and as vaccination rates increased and positivity rates declined, teams were given the go-ahead to allow near-capacity crowds in their stadiums.
The jubilant reintroduction of fans combined with the intensity of the playoffs made for the raucous environments we were accustomed to seeing. The most note-worthy fan energy of opening week was at the New York Knicks home game in Madison Square Garden.
Seeing and hearing the fans back in attendance was even better than anticipated, but the honeymoon was dreadfully short.
On Monday night at a Washington Wizards home game, a fan decided to run on the court during live-play to touch the backboard in an uncanny display of deviance.
Over the past week, there have been five separate incidents of serious fan misconduct in many NBA arenas. Russell Westbrook had popcorn dumped on him as he limped off in Philadelphia. The same night Trae Young was spat on in New York and Ja Morant’s parents were subject of racial and sexual slurs in Utah. Since then, Kyrie Irving had a half-full water bottle launched his direction in Boston and then the fan taking the court in Washington.
Let’s get one thing clear, fan behaviour at the expense of athlete’s safety is a long-standing issue in the NBA. Although never, in the history of the game, has there been reoccurring incidents on a night-night basis.
So what gives?
Firstly, the close proximity between NBA athletes and fans allows for a setting where boundaries can be crossed. It’s one of the most unique things about attending a basketball game—the closeness to the action, overhearing the players banter. Nobody wants that to change, but the NBA will be forced to if fans continue to endanger players.
The restlessness of returning fans also can’t be overlooked, a majority of whom were sitting at home looking at the same walls throughout the pandemic. Despite the bottled rowdiness, fans need to understand that athletes are human beings first and thirst for entertainment should not sacrifice their safety, comfort or pride.
After the water bottle incident in Boston, Celtics star Jason Tatum focused on the big picture, saying, “18,000 people in the building, I guess in every arena there are a few bad seeds. I don’t want that to overshadow the rest of the fans who came and supported us tonight.”
Tatum’s right, one bad apple does not reflect the whole of the tree. Which is all the more reason to increase and diversify the punishments handed out to fans who cross the line.
Most people who attend games do not even think of hurling something at a player or disrupting the field of play. So, those who feel entitled enough to act on it should be subject to harsher punishments.
Until now, all involved fans have been banned in stadiums and each unique incident was handled differently by authorities, with the severest punishment coming to 21 year-old Cole Buckley who was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
But, is banning a band-aid solution ? And how effective is it anyway?
Head coach of the Washington Wizards Scott Brooks had an insightful take on banning fans from arenas. “Is there facial recognition that (means) you can’t get a ticket on the secondary market? If Russell [Westbrook] had thrown popcorn on somebody, trust me, there would have been major lawsuits,” said Brooks.
Why is there a detrimental double standard? If Westbrook does the same thing, he’s spending thousands of dollars in legal fees. But if a fan does it, he’s just escorted out of the building?
Westbrook, who has been involved in fan altercations in multiple arena’s was fed up after getting popcorn on his head. “To be completely honest, man, this s— is getting out of hand,” Westbrook said. “A guy wouldn’t come up on the street and pour popcorn on my head. Because we’d know what happen.”
“We’ll see what the NBA does. The fans, they say whatever, and the consequences for me are a lot more [significant] than to those people in the stands, because they feel like they’re untouchable,” added Westbrook.
We all know that these ‘fans’ would never dream of committing any of these acts outside of a controlled environment, because it simply doesn’t happen, it never has for an NBA player on the street or in a burger joint.
To make matters worse, it’s unclear which one of these incidents could be racially charged because they all involve White perpetrators and Black athletes.
Irving of the Brooklyn Nets certainly thinks the recent deviance is racially-charged. “It’s been that way for entertainment for a long time with underlying racism and being treated like you’re in a zoo. We’re not at the theatre, we’re not throwing tomatoes at the people that are performing,” said Irving after a water bottle was thrown at him.
The NBA prides itself on its progressivism and strong relationship with its players union (NBPA), and one of it’s top priorities moving forward has to be modernizing the fan code of conduct.
For the time being, as a collective we should do our best to expose and condemn the actions of these few hooligans who will ruin the fan-athlete relationship for the rest of us.