Westbrook’s Run-ins with Fans Are Part of a Bigger Problem...That Isn’t his Fault

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook didn’t take remarks from fans in Utah too kindly on Monday night. The result was a video that has gone viral. “I’ll f — you up,” said the All-Star to a man and his wife sitting just a few rows away from the court. While the narrative is that Westbrook threatened this innocent family, the real problem is the sense of entitlement that fans have been exhibiting in arenas around the league.

Shane Keisel, the fan that Westbrook directed his anger toward, couldn’t understand why the former MVP was so upset. To hear him tell the story, he was just having a good time jarring with a future NBA legend. It seems odd that a professional athlete accustom to hearing boos in NBA cities across the country would get so agitated over a conversation about heating pads.

In fact, Westbrook’s side of the story is much different:

“A young man and his wife in the stands told me to get down on my knees like I’m used to. For me, that’s completely disrespectful. To me, I think it’s racial and inappropriate. . . . There are a lot of great fans around the world that like to come to the game to enjoy the game, [and] there are people who come to the game to say mean and disrespectful things about me and my family.”

This isn’t the first time that Westbrook has had a heated exchange with fans in Utah. Twice during last year’s playoff series against the Jazz, the 30-year-old guard confronted unruly fans. Both incidents required the assistance of stadium security. Unfortunately, there’s too much focus on Westbrook’s reaction, and not enough attention brought to the inciting actions of fans.

The all-too familiar response is that Westbrook is a professional and he should act like one. He’s also a human being and should be treated as such. Ironically, the fans in the seats are typically professionals as well, but aren’t held to the same standards when attending sporting events. San Keisel, for example, is the accessories manager for Brent Brown Toyota in Utah.

Sadly, he’s not the first professional too express inappropriate behavior toward Westbrook. Urologist Dr. Richard Harkaway flipped off the two-time scoring champ during a road game in Philly in 2016.

Then there’s the screaming fan in Denver who jumped in Westbrook’s face while he was on the court.

It’s almost as if some of the fans feel as though part of the entertainment experience that they are paying for includes the ability to humiliate professional athletes. The worst part is the behavior is being passed on to the next generation of NBA enthusiasts. Just last month a ten-year-old fan sitting courtside literally hit Westbrook while he was on the court.

The agitation of NBA athletes continues to occur, and the penalty for fans is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Or in the case of Shane Keisel, a warning card requesting that he refrain from using inappropriate language.

Utah has become notorious for unruly fans. Golden State Warriors All-Star Draymond Green revealed that he has been called the N-word in several NBA cities. Although he refused to name which cities, it’s no coincidence that he shared this news in the midst of a playoff series in Utah.

But let’s assume that guys like Draymond Green and Russell Westbrook somehow deserve this harsh treatment due to their demeanor on the floor. What excuse do the fans in Utah have for the way they treated Derek Fisher in 2008.

Fisher played one year with the Utah Jazz. While his time on the court was successful, his daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer during the season. In heroic fashion, he returned from his daughter’s surgery in Los Angeles to a playoff game in Utah to help the Jazz defeat the Warriors in overtime. Sounds like Jazz fans would always have a spot in their hearts from the five-time NBA champion right?

Instead there was a level of disdain when he decided to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, choosing to play in the city that offered his daughter the best care for her condition. According to Bleacher Report, fans chanted “cancer” upon Fisher’s return with the visiting team. One ticket holder went so far as to cover one eye while Fisher was at the free-throw line, mocking the serious medical issue of a child.

Again, I know these individuals are not a representation of all fans in attendance. They aren’t the majority either. But what we also don’t see is anyone chastising the unruly fans for their behavior. There’s no footage of people in nearby seats pointing out these aggressors to security, and requesting their immediate removal. It has become a tolerated behavior that is unacceptable.

This isn’t just a problem for the city of Utah and its fans. Remember the derogatory language that was used to describe LeBron James at Oracle Arena. There’s something wrong with an environment where people feel comfortable speaking to another human being that way.

This issue is bigger than the temperment of the players after hearing these remarks. The NBA arenas in which the hostility occurs isn’t the big picture either. What’s interesting are the common themes that exist between the people hurling the insults and the athletes that are expected to just deal with it. In every single one of the aforementioned occurrences, the fans have been Caucasian individuals, sitting in what are considered expensive seats, and the confrontation is always with African-American athletes.

It’s nothing new. The “Malice at the Palace” in 2004 was the same exact thing. The brawl was sparked by a Caucasian fan hurling a drink at Ron Artest, an African-American player. Was Charles Barkley wrong for accidentally spitting on a young fan in 1991? Absolutely. It was a terrible decision on his part. What sparked the incident? According to a fan that was sitting in the same section, Barkley’s intended target was a man whose verbal abuse towards the Hall of Famer was relentless throughout the game.

The NBA does a great job of promoting equality. Coaching positions and opportunities in the league offices are filled by people of all backgrounds. The players themselves represent 42 countries. Unfortunately those efforts have not completely transferred over to the behavior of the entirety of the fanbase that is closest to the action.

There are going to be a handful of people that read this and wonder what’s the big deal. We’ve all heard the remarks that athletes are paid the big bucks to deal with the hecklers and the inappropriate comments. That is far from the truth. They are paid large sums of money for their athletic skills and ability to entertain. Public humiliation is not part of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement.

No professional sport allows fans to get as close to the action as the NBA. It’s unfortunate that a number of those people use the privilege of great seats to demean individuals who happen to represent a different ethnic group. Although it’s not the NBA’s fault that this occurs, something has to be done before a situation takes place that tarnishes the credible reputation the league has built.

Sports journalist and author of the children’s book Chase Does It All

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