Public address announcers around the country frequently tell fans before games that unsportsmanlike behavior toward athletes, coaches or officials won’t be tolerated.
Then, once the ball goes up, it is tolerated.
Universities and college conferences have policies to handle fans behaving badly. Administrators don’t want athletes taking matters into their own hands; yet, many players and coaches feel fans routinely cross the line with profanity-laced tirades, racial slurs and obscene gestures while those policies — typically threatening ejection — are rarely enforced.
Oklahoma State All-American guard Marcus Smart is suspended three games for shoving a Texas Tech fan who later apologized for his actions. The incident shows how volatile the interaction between fans and athletes is becoming, especially with the proximity between the two.
“When you sign up to play a sport in college, you sign away whatever freedoms you thought you had coming to college,” Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma said. “You can’t react like a normal human being.
“Someone says something, you can’t react. All of a sudden people, especially adults, say and can do what they want to a college kid on the floor knowing they have no recourse. They have to take it. I don’t agree with that, but that’s the world. Someone pays $20 to watch a basketball game and you can be an idiot.”
Smart’s altercation with Red Raiders fan Jeff Orr happened late in Saturday’s game after he tumbled out of bounds behind the basket after tying to block a shot. After being helped to his feet, Smart quickly turned to confront Orr and shoved him with two hands after it appeared Orr said something to him. Teammates pulled Smart away from the fans.
That same night, Oregon coach Dana Altman expressed concerns about safety after two of his staffers said an Arizona State student spit at them at halftime of the game in Tempe, Ariz.
Arenas with 20,000 fans are often staffed by several dozen ushers and an outnumbered security staff, while some teams post signs or make announcements asking fans to police themselves by reporting bad fan behavior.
“I’ve always been concerned about fans because these are kids, you know,” Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said Monday. “I can see it at a professional game. They’re professionals. They’re being paid to tolerate and listen to abuse.”
The close proximity between fans and basketball players adds another variable.
With fans lining the court, athletes often chase loose balls into the stands, putting a potentially frustrated player in physical contact with hecklers. The scenario increases the risk of an altercation.
New Orleans Pelicans guard Austin Rivers, the son of Doc Rivers, understands probably better than most that some taunting comes with the territory.
“I’ve had people say nasty stuff about my mother, my sister, my girlfriend, my father, stuff about me. I’ve been called all types of names,” Rivers said. “... They’ll say it in front of their kids or their wives. That’s not OK.”