Westbrook, fans should be held to higher standard

Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Westbrook, fans should be held to higher standard

UPDATE — 3:48 P.M. 

Shortly after this article was published, the Utah Jazz announced that the offending fan has been banned for life from attending Jazz games following their investigation. Here is their statement: 

It makes sense that Russell Westbrook, face of the Thunder — the one who takes the lion’s share of blame and abuse from fans — would be a lightning rod. Rival fans just can’t stop heckling him, and Westbrook can’t stop giving it back.

This GIF of a besuited Russ looking seriously at opposing fans before cracking an emoji-esque grin was created at least five years ago, but it still gets a ton of mileage on Twitter, even in non-basketball contexts.

When a Philadelphia 76ers fan — a grown man! — extended both middle fingers in a vulgar display of sports-hate, Russ just pointed back (with his index fingers) and gave a look like, who is this guy supposed to be? It was hilarious, and that GIF is also still used on Twitter to varying effects.

In both instances, Russ handled heckling with grace and humor, indulging his childlike side.

But what about the ones in bad humor? And these are just the past few seasons: there were two separate incidents in Utah in the postseason alone last year, one of which resulted in Westbrook trying to snatch at a fan’s phone.

In Denver last year, a fan, appearing to be in his thirties, approached Westbrook and yelled in his face, seemingly looking for a reaction. He got one: Russ shoved him away, albeit lightly. This season, a young Nuggets fan tapped Westbrook on the side after the whistle. Depending on who you ask, he either handled it masterfully or poorly.

And then came, in my opinion, the one Russ handled worst of all. Eric Woodyard, a writer for Utah’s Deseret News, posted a video on Twitter during Monday night’s Thunder/Jazz game, which showed an animated Westbrook hurling threats toward the stands at a Jazz fan and his wife:

Many media members were rightly quick to condemn Westbrook. For one, in today’s climate regarding man-on-woman violence, any threat is never to be taken lightly, no matter how empty it may be. Words matter even apart from intentions. And severe words like Westbrook used: “I swear to God, I’ll f— you up, you and your wife,” are indefensible under any circumstances.

I don’t want to gloss over that important point, so let’s repeat it again: Russell Westbrook’s threat towards a woman fan is indefensible. Westbrook’s threats are indefensible period. In a time where many male athletes have exhibited a pattern of violent behavior towards women, it was tone deaf, irresponsible, and aggressive.

Part of an athlete’s pay grade is handling high pressure situations with composure. Westbrook did not.

Others were also quick to point out that the video Woodyard posted lacked any sort of context. As of now, I have not seen a video of what was said. Shane Keisel, the fan who seemed to be the instigator, claims that he didn’t so much as swear at at the player. But Westbrook’s veteran teammates Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton gave a more explicit account of what was said and condoned their teammate’s actions.

I tend to believe his teammates. Matt Barnes and other players have talked about the racial abuse they endured at the hands of Jazz fans in the past, so it’s not as if believing Westbrook and his teammates is a huge leap of faith. Utah is nearly 90% white according to census data.

John Stockton, a white player, is arguably the most beloved player in Jazz history despite sharing equal partnership with Karl Malone, who’s black. Again, not a huge leap to frame this in racial terms.

So, if we’re still condemning people: the actions of the fans who hurled (possibly racially motivated) abuse towards Russell Westbrook are indefensible. 

If any part of what they reportedly said is true, it’s my opinion that they should be banned for life from Jazz and NBA games. The sexual aspect is bad enough, but if indeed there was added racial motivation, they should be punished to the full possible extent.

It’s completely cowardly behavior from fans, who know they will be completely protected and will likely go unpunished aside from the warning cards they were assessed during the game. This is why the league, if not the Jazz, should make an example out of them. If they don’t, it’s a tacit endorsement of verbal and emotional abuse from fans. Opposing fans also need to do a better job of policing their own.

As for Westbrook, who gave a statement but did not answer questions after the game, he will likely be fined. There’s an outside chance he could be suspended pending investigation. In my opinion, Westbrook would do himself a favor to come back and accept responsibility for what he said. Doing so would not absolve the fans, but would show a mark of maturity from the ever-mercurial guard.

After all, this happened the same week as International Women’s Day, on which Westbrook gave tribute to the women in his life. March is Women’s History Month. If Russell does not come out and apologize for what he said, it will be very disappointing. As a role model, Westbrook could use his platform to remind boys and men that it’s never okay to threaten a woman with violence, which would be a noble outcome.

As for the fans? We can’t expect much from them. It’s now being reported that Keisel is filing a lawsuit against Westbrook, presumably for defamation or something related. The league and opposing teams are responsible for the safety of visiting players. Teams ought to be held accountable for the behavior of their own fans, and fans need to be held to account for their behavior.

Until then, expect more negative fan interactions. And let’s hope we never see a Malice in the Palace 2.0.

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