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Recent fan behavior in the NBA shows the NFL must protect its players from childish and racist fans

As fans emerge from their Covid quarantines, it appears many humans have forgotten how to behave like humans. The NFL must prepare itself to respond to eventual poor fan behavior.

New Orleans Saints v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

In a single week of the NBA playoffs, multiple fans have been banned from five separate venues. In Philadelphia, one fan threw popcorn on top of an injured Russell Westbrook as he left the court. Westbrook had to be restrained from climbing into the stands and going Malice at the Palace on his ass.

In New York City, one fan actually spit onto Trae Young. The woman sitting next to 50 cent clearly felt some of the spray.

In Boston, a fan threw a water bottle at Kyrie Irving. The fan was arrested for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and banned from TD Garden.

Irving wasn’t surprised he was the target of hate from the Celtics fan base as he played for them from 2017 to 2019 only to leave in free agency for a stronger contender in the Brooklyn Nets.

“I am just looking forward to competing with my teammates and hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball; there’s no belligerence or racism going on — subtle racism,” Irving told ESPN last week. “People yelling s--- from the crowd, but even if it is, it’s part of the nature of the game and we’re just going to focus on what we can control.”

Boston has a terribly racist history, especially when it comes to sports. Bill Russell called Boston “a flea market of racism.” In 2004, Giants left fielder, Barry Bonds, made waves by telling The Boston Globe he would never consider playing for the Red Sox because he had heard so many negative stories of how Black players were treated by the fanbase going back to his father Bobby Bonds’ playing days.

When the Globe reporter tried to tell Bonds that the racial climate had changed for the better in Boston, Bonds replied, “It ain’t changing. It ain’t changing nowhere.” Those rumors Bonds relied on were confirmed by Baltimore Orioles’ outfielder Adam Jones in 2017, more than a decade after Bonds’ interview when Jones reported being called the “N-Word” multiple times by Red Sox fans.

Irving reminded us that this type of behavior is nothing new. “You’re seeing a lot of old ways come up,” Irving said. “It has been that way in history in terms of entertainment, performers and sports for a long period of time and just underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo. Throwing stuff at people, saying things. There is a certain point where it gets to be too much.”

“You can see that people just feel very entitled out here,” Irving reiterated. So entitled, that in Salt Lake City, three Jazz fans were banned for verbally harassing the parents of point guard Ja Morant. When asked about the incident Morant, the player, said he had been called “boy” by fans before in Salt Lake City.

Remember when Irving said he was apprehensive of “subtle racism” in his return to Boston? How can calling a Black man “boy” or treating a Black man like a minstrel or throwing a bottle at a Black man even be considered subtle?

This is overt racism and one of the main reasons it still exists is because many white people don’t want to burden their consciences by admitting it exists, educating themselves on their role in historical white supremacy, and mobilizing as effective white accomplices, not just as allies.

Former President of Basketball Operations and former Celtics player Danny Ainge is a perfect example of white people who are hurting people of color by being dismissive of their racial experiences. It’s easier to dismiss racial inequities when you get to move through life with white privilege.

“I think that we take those kind of things seriously,” Ainge said on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I never heard any of that, from any player that I’ve ever played with in my 26 years in Boston. I never heard that before from Kyrie, and I talked to him quite a bit. So, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter. We’re just playing basketball. Players can say what they want.”

The fact that Ainge played for the Celtics for seven years and worked there as an executive for nearly twenty years, yet remains unaware of Boston’s inherent racism, is another reason why America is making such slow baby steps in racial reckoning. Like the character in The Matrix said, “ignorance is bliss,” but only for those who remain blissfully ignorant. It’s hell for everyone else.

I refuse to remain ignorant of the plain fact the NBA and most media outlets have failed to address. Every single one of these abhorrent fans has been a white male and every single player, or family member of a player they were physically or verbally attacking, was Black.

The NFL is a league in which 70% of its players are Black, 80% of its fans are white, and out of its 32 teams, there are no Black team owners. Neither the NFL, nor its fans, can afford to be blissfully ignorant of the many ways it has extracted quality Black labor for the entertainment of mostly white masses.

Perhaps the NFL’s recent announcement that they will finally stop “race-norming” while determining which players qualify for the $1 Billion settlement of brain injury claims. The NFL’s system, which they installed in the 1990’s, mirrored 200 year old debunked and racist phrenology norms that assumed Black players started out with lower cognitive function.

Supposedly, the NFL will now retroactively review past scores for any potential race bias. “The replacement norms will be applied prospectively and retrospectively for those players who otherwise would have qualified for an award but for the application of race-based norms,” the NFL said in their public statement on Wednesday.

It’s incredibly disturbing to think about NFL league officials using antiquated science, once used to justify slavery, in order to determine that Black retirees’ brains started out with lower cognitive function and therefore don’t deserve payment for the suffering they’ve endured from repetitive brain trauma through the play of professional football.

One of my favorite thinkers, Marc Lamont Hill, professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University acknowledges there’s a deep divide on issues involving race and that the NFL isn’t immune from that fact.

“Throughout history, whenever we’ve had these major controversies around race, black and white Americans have viewed them very differently,” Hill said. “If I respond to a poll question about NFL protests by basically saying, ‘Oh, those players are overreacting and the anthem is not the place to do that,’ if I take that approach, then I as the white NFL fan won’t have to think about what my role is in creating or reinforcing the reality that there is a deeper problem.

“But if I respond by acknowledging that there’s a structural problem, and just by virtue of being black or brown in this country there’s a different set of life chances, then suddenly that white fan is accountable as well. Suddenly, their power and position is on the table as well. By acknowledging that, they would have to be self-critical about their role in supporting the NFL and everything that goes with that. You’re talking about a level of self-examination that a lot of people don’t want to do.”

Thankfully, the Saints organization has players and executives deeply committed to social justice. It has made a more concerted effort to involve itself in racial reckoning, criminal justice reform, and Black female empowerment. Saints owner Gayle Benson formed the Social Justice Leadership Coalition, which works to find solutions to social problems Americans face today.

She has also kept great lines of communication open with players in social justice leadership positions like linebacker DeMario Davis and safety Malcolm Jenkins. Because of those ongoing conversations, and her ability to humble herself in knowing she doesn’t know everything, Benson formed Operation Restoration and donated office space for the program’s existence.

Operation Restoration seeks to empower Black women impacted by incarceration so that they can more successfully re-enter their communities. Benson also made a powerful statement against police brutality after George Floyd’s murder. It appears, at least on the surface, that Benson is committed to doing the research and personal reflection it takes to be a part of the solution instead of an ongoing part of the problem.

Even though this should be on the fans, the majority of the solution to the immediate problem of fan entitlement and poor behavior instead rests on the shoulders of the Saints organization and employees at the Mercedez-Benz Superdome.

NFL fans don’t have access to the field like NBA fans do to the court, so that should help a little by creating some safety space between players and fans.

I’ve seen an Eagles fan throw a water bottle from the 600s Section down to the field, however, so anything can happen. Seating visiting fans behind the visitor’s sideline could also help keep verbally abusive hecklers at bay. Every team venue must repeatedly drill the fans on codes of conduct, while explicitly laying out what the expectations are for appropriate behavior.

We have come to the point where we literally need to tell grown men not to spit on the players please. With proper expectations laid out, each venue should also let the fans know exactly what repercussions their actions could lead to.

Simply banning fans from stadiums and arenas doesn’t seem to be enough of a deterrent. If a fan’s actions would have led to a criminal count out on the street, they should be treated with the same seriousness in a public venue.

And if the NFL thinks this isn’t going to happen at their games, they are fooling themselves. Every NFL team and every NFL stadium should carefully review their fan codes of conduct, safety protocols, and other operational aspects they can address to make their players feel safe in their workplace.

Perhaps, they will take a note out of the NBA’s recent press release on the matter:

“True fans of this game honor and respect the dignity of our players,” the release said. “No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space. Those who do have no place in our arenas. And their conduct is appropriately evaluated by law enforcement just as if it occurred on a public street. Respect our Players. Respect our Game.”

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