Becoming Better Fans Begins With Behaving


The first round of the 2021 NBA playoffs has been entertaining and mortifying all at once.

The competition on the floor has been sublime per usual. What’s happening when the buzzer sounds has been unsurprising and shocking, all at once.

A Surge of Ignorance

Out of the 35 first-round games to date, there have been six incidents of fans crossing the line.

  • A Knicks fan spit on Trae Young, which during the coronavirus pandemic amounts to assault in some cases.
  • On the same night at MSG, Immanuel Quickley had a beer thrown at him.
  • Kyrie Irving stepped on a cartoon and had a bottle of water flung at his head.
  • A fan told Ja Morant‘s dad things that make veins pop in my forehead.
  • In three games of the same series, a fan dumped water on Russell Westbrook‘s head in Philadelphia while a guy dressed in hot-dog colors ran on the court in Washington.

Shockingly, fans are treating athletes like a subhuman species again as the crowds have opened back up. A year away from fans at games made us forget how entitled some people feel because they bought a ticket and put on a jersey. It’s no coincidence that the players and families who are being targeted are Black and the known perpetrators white.

What does that have to do with me?

Sports are, at their core, an outlet to escape the world. They also inspire incredible levels of passion, and that cuts both ways. That same tangible energy that gets you out of your seat and raises your voice is also a profound amplifier of the ugliest things you will see and hear. It makes you forget the people in jerseys in front of you are also in fact human beings.

You can try to escape the world yet it still finds a way in.

I won’t pretend I have a cut-and-paste solution for how an entire franchise handles this. Unless you are reading this and happen to own an NBA team, you have no say in how the decision makers at the top behave. NBA teams have very little motivation to change the system that works so well for them already.

Case in point, this tweet from the scoop-monger:

You know what solves a systemic problem? Encouragement to develop a process and audio announcements.

What I have control over is how I behave in an arena, on the street, and with my words. How can we, as fans, better ourselves to represent the cities and teams we love?

Listen, and understand who you are listening to.

It’s easy to use the blanket argument of “open your ears” regarding any issue. Closing your ears to other things, however, is an important part of that equation.

The pervasive racism surrounding the Boston Celtics and Kyrie Irving shows how under-listening and over-listening can both be powerful tools for ignorance and how it affects what you see on and off the court when the final horn sounds.

Not listening enough is how you find yourself in Danny Ainge‘s forcefully retired shoes. The Celtics general manager, in response to allegations from Irving that racist things have been said and done to him in Boston, said he has “never heard [allegations of racism] from Celtics players”. Even if that is somehow true, it’s still a huge problem.

Not only did Irving, a Celtics player only two years past, make this accusation, a player currently on the team wrote at length about the racism he had endured from his own fans. Bill Russell has an entire life’s worth of examples of being treated as a lesser human by the same people who celebrate the victories and championships he brought to them.

Kyrie’s experience is not a scathing indictment of the city of Boston or the franchise; racism is in every city, every arena, and inside every person. The choice every fan needs to make is whether or not to do something to curb it. Pretending like it’s not happening for decades is what empowers a white person to throw a water bottle at a Black player.

Over a ball game.

Racist thinking is a spectrum, and you will never accomplish anything unless you actively challenge the way you speak, act and behave. Remove your emotional fandom and civic pride. Simply listen to what Kyrie, Marcus, Bill and countless others have said and will continue to say.

Do the work required to find the heart of the issue.

The other mistake being made is listening to the wrong kind of noise. Immediately after the water bottle was thrown, writers with overt bias and lack of perspective took to social media to justify the act.

Why? Kyrie stepped on the logo, or he said this, did that. Somehow a player walking back a statement and the perceived disrespect of the Celtics logo were being equated to throwing an object at Kyrie’s head.

It’s incredibly hard to wade through the misquotes, opinions and reactions to get to the core of who someone is. Everyone has an opinion on Kyrie while nobody knows him. We form these opinions based on what others say about him, how certain quotes are edited, and how he relates to our interests.

A friend of mine from the Northeast, a Celtics fan, has held a dislike for Kyrie since he left the team. These reasons have been played out in local and national endlessly. Playing on the negative emotions of fans is an easy path to attention. And in response to the water bottle he too felt the need to point out why Kyrie is so hated by the Boston throng.

It was tempting to be reactive as well. I could have called him all sorts of things and behaved as if I were somehow morally superior. But seeing how national and local discourse clouds opinions of a man like Kyrie makes me believe my friend isn’t the true driver of that opinion. That opinion is impressed upon him. If everyone in media tells you Kyrie is disrespectful, a clown, a coward, you are inclined to believe them because it’s their job to be informed.

It’s on us, the consumers, to actively ignore that kind of negative rhetoric about a fellow human. Engagement goes down, the network of support erodes, and there is no longer an outlet for those opinions.

Rein in your emotions.

This step is possibly the most difficult, and one I still struggle with.

Sports bring out the inner child in us, but children are as ignorant as they are full of positive energy. It’s an incredible feeling to detach yourself from reality and experience the emotional rollercoaster of being too invested in a sports game.

Yet far too often that takes you down an unhealthy road.

Fans who dislike a player as a person rarely have personal reasons for doing so. In the wake of sports success leaves thousands, sometimes millions, of people personal judgments about your personality based on events that happened during a sports game.

Just ask LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry. Don’t actually ask them though; they have real lives to live, don’t know who you are, and shouldn’t care about your opinion.

If you say you don’t like how a player plays the game of basketball, that’s fine. They have made themselves public and opened themselves to commentary, both positive and negative. I don’t like how Trae Young baits people for fouls, but it doesn’t make me want to spit on his head. You are still two human beings with emotions, passions, insecurities.

Separating basketball from life, but not vice versa.

What leads to fans acting in a despicable manner is translating what they see on the court to real life. Control over our emotions erodes if we never step back to acknowledge “it’s only sports”. Not every fan behaves in a racist manner, but we all have moments where we forget the humanity of the athletes we cheer for and against. An absence of humanity and basic empathy is a breeding ground for bigotry and all forms of disrespect.

Take minor steps to be more respectful of the people who bring us that wonderful rollercoaster of emotions. Those who appreciate the game and the people who play it don’t spit, throw bottles, or hurl bigoted insults. A game where the fans and players alike feel safe, valued and entertained is worth striving for.

About Charlie Cummings

Warriors writer born and raised in the Bay Area. University of Denver graduate currently living in Denver

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