Fan-athlete relations become volatile
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. The student had his season tickets revoked, according to the school.
In addition, Ducks guard Jason Calliste had a verbal confrontation with at least one student late in the first half. The proximity between fans and players was at issue again as Altman said it wasn't a good situation to have visiting teams go past the student section on their way off the court there.
Coach Monty Williams of the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans said he has had things thrown at him, while Ohio State coach Thad Matta said he hopes schools will "take more of a precaution because it can get downright brutal."
"There's a lot of stuff that goes on in the crowd that shouldn't go on and players and coaches have to deal with stuff they shouldn't have to deal with, whether it's derogatory comments or people throwing food at you," Williams said. "... I think not just the (NBA), but all of sports, we've got to address the crowd interaction with players and coaches because it's getting out of hand."
There's no clear answer to getting it under control, either.
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.
Many athletes say it's surprising there aren't more ugly moments.
"A lot of times you just smile it off," Syracuse forward C.J. Fair said. "You want to say you shouldn't lose your cool, but it's hard when you're in that moment."
The NCAA launched efforts in 2009 to improve sportsmanship with its "Respect" campaign, which encourages measures such as ejecting fans displaying unsportsmanlike behavior, using video to record bad behavior and establishing penalties for students or fans to "make fans accountable for what takes place in the stands."
In an email, NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford said it's up to member schools to implement the practices, which are being updated.
Leagues such as the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference have the PA announcer read a pregame message reminding fans to be on good behavior.
Yet in many cases, that's the extent of enforcement, leaving athletes feeling abused and vulnerable even as they're expected not to respond to derogatory comments.
"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."
Maybe, but NBA all-star Kevin Durant — who played a season at Texas — said that's still not a license for fans to behave any way they want.
"I just put it like this: if you wouldn't say that if we were walking down the street, then you should keep that to yourself," the Oklahoma City star said. "But they get — it's the heat of the moment for all those guys too watching their teams. But at the same time, we're all human and words do hurt, and some things should be kept to yourself."
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.
Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson stood at the scorer's table during a game at Auburn last year, popping his jersey to taunt students — who responded by making an obscene gesture toward him.
It's a fragile situation, one that Henderson's coach Andy Kennedy said athletes and coaches must be prepared to face.
Former Duke star Austin Rivers, currently a guard with the Pelicans and son of NBA coach Doc Rivers, understands probably better than most that some taunting comes with the territory. But he said fans too often cross the line.
"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."