On Sunday, Oklahoma State’s guard Marcus Smart was suspended for three games after shoving Jeff Orr, a so-called super fan of Texas Tech, during a matchup between the two teams. Smart told his coach, Travis Ford, that Orr used a racial epithet to describe him. Orr has denied it, but agreed not to attend Texas Tech games for the rest of the season.
My colleague Travis Waldron has pointed out that it’s a very different thing to ask athletes like Smart absorb trash talk, and to demand that they simply take the kind of ugly racial epithets that Jackie Robinson’s stoicism was supposed to have done away with last century. But fans like Jeff Orr, or the racist Napoli fans whose chants left AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli in tears of frustration this weekend, aren’t just a problem for athletes. They can make a game miserable for everyone else who has to sit with them.
As a female fan, it’s frequently disconcerting to hear fans sling sexist epithets at male athletes in an attempt to distract them. Insults like these don’t just send the message to the men on the field that the worst thing you can be is feminine–they communicate to women in the stands that we don’t really belong there, either. Homophobic slurs function in a similar and even more pernicious way, encouraging gay athletes to stay in the closet, and inadvertently reinforcing the message that cheering on a sports team is an expression of heterosexual masculinity, to the exclusion of anyone else. Using racism to denigrate athletes helps to reinforce the idea that the men of color who so often take the field for our professional and college teams belong on the field or the court as compliant employees, rather than at courtside as our fellow fans, or as executives, coaches and owners who might have insights into the ways that American sporting culture needs to change. Even if you aren’t a woman, or a gay fan, or a fan of color, this kind of language can be enormously jarring and unpleasant.
And vituperative insults like these, along with a heavy helping of obscene language, can ruin one of the last remaining mass culture events that ought to be family-friendly. Given the rising costs of attending professional and college sporting events, and the ways in which the demands of television scheduling have pushed games later and later in the evening, the idea of sports as family events are already under assault. It’s unfortunate that fans often contribute to this erosion, acting as if they’re in their own living rooms, and if their speech has no impact on anyone else, particularly on children.
I tend to be less than sympathetic to people who seem to believe they have no role in governing what their children consume when a family’s in the privacy of their own homes. But out in public, surrounded by strangers (and often strangers who are drinking), we have much less control over what young people hear. And it’s sad to think that introducing children to the sports that are supposed to be meeting places in American life sometimes means introducing them to sexism, homophobia, racism, and the lesser problem of vulgar language at the same time. That’s something that both sports fans and sports franchises should be ashamed of.