Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned a technical foul — and a three-game suspension — for shoving a fan in the closing seconds of the Cowboys’ loss to Texas Tech on Saturday. It was an ugly incident for a player who in recent weeks has had emotional displays on the court, and even before details of the situation emerged, Smart faced swift condemnation for violating one of the basic rules of sports: no matter what is said to or about you, you don’t enter the stands or put your hands on a fan.
The shove happened after Smart chased down a Texas Tech player on a fast break and, in the process, ended up off the court near the stands. Smart and a Texas Tech fan named Jeff Orr exchanged words, and before Smart’s teammates could corral him, he planted both hands in Orr’s chest and shoved him. Neither Smart nor his teammates were available to the media after the loss, 19th-ranked Oklahoma State’s fourth in a row, but Oklahoma State’s radio announcers said they heard Smart tell head coach Travis Ford that Orr called Smart a n—-r before the shove. Other reports said the same thing, and in video of the incident, Smart appears to call Orr “racist” while explaining himself to game officials.
Texas Tech completed its own internal review of the situation Sunday. In a statement released through the university, Orr said that he called Smart a “piece of crap” but did not say anything racial. In previous text messages, Orr had told a friend, “I kinda let my mouth say something I shouldn’t have. I feel bad.” Orr said then that what he said was neither racial or vulgar. Texas Tech bolstered its statement with a video of the incident that the school claims proves Orr never used a racial slur. The video’s audio is mostly muddled, and it doesn’t seem to prove much one way or the other.
Much of the coverage of this incident has focused on Smart and his reaction and has suggested that he shouldn’t have reacted the way he did. That’s not necessarily wrong, but to simplify it that way requires fitting into the typical standards for ethics and professionalism we’ve created for how athletes should react to talk like this. The problem with those constructs is that racial slurs don’t actually fit into them.
The ability to ignore trash talk from fans or other players is a basic part of basketball or any other game. But there’s a marked difference between basic trash talk about your basketball skills and hearing a fan call you a n—-r. It’s easy to shrug off the former as ignorance. It’s much harder to ignore words that at their core question your basic humanity and place in society, or to shrug off the ignorance that comes from someone telling you that no matter what you accomplish or how you go about it, you’ll always be a n—-r.
That’s especially true when you know that you have to take it in stride without reacting. This isn’t the first time Smart has heard this insult. Racial slurs are a basic feature of trash talk at sporting events. Former Oklahoma State player Desmond Mason tweeted Saturday that he heard the n-word directed at him every time he played at Texas Tech. More often than not, Smart and other African-American athletes brush it off without acknowledging it, largely because society has told them they can’t. Any display like Smart’s, it seems, will only confirm what the ignorant already believe.
Treating this incident with the framing that Smart shouldn’t have reacted at all puts the slur and Smart’s reaction to it on equal footing. But that’s hardly the case. There are, of course, better ways to handle the situation. But in the heat of the moment, is it actually shocking that Smart reacted? It should, I think, shock us more that so many athletes don’t react at all when they hear this type of language in the course of a game. It should trouble us more that the conventions of both society and the sports world teach and expect them not to.
So instead of focusing only on Smart’s reaction, which is ultimately a one-off that doesn’t happen often, we should look at the side of this equation that is actually a problem. Orr’s behavior, whether racist in nature or not, is endemic to the sports world. Verbal abuse of players by fans, as anyone who has ever sat in the stands or close to the court or field of play knows, is a regular feature of sporting events both in the United States and across the world. A cursory Google search will bring up racial epithets directed at athletes around the world, at fans pouring beer or anything else on players as they leave the court or field, of fans showering opposing players and sometimes their own with obscenities and vulgarities. Saturday night, University of Oregon basketball coaches accused Arizona State students of spitting on them as they left the court. By mid-day Sunday, video surfaced that appears to show Orr making obscene gestures at other opposing players, and former Oklahoma State guard John Lucas III tweeted that he remembered Orr’s trash talk from his days in the Big XII. (Texas Tech officials said they had not had incidents with Orr before. Former Texas Tech coach Pat Knight defended Orr, calling him “a great guy.”)
Whether that behavior involves race or not, it is weird, problematic, and unacceptable, and we ought to question why people act like this and why we let them. If we’re assessing problems here, Orr presents a much bigger one than Smart.
Sports teams and stadiums have made efforts to rein in and reduce this sort of behavior with text messaging services and other monitoring methods. But look at this situation and you can see how those efforts have fallen short. The Big XII conference, of which both Tech and Oklahoma State are members, admitted after the game that it has few rules to address a situation like this, because fan behavior issues are generally left to the schools. That should change, because while Smart was penalized both on the court and by negative media attention, Orr was essentially rewarded: the team for which he cheers directly benefited from his actions, and while the media will go on calling him a low-life and a scumbag, the brunt of the criticism will hit Smart.
Orr has agreed not to attend any Texas Tech games for the rest of the season, so he’s not totally avoiding punishment, even if it is voluntarily. Still, the majority of the fans who act like this will get away with it, and so this behavior will continue until the sports world makes a real effort to get rid of it all. Players like Smart should be encouraged to notify coaches and officials when they hear racial slurs or any other form of verbal abuse that crosses the line. And perhaps we should institute severe penalties for teams whose fans act this way, much as England’s Football Association has to help rid its stadiums of racist (and now homophobic) language directed at players.
None of that is meant to fully absolve Smart. He should have handled this differently. But sports like college basketball should also have methods in place that encourage and allow athletes to handle situations like this differently. So before condemning Smart, it’s worth stopping and trying to understand where that reaction came from and why it happened. And it’s also worth remembering that focusing primarily on the small problem of this player’s reaction will excuse everyone from fixing issues in sports and society that are much larger than Jeff Orr and Marcus Smart.