Marcus Smart, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, is one of college basketball’s brightest stars, but after an altercation at a game last Saturday he lost a bit of his luster.
Toward the end of a close game against Texas Tech in Lubbock, Smart went tumbling along the baseline after he attempted to block a shot. He jumped up, but before heading back onto the court Smart whirled around and exchanged words with a fan in the second or third row and then shoved him in the chest. As Smart was ushered away from the fan by teammates and the referees it was obvious that he was incensed. Smart repeatedly pointed at the fan and yelled to both him and the referees, appearing to accuse the fan of something. After the game Smart claimed the fan used a racial slur, and it came out that this same fan had been involved in confrontations with players previously.
I went to a small Christian college with a high school-sized gym, but we were loyal and rowdy basketball fans. Most of the time our cheering was more clever than cruel and genuinely tried to support our team while distracting the opponents (rather than intimidating them). But more often than I’d like to admit I would resort to insults. I would mock players’ tattoos, hair styles, height, weight, shooting form, and anything else that stood out—stuff I would never say to them outside the walls of a gym.
Why is it OK for us to say things at a sporting event we’d get punched or fired for saying to someone’s face? Why are athletes, like Smart, expected to flip a switch and become robotically desensitized to the verbal abuse rained down on them? It’s so easy to call Smart out for going into the stands. “That’s off limits! How dare he! He could start a riot!” But if a young black man is insulted by a middle-aged white man hiding behind the identity of “fan,” who can blame him for his anger? A uniform doesn’t take away a player’s humanity, but fans treat players like they do.
Some people refer to this problem as a “double standard.” But it’s more complicated than that; it’s a broken standard. Fans make their cheering personal and insulting. Players are expected to be emotionless automatons. Fans can act in ways they wouldn’t dare try anywhere else. Players are expected to respond as if it is nowhere else. The more extreme these divergent expectations become, the greater the tension grows.
Such is the case with every false standard. A church expects perfection of people but claims to be a place of grace. A husband demands affection and attentiveness from his wife but gives none. A friend expects loyalty and availability but returns none. In every case tensions rise and conflict happens. In every relational interaction—personal, corporate, athletic—we live under a single standard: Do to others as you would have them do to you whether it’s a coffee shop or a basketball arena.