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John Feinstein Blog: The Time Has Come For Fans To Be Held Accountable

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(Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

(Credit: Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, made it crystal clear on Sunday that a player going into the stands and shoving a fan would not be tolerated. Less than 24 hours after Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart briefly went after Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr in the waning seconds of the Red Raiders Saturday night victory over the Cowboys, Bowlsby announced that Smart would sit out his team’s next three games.

“Mr. Smart’s actions were a clear violation of the Big 12 Conference’s sportsmanship and ethical conduct policy,” Bowlsby wrote. “Such behavior has no place in athletics and will not be tolerated.”

Bowlsby was right — although what shoving a fan has to do with ethics is questionable. And, his response was certainly far more admirable than that of his Big Ten counterpart, Jim Delany, last November when Ohio State’s Marcus Hall gave Michigan fans a double one-finger salute while exiting the stadium after being ejected from the Ohio State-Michigan football game.

Delany “publicly reprimanded” Hall but didn’t suspend him, in large part because he was desperately hoping Ohio State would beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game and get a chance to represent Delany’s league in the national title game.

So, give Bowlsby credit for acting quickly and decisively in suspending Smart. Players simply can’t be allowed to go after fans regardless of how obnoxious the fans may be.

But Bowlsby didn’t say one word — NOT ONE — about the behavior of Jeff Orr. He didn’t ask Texas Tech to take action against him or to do something about controlling fan behavior. Orr, in his own statement — no one answers questions these days, they just make statements — said he wouldn’t attend any more Texas Tech games this season.

Very generous of him. But why in the world is it HIS decision? Why didn’t both Texas Tech and Bowlsby come out and say, “While Marcus Smart was clearly wrong in laying a hand on Orr (he doesn’t rate being called Mr. here) his behavior was despicable. Given that he has been involved in other incidents in the past (including one involving a profane gesture caught on camera two years ago) he will not be allowed to attend any basketball games at Texas Tech this season OR next season.”

Of course they didn’t do that. Orr and his friends no doubt give plenty of money to Texas Tech. You can’t go around upsetting people that give you money. So the message from the people in charge is this: fans can say or do pretty much whatever they want to players and if a player responds, HE gets in trouble.

Fan behavior at basketball games has been a problem for years and, as fans are moved closer and closer to the court (in exchange for more and more money), it becomes a bigger and bigger problem.

The worst example of fan behavior EVER took place at Arizona State in 1988 when Steve Kerr, then an Arizona senior, walked on to the court to do some pre-game shooting. A handful of students were waiting for him. When they spotted Kerr, they began chanting, “PLO, PLO — Hey Kerr, where’s your dad?”

Kerr’s father, Malcolm Kerr had been the president of The American University in Beirut. He was assassinated — presumably by the PLO — during Kerr’s freshman year. Somehow, the Arizona State students thought reminding Kerr of that was a good idea.

“I have to think they were drunk,” Kerr said this week. “I can’t imagine anyone would behave that way if they weren’t.”

Maybe — or maybe not.

Kerr handled the horrific chant in the best way possible. After sitting down on the bench for a few minutes to clear his head and deal with “the shock,” as he put it of what he was hearing, he buried seven 3-point shots in the first half. That’s always the best way to deal with morons, but it can be easier said than done.

Kerr and Arizona State is the most extreme example possible, but fans screaming profane, abusive things at players and officials is commonplace. The “you s—” chant is as much a part of a game in most arenas as the baskets and the three-point line. In some places it is the routine, accepted response to visiting player introductions.

Clever.

Profane chants in response to referees’ calls are also routine, and fans in courtside seats seem to think it is their birthright to get in the face of an official who makes a call they disagree with.

“It seems as if the officials are exempt from being treated with any sort of respect,” said Kerr — who sits courtside while doing college and NBA games for TNT and CBS and hears most of what is said. “No one ever thinks to step in on their behalf and say, ‘that’s enough.’”

There always seems to be an excuse for bad behavior. For years, Maryland fans have been generally abusive to visiting teams and off-the-charts abusive when Duke comes to town — which it no longer will now that Maryland is moving to the Big Ten.

Years ago, many Maryland students — and, even worse, many non-students — thought it somehow clever to show up in shirts that said, ‘F— Duke.’ Brent Musburger, who was doing play-by-play on the game on ABC the first year this occurred, pointed out to then-Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow that by allowing students to wear that shirt, Maryland made it impossible for ABC to show the student body on-air during the game.

“How can that possibly be good for your school?” he asked.

Yow always defended the wearing of the shirts on the incredibly ludicrous grounds that it was a ‘Freedom of Speech’ issue. No, it’s not. On the back of every ticket sold to any arena that hosts a sporting event is a warning that certain behavior will lead to ejection. Maryland could have said to anyone wearing the shirt as they walked in the door, “You can wear that, as per your first amendment rights, but NOT IN HERE.”

Whenever I bring up the behavior of some — not all — Maryland fans, I get the same response every time: “What about the Duke students?”

This is, of course, because I graduated from Duke and because Duke HAS been involved in some infamous moments. The worst was in 1984 when a Maryland player named Herman Veal was charged with sexual assault. When he showed up not long after that at Duke, some students threw women’s panties in his direction. Others chanted, “r-a-p-e.” It was completely over the line.

Did Duke athletic director Tom Butters or Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski say it was a freedom of speech issue? No. They asked school president Terry Sanford, who was beloved on campus, to write an open letter on their behalf to the student body basically saying, “STOP.” Sanford went on to say, “funny and clever is great. Cruel and obnoxious or profane is not.”

That Saturday when North Carolina came to town the students showed up wearing halos on their heads. They chanted, “we beg to differ,” when they didn’t like a call and, instead of waving their arms behind the basket during UNC free throws, held up signs that said, “please miss.”

THAT’S funny. That’s okay. The irony is that Krzyzewski has so muzzled the students by insisting they behave in recent years that they’re no longer funny. Painting their faces now passes for clever. (Okay, “drive home safely,” IS pretty good).

The time has come for looking the other way when fans get out of control to stop. People should be ejected and, if it is a season ticket-holder like Orr, told not to come back. If a coach hears a profane chant of ANY kind, he should take the PA microphone and say, “if I hear that one more time, we’ll forfeit the game.”

Think people would stop then?

Years ago, after a few calls went against North Carolina early in a game, some students started the familiar profane chant that means, “we beg to differ.” Dean Smith grabbed the PA mike and said simply, “Stop it right now. We win here with class.”

They stopped and they won — with class.

That’s a lesson all fans around the country need to learn.

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