Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook gets into a heated verbal altercation with fans in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Monday, March 11.

The Utah Jazz did the right thing by issuing a lifetime ban against a fan they say verbally abused Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook here on Monday. The NBA also did the right thing by fining Westbrook $25,000 for hurling abusive language back at the fan.

When it comes to the interaction of fans and players at highly attended, emotionally charged sporting events, the line of demarcation must be drawn quickly, strictly and definitively on all sides. Too much is at stake. That includes the reputation of an entire community, which can be marred in an instant by the unacceptable behavior of one boorish, foul-mouthed or racist fan.

Utahns should not be defined by one person, or even a group of people, who hurl insulting language at a visiting player. The overwhelming majority of fans demonstrate nightly that they know how to comport themselves.

But this is the age of social media. Unfortunately, when people act out in this way, the reputation quickly spreads. Unfair characterizations attach themselves. Opinions form in the quick-setting cement of instant certainty.

Another, more important, principle is at play here, as well.

Athletic events might be characterized as canaries in the coal mine for civil society. In modern venues such as Vivint Arena, tens of thousands of fans sit only feet from famous and often flamboyant players. There are no physical barriers. The team does a good job conducting security screens before allowing people in, but security guards would have little chance of keeping order if large numbers of fans decided to storm the court or cause harm during a game.

The same could be said if players decided to retaliate against abusive fans.

An unwritten contract exists between all concerned. The game is entertainment, even though players compete with fervor and fans often consider their team an extension of their own identities. All sides must understand that, without a measure of civility, the game cannot exist.

About 15 years ago, the NBA found out what can happen when that veneer of civility is breached. In what has been derisively termed the “Malice at the Palace,” players and fans began fighting near the end of a game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. Five players ended up being criminally charged with assault, and five fans were banned from the league for life. It could have been much worse, and it must never be repeated.

33 comments on this story

Utah is fortunate to have a team of the caliber of the Jazz, with ownership that has demonstrated unwavering commitment to the state and its people. That commitment should run both ways.

Jazz President Steven Starks issued a statement that, among other things, said, “We all have a responsibility to respect the game of basketball and, more importantly, each other as human beings. This has always been a hallmark of our incredible fan base and should forever be our standard moving forward.”

Well said.