Last night, Oklahoma State’s star basketball player Marcus Smart went into the stands and shoved a Texas Tech fan. The initial reaction was typical–Smart’s a bad apple, he’s blowing his career being stupid, etc. See Myron Medcalf who claims, “It’s too early to know exactly what happened with Smart and that fan.” So let’s be sure to write that blog post condemning him before we know what happened!
Because you see, it’s typically much more complicated. Dave Zirin with a great run down here. Turns out this “fan” is a notorious jerk, so much so that Dick Vitale knows who he is and viscerally dislikes him. And he’s a racist. In fact, Smart claims this dude called him the n-word, which the guy is only sort of denying. But there’s larger issues at play here. Zirin:
5 – I have over the years spoken to a ton of former college basketball players who have stories about having racial slurs tossed at them by fans. They are conditioned before games to never go into the stands, and just keep their anger in check, no matter the cost to their mental and physical health. They are also pressured not speak about it to the media after games, to keep up the illusion of college athletics as some kind of innocent, wholesome endeavor. This dynamic, as much as anything, speaks to the utter powerlessness of so-called student athletes.
6 – Moments like this are exactly why the Northwestern football players felt compelled to form a union. So-called “student-athletes” have no power. They have no grievance procedure. Right now, as we speak, Marcus Smart is being told that the best thing for him, his family and his future NBA draft status, would be to just apologize and take whatever slap-on-the-wrist the Big 12 or the NCAA hands down. The most upsetting part, given the economics at play, is that this is probably good advice. It might not be great counsel for Smart’s mental health, but it is for his wallet.
7 – In a just world, Marcus Smart would not be suspended at all. Instead the NCAA would enact a FIFA style response. That means they would either bar Jeff Orr for life from ever going to another Texas Tech game, or, if it is found out that “the n-word” gets dropped from the stands in Lubbock like it’s open-season on black players, then make Texas Tech play in front of an empty arena for the rest of the season.
8 – A lot of former players are saying the equivalent of former NFL player Donte Stallworth who tweeted, “You don’t get a free pass to say/do whatever you want to athletes because you’re a fan… just save that faux tough guy ish for the internet. If you talk about a players family, fire a racial slur or throw a drink on them, right or wrong, you shouldn’t be surprised at retaliation.” Players are tired of enduring this, and they should not have to.
9 – One person tweeted to me that Jackie Robinson would never have gone into the stands when called a racial slur. This “Jackie Robinson: model minority” nonsense needs to be unpacked. First of all, that was 1947. Times have changed. Second, Jackie Robinson, a husband and a father, would have risked organized violence, as in lynch mobs, if he had pursed a physical response against fans. Third, Jackie Robinson was a 26-year-old Army veteran and a college graduate from UCLA. He also carried the hopes and dreams of masses of people with every at-bat. To ask a 19-year-old Marcus Smart to act in accordance with Jackie Robinson is a ridiculous weight to ask Mr. Smart to carry. And lastly Jackie Robinson, if you read his searing memoir, I Never Had It Made, had real regrets about not going into the stands and pummeling racists with what he called “my despised black fists”. Jackie Robinson died way too young at age 53. He and his family always believed that his early death was connected to the stress that he had to carry precisely because he kept it all bottled in on direct orders from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and on society’s orders, shaped by the pre-civil rights times in which he played.
I do hate how conservatives (or anti-people standing up for themselves) have turned Jackie Robinson into whatever they want him to be, i.e. “a model for the race” which in reality means someone who never says a public word against the racism they face from fans. As Zirin says, it’s not 1947 and there needs to be a real way to deal with this. The NCAA doesn’t care, Texas Tech certainly doesn’t care, the players have absolutely no power to do anything. They are unpaid labor serving as a free minor league to professional sports leagues, often at significant cost to taxpayers and students. Marcus Smart could quit right now, go play in Europe for a few months with compensation, and then go declare for the draft. But then he’d been seen as even more of a bad apple. Instead, wherever he plays next on the road, opposing fans can use whatever racial epithets they want and there’s really nothing anyone is going to do about it.