In Light of the Russell Westbrook Incident, the NBA Must Address Fan Behavior

Fans are an integral part of sports.

They support a team — emotionally and financially — and create an atmosphere that’s designed to help their squad succeed. But what happens when fans attack opposing players – both verbally and physically?

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This was never an issue until Nov. 19, 2004 at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

On this night, the Pacers and Pistons engaged in a brawl that’s now known as the Malice at the Palace.

Pacers forward Ron Artest jumped into the stands after a fan threw a cup at him while he was resting on the scorer’s table. While the initial brawl started before the fan got involved, it completely escalated when Artest made his way into the crowd.

Stephen Jackson joined Artest in fighting the fans, resulting in the latter being suspended for the rest of the season and the former getting 30 games.

In total, nine players received suspensions for their actions.

Fast forward 15 years later to Monday night, where an agitated Russell Westbrook shouted, “I will f— you up. You and your wife. I’ll f— you up,” to a pair of Jazz fans that directed “derogatory verbal abuse” toward the Thunder star during the game.

Check out this thread from Eric Woodyard of the Deseret News, including video of the incident itself and Westbrook’s postgame comments.

Here’s Jazz fan Shane Keisel’s side of the story.

That story clearly didn’t add up as Utah announced on Tuesday that Keisel is permanently banned from attending future events at the Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Once the incident occurred, many fans assumed that Westbrook was just guilty of being thin-skinned while receiving a heckling from a persistent fan.

It’s clear that opposing teams’ fans seem to enjoy targeting Westbrook, who’s one of the NBA’s most polarizing players and wears his emotions on his sleeve.

Some love his energy, some loathe it. Some see it as competitiveness, while others view it as showboating. Because of that, multiple NBA fans have crossed the line while trying to “psych-out” Westbrook over the years.

Exhibit A:

Moments like these make it apparent that there’s a vocal minority of fans who believe that since they bought a $110 ticket, they can treat these “rich” athletes however they see fit.

But as Thunder guard Raymond Felton told reporters, NBA players are actually human beings who have feelings and don’t deserve that kind of treatment.

While the Jazz handed out “warning cards” to several fans in relation to last night’s incident, it didn’t seem to deter them from their inappropriate behavior.

Even though Utah is known as a tough environment to play in due to the behavior displayed by its fans, don’t think that this is just a Jazz problem. According to Felton, this sort of thing happens to Westbrook in almost every other NBA arena.

This leads to the question of how can organizations provide their fans with a great game experience, but also protect the players from unruly spectators?

Fans collectively impact a franchise’s bottom line, but not nearly at the level that a player does. And as Westbrook said, the organization often protects fans more than the athletes.

Which is why it’s no surprise that Westbrook received a $25,000 fine for his role in Monday’s incident.

But a moment like this proves that the NBA has a bigger problem on its hands, and as one of the most socially active leagues in all of professional sports, this might be one issue in which the usually proactive NBA can’t find an adequate solution for.

And if the Association can’t figure out how to effectively discourage and punish disrespectful fans, we could witness a rise of incidents similar to Monday’s ugly showing.

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