PRESS BOX: More than entertainers, athletes are real people, too

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Arrick Wilson, Interim Sports Editor

In the 75 years of the NBA’s tenure, fans have always been an essential part of the game. Whether featuring courtside seats held by high-profile celebrities, or packed arenas with rowdy spectators, however, there has always been a prevalence of negative incidents involving fans. 

Over the years, fans across the world have become overly accustomed to treating athletes as only entertainers, rather than viewing them as talented professionals doing their job. This sense of entitlement was put on a pause toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when fans would no longer be a factor in games.

On March 12, 2020, the basketball world stood still when the NBA halted all play “until further notice,” after players from the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19. 

We would not see the NBA return to play until July 30 of that same year, but this time without fans. To give the league an opportunity to reset its season, the NBA created a “bubble” — a place where the league could continue its season in a controlled and isolated environment.

The bubble was held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida and included an adjusted season consisting of 22 out of the 32 NBA teams. The original 16 teams were based on NBA standings at the time of the league stoppage of play, and the additional six were based on teams on the brink of playoff contention.

Games were allowed to continue, but with no outside spectators. For the first time in the NBA’s history, there was no in-person fan presence at games, as fans tuned in virtually. NBA athletes and coaches were forced to isolate themselves from family members for more than two months. As a result, the bubble was hard for some players mentally.

“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” said Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, who went on to win the NBA championship that year.

Mental health also played a big role for some players, like Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George, who noticed a decrease in playing ability in the bubble playoffs of 2020, averaging a little over 20 points per game.

Instead of encouraging George, fans on Twitter trolled George’s self-given nickname, “Playoff P,” changing it to “Pandemic P,” due to his decrease in points per game.

After a game-five win against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs, George admitted to having a hard time in the bubble. At that time, George revealed it was due to dealing with depression and anxiety. 

“I underestimated mental health, honestly,” George said in a postgame interview. “I had anxiety, a little bit of depression, from being locked in here. I just wasn’t here, I was checked out. Games two, three and four, I wasn’t there.”

The bubble taught me that we as fans are spoiled, to the point where we don’t respect other athletes in their own right. We forget that these athletes are humans. We forget that these athletes are more than entertainers. We take these athletes who risk their bodies and minds for their respective sports for granted.

Fan abuse has moved beyond mentally attacking and trolling, it has gotten physical. During the 2021 NBA playoffs, fans were allowed back in arenas due to the relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions. One would think fans would be grateful after one year of no in-person games. But it was the opposite — fans were very disrespectful to players. This was very evident on May 26 of this year, in the first round of the NBA playoffs, where three prominent fan incidents occurred. Fans threw food at the athletes, made racist comments to the players’ families and even spit on the players.

The first incident was in the second game between the New York Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks, where a fan spit on Atlanta Hawks All-Star guard Trae Young. This fan was later banned from Madison Square Garden. Young declined to press charges, but took to Twitter to respond to the incident.

“Damn… Crazy !” Young said when quoting the tweet from a user that posted the video.

In the second incident, a fan pelted popcorn at former Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook as he was going to the arena tunnel after suffering an ankle injury. The incident happened in game two of the Philadelphia 76ers and Washington Wizards. The fan was also reprimanded by the 76ers Wells Fargo Center by being banned indefinitely and losing their season tickets.

“To be completely honest, this shit is getting out of hand, especially for me,” said Westbrook in response to the conflict. “The amount of disrespect, the amount of fans just doing whatever the fuck they want to do — it’s just out of pocket. There are certain things that cross the line.”

In the third incident, three Jazz fans were banned for making lewd and racist comments during a game toward Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant’s family. Morant’s father, Tee Morant, said the words that were exchanged were more than heckling.

“I know heckling. We were doing that the whole game. But that’s different than heckling. That’s straight-up disrespectful. That was too far out of line. You don’t say nothing like that heckling. That’s beyond heckling,” said Tee Morant in a phone interview with ESPN.

According to Tee Morant, another Jazz fan told him, “I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy.”

Tee Morant also said another fan yelled at Jamie Morant, the mother of Ja Morant, swearing at her.

The abuse that both fans and nonfans put athletes through should be considered criminal; it also takes away from the game itself. Abuse from fans can take away from an athlete’s capacity to play their game.

Fans and people across the world should make it their responsibility to not only respect athletes, but to treat athletes like humans.

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