In one corner of college basketball on Saturday, a Texas Tech fan jeered Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Smart retaliated with a two-handed shove that earned him a three-game suspension.
In another corner, Arizona State fans reportedly spit on Oregon coaches. Targeted with heckling? Standard. Targeted with expectorate? Unexpected.
A shudder of righteousness rippled through the sport, as everyone pondered where to draw lines and what must change. Then, a realization: It’s mostly the same as it ever was. Boorish fan behavior long predates this discussion. Measures to stifle it are in place (somewhat), and they are necessary. But they never will mute the worst of it.
“Anybody who wants to do a study of it should just study J.J. Redick’s four years at Duke and take a look at what he went through in some of the opposing arenas,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday. “People would not believe it. But because it was J.J., nobody really wrote about it. It was OK. It was OK to do that. And it’s not OK to do that. Especially in a collegiate event. It’s not OK to do some of the things that are done.”
With the Smart incident serving as a flashpoint, a coaching consensus emerged Monday: Social media may have only amplified an existing problem.
The messages to players by and large haven’t changed, either: Concentrate on the action between the lines and do not interact with harassing fans at any level. And while it is a school’s responsibility to police its own fan behavior, coaches also note that it might be generally impossible to do so.
“You can’t just rely on human decency to override the emotion and the passion of the game,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “I do think the line gets crossed constantly. I’m not in the student section, the fan section, but when we go on the road – and people might feel the same when they come to our arena -- the line does get crossed. The best thing you can do is cheer for your team. The best thing you can do is root against the other team without making it so personal. But we’re not going to legislate that. We’re not going to govern that.”
The case of Arizona State fans spitting on coaches might have been the most extreme case of the weekend. It has been 18 years since Chris Collins suited up for Duke in a college basketball game, but he recalled on Monday the overheated arenas and invective spewed about a player or a player’s family during road trips.
That didn’t change when he was an assistant with the Blue Devils nor even during this first year patrolling the sidelines for Northwestern. “Some of the venues we went in to play back then – it was very similar to what I’ve witnessed an assistant coach and a head coach,” Collins said. “That has remained the same. What has added to it now is the constant accessibility. Fans can get to the players in more ways than just showing up to the games.”
The theory goes that the version of courage gained behind a social media handle somehow spills into the gyms, which ratchets up the tension to a different degree.
“They’re so ignorant on Twitter that they figure they can do that face to face,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “If they were saying to your son or daughter what they’re saying to 90 percent of our players, you’d be fighting, too.”
What’s to be done? What’s always been done: Instruct players to be deaf to the invective. And be as active as possible in enforcing – or preempting – the most offensive verbal barbs.
The first part is easy to say, but more difficult to do. After Kentucky lost at Arkansas earlier this season, a picture of a Razorbacks fan approaching Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison went near-viral. The fan jawed at Harrison from point-blank range after the game. Harrison stared him down. But that was the extent of it.
“The kid charged Aaron and Aaron did not respond,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday. “Which was good. I liked that.”
Coaches nationwide observed the Smart conflagration and, presumably, issued reminders about maintaining composure in a tense atmosphere. “You want people to have an incredibly competitive spirit when they’re playing,” Crean said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a coach, a player -- it’s very, very hard to turn that off. If you turn it off too quickly, you don’t win games. You’ve got to keep trying to remind people that the fight is within the lines. Keep the fight in there, keep the edge in there, and try to treat the rest of it as noise that you work through.”
A school essentially bears the responsibility for ensuring the noise doesn’t become abusive. The only question is what a school is willing to do. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is routinely a caldron for opposing teams, with frothing fans packed in close quarters. But both Collins and Krzyzewski noted preventative measures taken over the years to minimize any mistreatment of the opposition.
If Krzyzewski spotted an inappropriate sign or heard an inappropriate chant, he stepped in. “He had the stature enough that if he said, ‘Hey, cut it out,’ they usually cut it out,” Collins said.
Per Krzyzewski, if Duke is aware of a player with personal issues “that might be really raked over the coals,” the school informs its fans to lay off. Beyond that, there’s little anyone can do to head off an off-color comment. Empowering ushers or security personnel to monitor fans and eject them when necessary is another solution. But it’s a solution already available and, at best, occasionally effective.
“What I’ve seen over the years though is the lack of game supervision by people, to try to prevent the fans from doing that,” Krzyzewski said. “Some places it’s unbelievable, others it’s not. You have to be the ones who make sure nothing happens. Game management in a lot of those situations does nothing.”
He then noted Duke hasn’t had a “bad situation” so far this year. In that, the Blue Devils may be among the lucky ones, because bad situations will continue to pop up without the strictest enforcement of behavior rules – enforcement that doesn’t seem too likely to occur.
Schools ask fans for rowdiness with respect, and no surprise that the latter gets swallowed up by the former.
“I get the passion, I get all that, I do, and I appreciate it very much,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “But there’s a difference between cheering hard for your team and yelling obscenities at an opposing player.”
Said Crean: “You don’t want it to be a great experience for (opposing teams), but you don’t want it to be one that it breaks their spirit. That’s where the line gets crossed.”
It happened again Saturday, a pair of ugly incidents inspiring everyone to wonder how they can be stopped. Maybe schools can ramp up security. Maybe conferences can send independent observers to games to monitor fan behavior and issue warnings and then fines for behavior that goes too far. It surely would encourage schools to take a harder line, to keep their pockets full by keeping fans’ mouths shut. But it also might be ridiculous to expect one person to assess such a thing accurately.
The most likely resolution to the problem: Coaches, as always, telling players to tune out noise that won’t go away.