This summer a group of NBA players met with league officials to discuss the growing problem of fan behavior. Bad behavior causes a safety concern and is often racially motivated. The racial confrontations are heightened since most NBA players are black and many of the people in the seats closest to the court are white. However, white players have also been complaining to their union as well. Adding to the tension is the close proximity that fans have with players at games, which is unusual in professional sports.
The NBA is taking actionable steps to crack-down on this behavior. Let’s look at some notable incidents from the past few years and examine what the NBA is doing in response.
NBA fans have been causing issues for years
While abusive NBA fan behavior is a long-standing issue since the league integrated, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, Michele Roberts, said she noticed an increase in bad behavior last season:
“I was seeing more bad-mouthing opposing teams that were not simply ‘you suck,’ which every one of us will tolerate, but really nasty, nasty comments being directed at players.”
While specific numbers of ejections are not known and are thought to be low, last season, ejections from the courtside area more than doubled. In June, The Athletic reported that five times the number of fans were banned during the 2018–2019 season as compared with 2017–2018.
The NBA has made some changes this season to better protect their players from abuses in the workplace. The problems of racism in society as a whole have also shown up in fan behavior in leagues from the NHL to European soccer, but the NBA is stepping up efforts to reduce and punish their fans’ bad behavior this season.
NBA fan incidents around the country
While many incidents have happened around the country to various players, here’s a look at three recent ones.
Fans yelled racist taunts at Westbrook in Salt Lake City in two separate incidents. During the 2018 playoffs, a fan called Westbrook “boy” during warmups before the game. Westbrook called for security in response.
Last season in March, Westbrook was drawn into a shouting match with a disrespectful fan. The fan later said he thought they were just having fun. Both fans who were involved were banned for life by the Jazz. Westbrook was also fined $25,000 for threatening the fan he shouted at.
A fan, who was a minor, shouted abusive language at Cousins in Boston last January. Allegedly racial slurs were also used, but the investigation wasn’t able to confirm that. The fan involved was ejected from the game and banned by the Celtics for two years.
Mark Stevens, a Golden State Warriors minority owner sitting courtside, pushed Lowry during the NBA Finals and used obscene language. Stevens shoved Lowry’s left shoulder after Lowry landed in the courtside seats in an attempt to save a loose ball.
Stevens also swore at Lowry several times afterward. The league banned Stevens for a year from team games and business and fined him $500,000. Stevens did issue an apology statement.
In response to all of these incidents, the NBA is cracking down. They now have a new policy of zero tolerance for abusive and hateful fan behavior. NBA executive vice president and chief security officer Jerome Pickett, hired in 2014, has been overseeing the new changes in security protocol. He previously spent 16 years with the Secret Service.
The NBA has had a fan code of conduct for many years, but it will now have additional promotion at every game. Pickett said they have included in the policy “any sexist language or LGBTQ language, any denigrating language in that way, anything that is non-basketball-related.”
The rules will especially apply to fans seated closest to the court and players. The NBA will now monitor a larger area of the stadium, including several rows back from the court as well as entrance/exit areas to the court.
Any infractions will result in ejections or more. Season-ticket holders have been warned that they could lose their seats over harassment, even if a friend was using their tickets. Security guards will remove fans from their seats while an incident is investigated through witness interviews and audio and video evidence.
The fan is either warned with a warning card, ejected, and/or banned. Increased security involvement is intended to take the burden of addressing fan behavior off the players. This is good news for the players, as they can now just focus on the game. There’s no reason the players should have to deal with this.