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Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Civility is a Two Way Street

During Oklahoma City's 98-89 win at Utah on Monday night, a Utah fan named Shane Keisel peppered the Thunder's Russell Westbrook with a variety of unacceptable taunts, including racist ones. Westbrook, who has been the target of much fan abuse--particularly in Utah--pointed Keisel out to security, adding that he would "f-- up" Keisel and Keisel's female companion. Westbrook later stated that Keisel had urged Westbrook to "get down on your knees, like you are used to," and Westbrook added, "Throughout the whole game, since I've been here, especially here in Utah, there's a lot of disrespectful things that's said. I'm not going to continue to take the disrespect to my family. There's gotta be something done. There's got to be some consequences for those types of people."

In some quarters, there is a false conception that playing in the NBA is a privilege, while attending a game as a fan is a right that entitles the fan to say and do just about anything. Playing in the NBA is an accomplishment that players earn through hard work. NBA players are not just the best basketball players in the world; many of them are among the best athletes in the world, regardless of sport. NBA players, like highly skilled professionals in any walk of life, deserve a tremendous amount of respect. Does that mean that a fan cannot boo and/or express a rooting preference? Of course not--but the idea that because a fan pays for a ticket to attend a game he or she can therefore say anything is incorrect not only morally but also legally.

From a moral standpoint, players are human beings, and part of the social contract that keeps society from descending into anarchy is that everyone should be treated with basic respect. There is also the respect that fans owe to other fans--including children who may be attending the game--to create and maintain a certain amount of decorum. Get loud, cheer, boo--but there is no place for profanity and there is certainly no place for blatant disrespect, let alone racism.

From a legal standpoint, a ticket is a revocable, limited license. What that means in plain English is that purchasing a ticket to a sports event provides the purchaser with the limited right to enter the venue, watch the game and then leave after the game is over. The right is "limited" based on the whims of the venue's management, who can revoke that license at any time--and that is the remedy that the Utah Jazz have properly taken in this instance.

On Tuesday, Jazz President Steve Starks announced that Keisel has been banned for life from attending any events at Vivint Smart Home Arena, including but not limited to Utah Jazz games. The Jazz released a statement that explained, "The organization conducted an investigation through video review and eyewitness accounts. The ban is based on excessive and derogatory verbal abuse directed at a player during the game that violated the NBA Code of Conduct. The Utah Jazz will not tolerate fans who act inappropriately. There is no place in our game for personal attacks or disrespect."

Starks added, "Everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment. Offensive and abusive behavior does not reflect the values of the Miller family, our organization and the community. We all have a responsibility to respect the game of basketball and, more importantly, each other as human beings. This has always been a hallmark of our incredible fan base and should forever be our standard moving forward."

In the wake of his improper conduct, Keisel did TV interviews during which he lied about what he said/did and attempted to spin the story in his favor, but the Jazz did their due diligence to uncover the truth.

Meanwhile, the NBA fined Westbrook $25,000 for using profane and threatening language. Westbrook left the league little choice considering the intemperate way that he directed attention toward his abuser but the focus here should be squarely on the instigator and not the injured party who responded. Imagine for a moment that you are at work doing your job and someone shows up and hurls offensive, racist language directly at you. Sure, the correct response is to politely contact security or the police and have the offender escorted out of the building. How many of you would do that without saying anything at all to the offender?

Charles Barkley once joked--but may have been half serious--that every player should be permitted to go in the stands once per season and beat the you know what out of a loud-mouthed fan. Obviously, that is not a realistic or legal solution to this problem but Barkley's point is that because of the NBA's weak response to this ongoing, escalating issue fans have become emboldened to say and do things that they would likely not do on the street. NBA security should be protecting fans from other fans, and players from fans--but fans who seek out conflict with players must face immediate and drastic consequences. If that does not happen on a consistent basis, Barkley's half-joke is going to become a reality that will be a nightmare for the NBA. Remember the Malice at the Palace? Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and the others were wrong to do what they did but fan misconduct needs to be addressed as well.

Monday was not a great day in the annals of NBA civility. During Cleveland's 126-101 rout of Toronto, Serge Ibaka grabbed the Cleveland's Marquese Chriss around the neck from behind and then threw a wild punch--that fortunately missed, or else would have done serious damage--in Chriss' direction. Chriss, taken by surprise, threw one punch in self-defense before retreating to safety as the players were separated. The NBA suspended Ibaka for three games because he is a repeat offender who was the primary instigator, but the NBA also suspended Chriss one game for throwing a punch. Under NBA rules, throwing a punch--whether or not it connects, and regardless of any mitigating circumstances--automatically leads to a suspension of at least one game.

The NBA's no-tolerance policy for punches is understandable, and can be traced back to the infamous Kermit Washington punch that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich, who was not even involved in the initial altercation; that incident is also one reason that the NBA has a no-tolerance policy for any player who leaves the bench area during a fight or altercation: while Tomjanovich was in the game at the time that the fight started, the NBA later realized the great potential danger involved with players running on to the court and either escalating a situation and/or possibly being severely injured by a player who believes that the player running on to the court is a threat.

However, criminal law recognizes that in some cases there are mitigating circumstances; that is why we have laws for manslaughter and involuntary homicide, plus laws that provide for a right to proportionately defend oneself.

In this particular instance, Ibaka attempted to put Chriss in a chokehold from behind and then Ibaka threw a hard punch at Chriss' head. No reasonable law or rule should require Chriss to passively wait for help. Chriss threw one punch, clearly in self-defense, and showed little if any further interest in engaging with Ibaka--which is remarkable restraint given the situation. The NBA should amend its no-tolerance policy for punches to include a provision that if a player is attacked in such a fashion that he cannot break free without throwing a punch then he will not be punished for throwing that punch, provided that he does not escalate the situation. Call it the "self-defense" exception. If the NBA is unwilling to provide such a provision for its players to defend themselves, then the NBA should not be surprised if another player gets seriously injured a la Tomjanovich, in which case that injured player would have every right not only to file criminal charges against his attacker but also perhaps a civil suit against the league for creating or fostering an unsafe work environment in which employees are subject to assault and battery but unable to protect themselves without being suspended.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 PM