Russell Westbrook‘s heated verbal confrontation at a game in Utah was just the latest example in what appeared to be a growing trend of racist taunts from the NBA fans. The Oklahoma City Thunder star’s words for Utah Jazz fan Shane Keisel have already been well documented, but it also shined a light on what could be a much larger issue: Does the NBA have a racist white fan problem?
Westbrook is not only a star athlete, but he’s also known for not holding his tongue. So on Monday night, when he said he heard Keisel yelling to him, “get on [your] knees like you used to,” that was no exception. In a now viral video, Westbrook can be heard shouting, “I will f– you up!”
After the game was over, Westbrook told reporters he thought the fan’s comments were “completely disrespectful“ and “racial.” In the interview, he went on to say that the NBA lacks protections for players in these situations as he has experienced similar hostility in Utah.
It was later revealed that Keisel was a member of the MAGA movement after a series of his now-deleted tweets that said in part, “Russell Westbrook needs to go back where he came from #MAGA.” Of course, Keisel wiped his Twitter feed clean, but not before people took screenshots.
On Tuesday, the Utah Jazz franchise banned Keisel for life from ever returning to watch a game.
In addition, the NBA fined Westbrook $25,000, following the league’s a familiar formula of addressing player misconduct while seemingly ignoring the root cause, which in this case was a player being taunted by a racist fan.
Utah fans, in general, have been known to be pretty brutal. A 2008 Bleacher Report story highlighted an incident where former Jazz player Derek Fisher was subjected to insensitive taunts about his daughter having cancer when he returned to Utah playing for another team. And while there were no statistics pointing to the racial makeup of fans who attend NBA games, the analytics-driven website FiveThirtyEight found that more than 45 percent of NBA fans were white. Black NBA fans were at 31 percent.
But when it comes to racist displays and taunts from crowds at NBA games, a quick look at the recent past shows what happened to Westbrook Monday night was not an anomaly.
Just last month, two Sacramento Kings fans wore customized NBA jerseys emblazoned with the words “Build the Wall” and “Trump.” Photos of the fans, Daniel Goldsmith and Pete Molinelli, began to circulate and draw criticism. Goldsmith claimed he wore controversial jerseys to Kings games “ever once in a while” because it was funny. But what was not funny were the racist undertones that are too real for many people in this country.
The Kings and other NBA teams have a policy against “obscene” and “indecent” signs and clothing, but many times the definitions of what is considered unacceptable were not clear enough and allow for people like Goldsmith and Molinelli to slide through the cracks.
Former NBA star Matt Barnes admitted in December that he had experienced racist fans during his 14-year-career and described Utah as being very racial and as having more “N-words than black people in the city.”
Obviously, racist fans are not exclusive to the NBA. Athletes in other sports experience racism, as well. But it was unclear what these professional athletic associations were doing to protect athletes from the very real dangers racist fans can present.
“I’ve gotten the N-word, all of that,” Golden State Warrior Draymond Green said following an incident where a Baltimore Orioles player, Adam Jones, was called the N-word during a game in Boston in 2017. “I’d rather not get into [where]. … Athletes are just not protected in that regard. Maybe something like [the Jones incident] will help.”
In February 2016, when current New Orleans Pelicans player Solomon Hill was with the Indiana Pacers, his mother revealed she had been called a “coon” during a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Given all these examples of racist fans at NBA games, it would seem as though the NBA has been more reactive than proactive to put an end to this unfortunate recurring theme.