Hamilton: Racism claim causes a stir in USA

18:26, Feb 12 2014

The Winter Olympics may have begun but, in America, they're more worried about why a college basketball player shoved a fan.

One of the country's best college players, Marcus Smart, fell into the crowd after blocking a shot on Sunday in a close game between Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. As he got up to return to the game, a fan behind him said something.

Smart retorted then shoved him before returning to the floor where he was promptly given a technical foul.

Smart claimed the fan, a middle-aged white man, called him a nigger. Self-proclaimed super-fan Jeff Orr, who travels across the country to watch his former university play, has denied that, although he admitted in a text to abusing Smart.

"I kinda let my mouth say something I shouldn't have, I feel bad," he texted, later adding that it was not "vulgar or the N-word."

It has been reported that Orr told Smart to "go back to Africa", although that seems to be based on some amateur lip-reading of video of the incident.

Smart is almost certain to be suspended for this. That seems appropriate because sports can't have athletes getting physical with spectators. But Orr should also be banned from watching live college sport if he did indeed say anything racist.

Some fans clearly believe that paying money for tickets gives them the right to yell awful insults at players and even tip drinks on them, as happened to LeBron James during the playoffs two years ago.

It doesn't. But they seem to think that they're safe to do so from behind the invisible barrier that separates athletes from spectators, similar to the way some people feel free to make offensive gestures when they're behind the wheel of a car.

Smart is 19. Orr is in his 50s. Which of them should we expect the more mature behaviour from?

Basketball is particularly sensitive to the issue of players taking on spectators because of the "Malice at the Palace" brawl 10 years ago in Detroit. This began when a drunk fan threw a drink over the player formerly known as Ron Artest, now Metta World Peace, who charged into the stands, and not with peaceful intentions. This led to a wild melee between players and fans and the longest suspensions and largest fines in NBA history. Nine spectators were injured.

Basketball is also particularly vulnerable to it happening because of the close proximity of fans and players. Players often end up in the laps of courtside spectators, as Smart did in the weekend.

It would be relatively simple to fix. They could take out the first couple of rows of seating, moving spectators further from the court. But they're not willing to take this step because it would reduce revenue (naturally courtside seats are the most expensive), and the atmosphere wouldn't be the same.

But, by leaving them so close, the occasional confrontation is inevitable and they're effectively relying on the restraint of players, young alpha males pumped with adrenalin.

It seems a big risk to take, particularly in a country known for its love of litigation.


It was great to see Tim Wilkinson playing in the final pairing at the Pebble Beach tournament yesterday. Danny Lee has always been regarded as the more talented golfer but it was clear during the tournament that Wilkinson plays more intelligently. His course management was far superior to Lee's and it was reflected in their scoring.


The Press