After the Apologies

Oklahoma State basketball player Marcus Smart was suspended for three games by the Big 12 Conference Sunday for shoving a fan in the final seconds of Saturday’s game at Texas Tech.

The Apologies

The sophomore guard addressed the media saying:

I want to apologize to the fan, whose name is Jeff Orr…I want to apologize to my teammates, to my coaching staff, Coach Ford, my family, Oklahoma State University. This is not how I (conduct) myself, this is not how this program is run. This is not how I was raised. I let my emotions get the best of me. Just can’t let that happen again. This is a lesson I’ll have to learn from. The consequences that are coming with it, I’m taking full responsibility. No finger pointing. This is all upon me…I have a lot of people that look up to me, a lot of little kids, so once again, I truly apologize. This is not me. I really do apologize for it. Like I said, I take full responsibility and the consequences that come with it.

ESPN’s Jeff Goodman said a member of the basketball program confirmed to him that immediately after the incident, Smart told his coaches that Orr called him a racial slur.

Texas Tech conducted its own investigation of the altercation that said no racial slur was heard. In a statement released through the school, Orr denied using a slur. The statement said:

I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere apologies to Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State, Tubby Smith and the Texas Tech Men’s Basketball program,” Orr said in a statement. “My actions last night were inappropriate and do not reflect myself or Texas Tech — a university I love dearly. I regret calling Mr. Smart a ‘piece of crap’ but I want to make it known that I did not use a racial slur of any kind. Additionally, I would like to offer my apologies to Texas Tech fans that have been embarrassed by the attention this incident has created.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, Orr has volunteered to not attend any more Texas Tech men’s basketball games this season.

The Aftermath

It was good to see contrition from both Marcus Smart and Jeff Orr.

Smart appeared genuine in his statement. Speaking without notes, he apologized and took responsibility for his actions and accepted the penalties for his behavior.

Smart’s 3-game suspension was deserved. He was wrong. He knows that. A player can’t get involved in any physical alteration with a fan.

Jeff Orr also appeared genuine is his apology. He has been described as a passionate fan who travels to see his team play. Former Texas Tech coach Pat Knight told ESPN:

I was shocked that he was involved. I know he’s a crazy fan, a big supporter and a loyal guy, and I know him as a great guy. That’s why I was so surprised.

If you watch the video, you know that whatever Marcus Smart heard infuriated him. We don’t know what was said. We know what Jeff Orr has stated were the comments he made to Marcus Smart. Maybe Orr said more than he has admitted to saying. Perhaps Smart was frustrated by his team’s 5th loss in 6-games, and that was what caused him to lose his cool and react. We just don’t know.

No matter the reason, Oklahoma State’s best player has been suspended for three games. He had to be suspended. But, the reality is that a fan’s behavior helped bring that about.

That’s not good.

Hopefully, this latest incident won’t embolden fans elsewhere to ratchet-up abusive rhetoric in an effort to entice another team’s top player to make the same mistake at Marcus Smart. The last thing we need is to further incentivize bad behavior at sporting events.

The Rights of Fans

The First Amendment gives us broad rights. Short of inciting violence or creating a safety hazard, we have the freedom to publicly express our opinions in public settings using language that may anger others.

If you’ve attended games, chances are you’ve heard comments directed at visiting players that are vulgar, obscene, and offensive. It’s become really personal. There are fans who spend the entire game riding opponents rather than cheering for their own teams. They try to get under the skin of those players in an effort to get them to loose focus on the game. There seems to be the feeling that pretty much anything goes when it comes to trying to give your team a home field or home court advantage.

Why do we view this belittling of competitors as an acceptable part of sports? Things we wouldn’t say in any other public setting, we feel O.K. to yell at a game. The response we get usually revolves around tradition. “It’s always been that way”, we’re told.

That’s an explanation, but not a justification to continue it. Shouldn’t our thinking about this evolve over time? Just because fans have acted that way for many years shouldn’t be a reason to find it acceptable.

We have reexamined our beliefs about bullying. It’s time we did the same for our sports culture. Obscene and offensive verbal abuse of players and officials should end.

Where To Draw the Line

Of course, what I view as offensive behavior may not be what you view as objectionable. And, there’s the problem. It’s subjective. That makes governing behavior through the writing of rules and regulations difficult, and enforcement problematic.

That said, we should be able to agree that our society overall would benefit from a higher level of civility. That’s especially true now when social media gives people the means to instantly send cruel, vile and abusive messages, with little or no accountability.

In the case of college sports, legal observers have said private schools have more lee-way than public institutions in fashioning fan conduct rules. Generally, behavior viewed as “disruptive” can be banned, but stricter guidelines curtailing obscene or offensive words and gestures cannot be restricted, unless it has an impact on the safety of fans or players.

But, let’s take this issue beyond what’s “legal”.

Here are my questions for you.

  • Where do you think a fan should draw the line in the verbal abuse of opponents at a sporting event?
  • What, if any, role should respect and dignity play in sports competition and fan conduct?
  • How does the age of the players and level of competition factor into your view?

I’m truly interested in your views on this.

The Need For Change

I’ve started Even Field to help bring greater respect, responsibility, fairness, compassion, and integrity to sports and life. These are shared values that promote an atmosphere of fair play and respectful competition. There is no downside. They won’t reduce the effort or desire to win. And, extending this mindset to society would benefit everyone.

No one can be forced to behave ethically. Ethics is a choice. To move beyond the “Win at all costs” approach in sports and life, young people will have to make a conscious decision to do it. It will happen when they decide that integrity is important to their lives.

Please offer your thoughts on the questions posed above. I look forward to hearing from you.

Photo credit: Murray State via Flickr

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