Marcus Smart is not the problem

Marcus Smart is a talented basketball player whose level of college play will eventually lead him to the NBA. The Oklahoma State University sophomore has been harangued by fans, pundits and the blogosphere for his run-in with Texas Tech’s “super fan” Jeff Orr. You may recall that Smart shoved Orr after Orr and a female companion and another older female fan yelled obscenities at Smart while he was going for a ball which landed him near the stands.

In fact, one of the ladies had a Jan Brewer moment, shoving her finger into Smart’s face, which can be seen before he shoves Orr.  Initially it was reported that Orr called Marcus Smart the n-word and told him to go back to Africa.

Orr admits that he called Smart a “piece of crap,” but did not use a racial slur, as if that is acceptable. I fully believe that Orr called him the n-word because that is a word that would elicit that kind of response from Smart or any other self-respecting person of color being bullied by an aging “super fan” without moral boundaries. NBA basketball player John Lucas, III said that Orr used to say horrible things to him while he was playing college basketball. There’s footage of Orr making an obscene hand gesture at players in 2010. Even Desmond Mason, an 11-year NBA veteran who believes that Smart’s response was wrong, stated that he was called the n-word “every” game he played in Lubbock.

There is the rub – a history and culture of racism that cannot be cured by the addition of Tubby Smith as head coach. The idea that black players are supposed to rise above the fray when they are the only players being bullied and harassed with hateful words based on the color of their skin is ridiculous. This type of treatment of black athletes is not specific to the U.S. One only has to look at the horrific display of cruelty lobbed at AC Milan soccer player Mario Ballotelli who was reduced to tears by racist taunts from fans. Ballotelli, whose parents are from Ghana, was repeatedly bullied and called racist epithets including “monkey” during the game.

This type of brutal behavior is common practice in soccer, with fans waving and throwing banana peels on the field and shouting racist obscenities at players of African descent. Last May, Roma fans did the same thing to Ballotelli, with the referee having to stop the match to ask fans to refrain from the racist insults, which leads me back to Marcus Smart.

When are people in positions of authority like Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford  going to stand up for black players? His pathetic press conference claiming to love Smart and know the player’s heart would suggest that he would support Marcus Smart instead of throwing him under the bus, backing up and running over him again. Coaches like Ford stand on the shoulders of these players en route to each national championship making millions of dollars for the NCAA, schools and a host of other stakeholders, but when “superfans,” many of whom are also boosters  (hence the great seats) hurl the most vile racist epithets at players, the coach doesn’t stand up for the player or speak out against the behavior of the overzealous fan?

Instead of admonishing Marcus Smart for his reaction, which is understandable when facing that type of verbal assault, shouldn’t we be admonishing the bullying of players with verbally abusive and racist language? It’s easy to say what you will or won’t do from the sidelines or while sitting in front of computer, but when faced with the type of verbal abuse that black athletes experience, on a regular and ongoing basis at games and in the blogosphere, who is to say what one would do, especially a teenager?

If I have said it once, I’ve said it many times that the world is unwilling to see young, black men as victims. One only has to look at the photo of Ballotelli weeping after a game or the use of Trayvon Martin’s image to promote a “celebrity” boxing match to as examples of this phenomena. One only has to look at Smart’s treatment by a coach who claims to “love” him and “know his heart,” but fails to stand up for this young man whom he knows was wronged.

It is 2014, not 1914 so why are we acting like some aging white man hurling racist insults at a young black player is par for the course?

In fact, it is 2014 and fans should know better. There is a reason for the term “fighting words,” and if you choose to use fighting words like racist epithets, then there could be consequences. If Orr is “man” enough to verbally abuse players, then he should be “man” enough to accept the consequences.

I’m one of the few people on this planet who thinks that Marcus Smart did nothing wrong in that instance and should not have had to apologize for standing up for himself, especially when it has become increasingly clear that no one will stand up for him, including his coach, against a mean-spirited fan with a long history of verbally abusing players. Orr and his crew (I’m not letting his female companion off of the hook) have gone unchecked for decades and if those in power like the coaches, NCAA officials and referees fail to rein in abusive fans, then what do they think is going to happen?

The continued pummeling of Marcus Smart, who has been suspended for 3 games,  while overlooking the conditions that caused the action reflects the willingness of many who should know better, help perpetuate what has become normative – the demonizing of young black men to explain away bad behavior by full-grown adults. I cannot imagine hateful fans on the sidelines calling women players the b-word or c-word at the top of their lungs and nothing happening. Why is this acceptable behavior by fans towards black athletes?

During the press conference, a female reporter asked Coach Ford if Marcus Smart was going to get some counseling to deal with his issues. If the NCAA, athletic directors, coaches, fans and sports journalists are willing to lay this entire debacle at the feet of a 19-year-old, then clearly Smart isn’t the only one in need of counseling.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is the founder & editor-in-chief of the award-winning news site The Burton Wire.  She is a media scholar examines the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality in legacy and new media.