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Fan-Athlete Relations… do we have a problem?

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The world of fan-athlete relations is in a weird place right now.

On Sunday morning at St. Andrews park, Jack Grealish was attacked by a hooligan hopped up on Strongbow or Boddingtons. Paul Mitchell managed to evade security and plod towards Grealish, ultimately sucker punching him from behind and knocking him to the ground, creating a few moments of chaos.

Mitchell was pulled off the field, proud of himself, waving to fans and smiling. In an example of swift justice, Mitchell was arrested and sentenced to 14 months in prison; he also has to pay Grealish 100 pounds in compensation. Grealish got the last laugh, scoring the winning goal on the road and celebrating with the Aston Villa fans in the away stand.

Later on that Sunday, Manchester United striker and wonder-boy, Marcus Rashford was yelled at during a match at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Neil Ashton of The Sun wrote, “When his second half free-kick went wide of Bernd Leno’s post yesterday, one Arsenal fan made himself heard above all the others by screaming: ‘F*** off Rashford, you Manc c***.’”

This type of verbal abuse feels like, sadly, a pretty normal occurrence in this day and age. However, these two moments came of the heels of a New York Times piece by Rory Smith titled Raheem Sterling has had Enough.” In the piece Sterling, the 24 year-old English international and Manchester City forward, talks about the poor treatment he has experienced from both fans and media. As a black athlete in England, he has been verbally attacked by fans and has had expectations laid on him by the media that he thinks are unfair and, frankly, racist.

That was just Sunday… Monday comes next…

In Utah, thousands of miles from bloated hard-cider drinking hooligans, the NBA found itself with it’s own fan-athlete relations nightmare. During the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder game Russell Westbrook had it out with some Jazz fans. I’m not sure we can blame the 3% ABV beers that flow through the tap lines at Vivant Smart Home Arena (although, if they’re anything like the TDGarden tap lines, they probably pack a bit more of a punch…).

Anyway…

The altercation was caught by Eric Woodyard and it quickly became a thing on Twitter. Westbrook threatened a fan and his wife, “I’ll f*ck you up. You and your wife.” It was intense and Westbrook continued to “promise” he would follow through on his threat. Unfortunately, there is no footage (as of right now) of the fan and what he had to say. However, the fan, Shane Keisel thought it would be a swell idea to give an interview to offer his side of the story. According to Keisel he just simply gave Westbrook the same advice any Thunder trainer would give him, he told Westbrook to ice his knees. Keisel said they were having a fun back and forth.

Unfortunately for Keisel, Westbrook also has access to the media. Westbrook says that he was told to, “get on his knees like he used to.” Westbrook took exception to that, believing it had racial undertones, and lost his mind.

The internet is a crazy place, and people started immediately digging up stuff on Keisel. I’m not going to make any assumptions, but I think I believe Westbrook here. If anything, maybe it was a misunderstanding and Westbrook heard one thing and Keisel said something else.

Let’s not forget that Westbrook had a weird moment with a boy sitting courtside a few weeks ago. The boy reached out and poked Westbrook. Westbrook turned, ready for a fight, only to realize it was just some kid who thought he was on his Oculus watching the game at home.

As I was scrolling through Twitter last night, making sense of the Westbrook thing, another story popped up on my feed: Conor McGregor arrested.

Was I surprised? No, not really. He lives on the edge of insanity. We’ve seen it plenty of times… I mean, we’re talking about a guy that attacked a bus…

This time, McGregor flipped out on a fan in South Beach who wanted a picture. McGregor slapped the phone out of his hand, the phone broke, and McGregor was arrested.

South Beach is a helleva drug…

So what does all this have to do with anything?

I’m not sure, to be honest. Maybe this is just more fodder for people that think society is sinking into a burning pit. Maybe this is just a strange 48 hours.

We’ve been down this road before. The NBA had the Malice in The Palace. The English Premier League had Eric Cantona karate kicking a fan.

As tickets get more expensive and the experience is more fan-centered than game-centered, I think fans feel even more entitlement to do and say stupid stuff.

Athletes are also in an even smaller fishbowl than they have ever been before. People think they have a relationship with their favorite (or least favorite) player because they follow him/her on social media. Keisel even said it in his post-game press conference, he said he thought they were “having fun” and just bantering back and forth. But why is that a situation a fan should be aiming to create when they go to a game?

The internet is riddled with awesome moments of athletes going out of their way to do cool stuff for fans. It feels like every day a player gives shoes or a jersey to a fan after a game This is an incredible time to be a fan. We have a window into the lives of these players. We have more access than ever. Some of the access is curated, but who cares? It’s still fun.

As more information comes out about the Westbrook issue on Monday night and it turns out Keisel was yelling some derogatory stuff at Westbrook, he shouldn’t be allow back in the stadium for a long stretch of time. Heck, James Dolan banned some fan for yelling at him to sell the team this week.

Hopefully, the Utah ownership takes this as seriously as Dolan took a (smart) fans advice.


Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Sean Melia

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