While addressing a large crowd at the Salt Palace Convention Center last week, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recited one of his favorite statistics: Fewer than 1 percent of his league’s fans ever attend a game in person. That fact neatly summarizes the league’s global vision and massive digital audience, but it isn’t intended to diminish the in-person experience. Indeed, from its social media posts to its endless television camera angles to its cultivation of courtside celebrities, the NBA’s business model is built upon conveying immediacy and access to all fans, wherever they might be.
A few days later, directly across the street from the Salt Palace, the NBA world witnessed a worst-case scenario for what can happen when that access is abused.
During a game Monday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, Russell Westbrook was caught on tape directing profane threats at a pair of Utah Jazz fans he alleged had heckled him with “racial and inappropriate” comments. The Oklahoma City Thunder superstar later told reporters that the incident wasn’t a matter of him losing his temper or even just a case of hecklers crossing the line. It was, instead, the latest example of “very disrespectful” comments and behavior endured by black players in an arena known for its passion and hostility. “A young man and his wife in the stands told me to get down on my knees like you used to,” Westbrook said.
Westbrook’s explanation of the 32-second video in which he told off Shane Keisel and his female companion — “I’ll f--- you up. You and your wife.” — immediately prompted a wave of support. Teammates Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton confirmed his account of the heckling, Jazz star Donovan Mitchell acknowledged previous issues at the arena, and former players testified to their own negative experiences in Salt Lake City, which is 75 percent white. National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts then called for a “zero tolerance” policy against unruly fans.
Both the NBA and the Jazz suddenly found themselves in a public relations crisis. The Jazz responded forcefully, issuing lifetime bans to Keisel and another fan who was caught on tape calling Westbrook “boy” last year. During a pregame address Thursday, owner Gail Miller said that her organization “believes in treating people with courtesy and respect” and that “other teams are not our enemies.” General Manager Dennis Lindsey apologized to the Thunder and, in an interview with USA Today, called on “every Caucasian [to] take a look at themselves and look at their heart.”
Silver, who drew widespread praise for banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for his racist comments, issued a memo reminding teams to clearly state and strictly enforce their code of conduct policies governing fan misbehavior. The NBA also fined Westbrook $25,000 for his comments to the fans.
Even with just a few days of distance from the incident, valuable lessons have emerged. While the NBA was right to sanction Westbrook, both the league and the Thunder should have gone further to officially condemn violence against women. In his statement to reporters, Westbrook distanced himself from his threats against Keisel’s female companion, noting that he has “no history of domestic violence.” He also refused to apologize. In light of the charged circumstances, Westbrook’s stance was understandable. Nevertheless, the league shouldn’t have allowed that to stand as the final word on such an important topic.
Considering the extraordinary pressure and intense judgment from outsiders, Miller’s overall handling of the controversy was impressive. But it wasn’t perfect. During her address to Jazz fans, she said: “We are not a racist community.” As both a billionaire and a white woman, she was not in position to make such an unequivocal declaration.
Miller’s desire not to be defined by the worst members of her community and fan base is only natural, but she is mistaken to equate her goals for her community or her own beliefs with the lived experiences of Salt Lake City’s minorities. Her words, intended to heal and inspire, instead revealed privilege’s power to blind the well intentioned from potentially uncomfortable realities.
It’s a credit to Silver that the NBA’s culture allows players to speak openly and expects teams to take immediate action to conform to the league’s values. Here, though, it must be noted that the NBA and the Jazz had no choice.
The NBA product has long been about dunks and three-pointers, but it’s now inseparable from the immersive viewing experience. Backboard cameras. Video games. Virtual reality broadcasts. Nightly fashion shows as players walk through the tunnels. Live-streamed pregame warmups and postgame podium news conferences.
To guide his league’s growth, Silver has obsessed over TV viewership stats, openly admitted that the NBA is “competing against [fans’] smartphones” when they are at games and tweaked rules to encourage a high-scoring style. “I can almost smell that experience of going with my dad to my first Knicks game,” Silver said in Utah. “The majesty of Madison Square Garden. You remember the emotional connection. That’s the business we’re all in now.”
After years of player complaints going largely unheard, there’s a clear takeaway from this week’s controversy: Unruly fans — who represent a small fraction of arena attendees, who in turn represent a small fraction of global basketball consumers — no longer have a home in the NBA’s modern business model. Aggrieved players such Westbrook have every reason to wonder why it took so long for this tipping point to materialize.