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On Monday night Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was caught on tape telling a Utah Jazz fan "I'll (expletive) you up. You and your wife."
NBA fans quickly seized on the moment, calling it a bad look and expecting a suspension to come from the league. A suspension may still be on its way for Westbrook, or at least a fine, for the verbal altercation.
Then Westbrook told his side of the story, saying that the fan had told him to "get down on your knees like you're used to," which provoked a response from Westbrook.
Then people found the fan on social media.
This morning my colleague Ted Berg wrote a column asking if we know too much about sports. If there was too much information, too deep an understanding of games that are meant to be distractions. He concluded we did not, and (for the most part) knowledge is a good thing.
This Westbrook incident is another one of those instances where I am glad we have the internet. Fifteen years ago, we would have labeled Russell Westbrook a problem or worse for what he yelled at a fan on Monday night.
Today, we can (more quickly and easily) learn about the fan, and begin to understand and empathize with, if not exactly condone, what Westbrook did. It took people less than 12 hours to not only figure out who the fan was, but that this fan has a social media presence that contains racist, violent and xenophobic language. (Warning: The above link contains all of the language just described.)
For some fans, I imagine this entire episode will be exhausting. Sports used to be simpler, because we were presented with limited viewpoints. We cheered for the home team. Our guys were good guys and the other guys were bad guys. If someone yelled at a fan or griped about a contract, they were a "bad locker room presence" or a "distraction."
Did any of that reflect reality? Not really. But things were simpler. Things made sense.
Now we have to have a lot of information, at all times, from everywhere. It forces us to think, to hold more than one idea in our heads at one time. We can no longer blindly root. The guy griping about his contract, we now know, is concerned for the longterm future of his health, has a frighteningly quick career on average, and is being squeezed by a team owner worth billions, an owner who is a symbol of the income inequality our nation and world is dealing with.
The point guard screaming at the fan isn't just an immature malcontent, especially when the fan allegedly said something horrible and has a history that appears to show extremely racist and violent thinking. Not to mention, many of our willingness to condemn Westbrook shows our eagerness to side with the white person, a reflection of implicit racial bias that infects far too much of our country.
This is all messy. It's all tough to deal with. It's easier to just fall back on cliches and long for the good old days when things made sense. We want to root for guys who want to win for the ball club. We don't want the real world creeping in.
That's all understandable, to a degree, but it's not what it is to be a responsible citizen, or sports fan, in 2019. You have to do the work.
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