In most areas of life, there are moments of crystallization that occur. Moments where the noise and static, the hustle and bustle, the how loud and how soon all stop for a spell, and we collectively look and ponder. Sport is no different. Every now and then, there are events that cause us to see past our own teams, where they stand, and who they have next. These events usually lead to the tongue waggers on radio pontificating profusely (Full disclosure: I am one), the jockeys in suits at ESPN to drive a story until it burdens, the water coolers to boil with “Did you see that?” amazement. Two such events unfolded recently, and while they bear no resemblance in game, geography, or circumstance, they have caused consternation and condemnation from many quarters. Both events serve as a flashpoint mirror, and speak to who we are as sports fans and a people. To wit, I offer two names: Marcus Smart and Rashaan Evans.
Marcus Smart is as talented a basketball player one will find in the country at the NCAA level. The All-America sophomore guard for the Oklahoma State Cowboys is almost assuredly a top 15 pick in next year’s NBA Draft. His future looks really good. But last week something happened that has changed perceptions. While playing on the road at conference rival Texas Tech, Mr. Smart fell down out of bounds, under the basket, after trying to rebound the ball. A teammate rushed to help him up, as they are wont to do. Then it happened. Smart, inexplicably, shoved a fan in the stands with two hands, almost knocking down the man’s wife, hurling language at the couple as teammates pulled him away from the fracas. Shock and awe ensued, as it should. One of the most impenetrable and steadfast rules of sport is that you don’t put your hands on a fan. Mr. Smart was suspended three games shortly thereafter, and seemed contrite at the following press conference. Here’s where it gets tricky. Mr. Smart claims that Jeff Orr, the fan who was shoved, used a racial epithet. Mr. Orr denies it, but does admit that he called Marcus Smart a derogatory name. As a result, most of the fallout has focused on Mr. Smart, and maybe, rightfully so. I mean…sticks and stones, and all that. But there is another issue here. Why does a grown man, presumably in his 50’s or 60’s, or a very hard 40’s, feel the need to hurl insults at a 20-year-old? What causes a father or grandfather to become emotionally invested to the point that he yells loud enough, forcefully enough, insultingly enough, that a young man can hear him, and then understand it, over all of the other noise of the 50 or so people watching Texas Tech basketball, to the point of overreaction? I would posit that Mr. Orr has forgotten that it’s just a game…and a Texas Tech basketball game, at that. Has the heat of competition eroded our public disposition and character, even in a half-empty gym?
Rashaan Evans is a young man from Auburn, Alabama who plays football. He plays football really, really well. In fact, in his senior year, he was rated the No. 52 overall recruit in the ESPN 300 and the No. 2 outside linebacker. After much thought, and a little drama, the 6 foot 3, 217-pounder chose on Feb. 6th, 2014 to play football for the Alabama Crimson Tide over their most bitter of rivals, the Auburn Tigers. See the problem? Yeah, the Auburn fans haven’t taken kindly to this rebuffing by their former hometown hero. The response by the Auburn fan base has been absurdly juvenile. In addition to death threats for Mr. Evans, and family, on that wild wild west of social media, people are signing petitions to have restaurants refuse service to him and his relatives. Think about that. As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Evans’ father owns a local business, and is now, reportedly, facing an organized boycott from area residents, because of his son’s decision to attend university and play football at Alabama. One more time…think about that. Let that sink in. It’s absurd. Grown people playing in a giant metaphorical sandbox, isn’t it grand?
Now, I know what you’re thinking. How does a guy who hates sports, who hates competition, who doesn’t understand how losing stinks, has no loyalty to a team, who doesn’t understand the Auburn/Alabama rivalry, get a sports column? The answer is, because I’m not that guy. I do love sports. According to my ex-girlfriend, I love sports too much. I get competition. I hate the rivals of my teams, and their fans, truth be told. I really hate losing to them. I throw things. I yell. I pace. I get it. But at some point we have to take the sage advice of one Michael Jackson and look at the “Man in the Mirror”. At what point does loving your team morph into hating the other team more? At what point does civility and culture give way to our lathered passions for our teams? Is it possible for the Jeff Orrs, the Auburn fans, and, yes, the Michael Lawsons of the world to love the games we adore, and love them hard, but remember that it’s just a game? I’d like to think it is possible. That, given the chance, we can take that flashpoint mirror and do what the “King of Pop” implores us to do…make that change. That said, if you see me next year during the UGA v. Clemson game, don’t speak to me. I may go all Jeff Orr on you.
(W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. He currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.)