It’s still strange to see Isaiah Thomas donning a Wizards jersey after he torched Washington in 2017 wearing Celtics green. That series made Thomas a household name. Recent struggles through a hip injury landed him in DC, though he’s returned to averaging double-figure scoring.
That’s not what thrust him into headlines this week.
Thomas joined Marcus Smart and Russell Westbrook among prominent NBA players to clap back at fans who berated them with obscene, disrespectful language and gestures. These circumstances ranged from homophobic and submissive, to Thomas’ situation: two fans flashing middle fingers and yelling obscenities because IT made a free throw — squandered their hopes of a free frosty.
Then, of course, the incident went to video review. The referees had to break down whether he entered the stands, apparently because there weren’t enough out-of-bounds reviews available in the blowout.
The NBA withheld nearly 3% of Thomas’ $2.3-million salary for him going above and beyond his job. He was doing Wells Fargo security a favor between hitting free throws.
Those good people aren’t getting paid enough to handle a mass of drunk harassers, but the league has to confront what has for too long become normalized harassment that players must swallow.
The rules are clear: players can’t enter the stands. Malice in the Palace, the Cedric Maxwell rule, whatever you want to call it, it’s clear why it’s in place. Still, nowhere in Thomas or Smart’s contract are they being paid to eat the insults of fans.
“If we was on the street, I guarantee you wouldn’t say that,” Smart said after his similar incident in Denver. “I told the security, they didn’t do anything about it … that’s a problem in the league we have to fix because if we retaliate to protect ourselves, we’re the ones getting in trouble.”
Such was the case with Thomas, who had to choose between letting it go or taking a stand. That doesn’t happen without his sacrifice. This isn’t to rip poor security, who in all likelihood do the best they can covering hundreds of people each. It’s simply a wake-up call for a culture that normalizes dehumanizing chants against athletes.
As Max stated, this is a deeply-rooted phenomenon that stretches back to the Roman Colosseum. Though newer forces like TV consumption, talk shows and video games introduce athletes to consumers as figures that appear anything but human. Considering what they’re capable of on the court and how they routinely deflect criticism, they appear bulletproof — or deaf.
As Thomas and the awe-struck fans showed, a few rows of seats doesn’t block chants from reaching the court. The NBA suspending Thomas for breaking that barrier is understandable in a post-Malice world. It’s also reflective of the strange normalization of berating players in sports, and how a player becomes the threat for responding.
On Jeff Goodman and Bob Ryan’s podcast, the pair highlighted the relatively low threshold a four-letter word and middle fingers meets, compared to more racially-driven or family-related material. Older fans will scoff at the notion of Thomas’ situation pulling him into stands when trash hit Ron Artest, arenas became known for nastiness and players faced unspeakable atrocities.
But isn’t this behavior an evolution of the devilish, dehumanizing insults players once faced? Georgetown’s John Thompson held his team off the court for a game to draw attention to racist banners barraging Patrick Ewing, who also had bananas thrown at him during his college career. Why must there be a minimum severity to respond?
I’ve booed LeBron James at TD Garden, Demarcus Cousins after he flipped Smart to the floor. I’m as big of a fan of a good “boo” as anyone. Europe gets it wrong with whistling instead. I’ll let it slide. Here’s the thing: is that even in my top-10 things I love about attending sporting events? You probably have to evaluate what you’re in the game for if it is.
Negativity is as much a part of sports as applause, and fans likely fear a chilling effect if everyone who dropped a word that can’t be mentioned on CelticsBlog got banned from the stands. There’s also a discernible line between negative and dehumanizing. Thomas entered the stands knowing he would lose money, because he didn’t see security acting.
The NBA doesn’t want players defending themselves because it disseminates the image of the large men (well, in most cases) attacking helpless fans. That’s good business and politics. The league needs to hold the fan’s end of the bargain up too though, “players and fans respect and appreciate each other.”
Remember Westbrook and that Jazz fan? He sued Westbrook and Utah for $100-million, claiming his “heckling was of the same kind and caliber as that of the other audience members in the section.” Fans expect to be able to chastise players.
Stadiums hire security. Some NBA teams, like the C’s, don’t own their buildings, so this isn’t an issue the league can solve itself. This issue also transcends basketball. It’s on individuals to realize themselves that they’re yelling at humans.
Thomas reminded the fans of that, without threat. The answer may not be a trip into the stands every night, as Goodman feared. So someone else needs to deliver the message.