Updated: Aug 5, 2021
The NBA CBA protects players and teams financially from events like player injuries. But what happens when athletes start to feel unsafe on the court. Several incidents in the last few seasons have posed player safety resulting from their proximity to fans in the NBA's stadiums.
On May 26, 2021, amidst the heat of the NBA Playoffs, Russel Westbrook, a point guard for the Washington Wizards and a former MVP, left the floor in the fourth quarter of the game in Philadelphia after suffering an apparent ankle injury. On his way to the locker room, a 76ers fan poured a bag of popcorn from the stands onto Westbrook. Westbrook, who was obviously upset, took offense to this act and had to be restrained by staff. The 76ers organization reacted swiftly, releasing a statement saying…
"We have determined that the person involved will have his season ticket membership revoked, effective immediately. In addition, he will be banned from all events at Wells Fargo Center indefinitely. We apologize to Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizard for being subjected to this type of unacceptable and disrespectful behavior. There is no place for it in our sport or arena."
While the response from Philadelphia was significant, the incident poses a larger question which the league has consistently deflected from previous incidents regarding player safety. The NBA environment is unlike any other professional sport. The fans have unique proximity to the action that allows for up close and personal interaction. While this undoubtedly contributes to the magic of the NBA, it can also create uncomfortable and potentially dangerous scenarios for players.
In the wake of last night's game, players around the league expressed their disappointment and disgust. Westbrook's teammate, all-star Bradley Beal stated, "It's disgusting… We got a lot of nasty fans. I even got some crazy language spoken to me tonight and my kids are sitting there." Lebron James responded on Twitter, stating, "By the way WE AS THE PLAYERS wanna see who threw that popcorn on Russ while he was leaving the game tonight with a injury!! There's cameras all over the arenas so there's no excuse!" Westbrook stated, "I wouldn't come up to me on the street and throw popcorn on my head, because you know what happens… In these arenas, you gotta start protecting players. We'll see what the NBA does." The challenge exists from players to the league, asking for better protection for the players from the league's fans.
Unfortunately, the incident last night was not an isolated one. In a similar scenario the same night, Atlanta Hawks point a New York Knicks fan spat on guard Trae Young at Madison Square Garden. While the situation was handled similarly with the Knicks organization banning the individual, further proof of the inappropriate conduct became far too familiar from fans to players.
This pattern continued throughout the NBA Playoffs this past week. In Boston, a fan threw a water bottle at Kyrie Irving as he left the floor following a Brooklyn Nets win over the Celtics. In this case, the fan was immediately banned from the TD Garden and arrested for assault with a dangerous weapon. Following the game, Irving stated in a press conference regarding the incident, "It's unfortunate that sports has come to a lot of this kind of crossroads… just treating people like they're in a human zoo." In Washington, a fan charged onto the floor during play. He did not necessarily pose a threat to players in this instance, but it displays the dangerous potential of the fans in such proximity to gameplay. These examples show that inappropriate and aggressive fan behavior is rising exponentially and poses a danger to players now more than ever.
Over the last several seasons, there have been repeated instances of fans crossing the line in their interactions with players. In the 2016 season, when Westbrook was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder playing in Philadelphia, a fan got in his face and made obscene gestures. In regular, day-to-day life, this kind of behavior would not be tolerated. So why is it acceptable in NBA arenas? The short answer is because the league has failed to address it and protect the players adequately. At the time, there was a similar response from players around the league, and yet clearly, little has changed four years later.
There are apparent changes that the league could take to prevent this type of behavior from fans in the future. The league could implement increased security around the court. They could increase the distance between the players and the closest fans. They could implement new rules in arenas regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol during games. They could create accountability measures and take further legal action against the fans who violate their rules. The current CBA expires after the 2023-24 NBA season. Then the NBA Player's Association and the League will come together to negotiate a new CBA. As the issue of player safety continues to take the front seat for many influential NBA Stars, do not be surprised if we see significant changes surrounding player safety and fan interactions.
Until next time…