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The NBA Needs to Overreact to These Fan Incidents Before the Players Do

By Stephen Douglas
Knicks fans.
Knicks fans. / Pool/Getty Images
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America is packing sports arenas again. It's a welcome change after a year of pumped-in crowd noise and awkward virtual fans. It also means that a-holes have returned to sporting events. Fan fights seem like an everyday occurrence in baseball stadiums. Then last night there were two incidents involving fans at NBA playoff games. First a Sixers fan threw popcorn on Russell Westbrook. Then a Knicks fan may have spit on Trae Young.

Nature is healing? In this case, unfortunately, yeah.

Between the two NBA incidents, the popcorn has thus far sparked more debate, but the spitting has not gone unnoticed. Probably because there is definitive proof of the popcorn and the way the players involved reacted. Westbrook, already upset about an injury and a loss, freaked out. Young didn't even know anything had happened until he saw it on Twitter.

Let's start with Westbrook's postgame comments where he said fans were out of hand and would never try something like that on the street because they know what would happen. This will be a common theme as former players discuss the incident.

The popcorn incident was the first thing discussed on Get Up this morning with Kendrick Perkins and Seth Greenberg. Perkins echoed Westbrook's sentiments asking if anyone would do that in the streets. Seth Greenberg then said that the fan should be prosecuted.

Later in the show Greenberg asked Jalen Rose about the incident. Rose was "disgusted" and said being banned from the game would not be enough, pointing out if something like this happened on the street, there would be more consequences.

On First Take, Stephen A. Smith said Westbrook would have been justified if he had been able to get his hands on the fan. He also said the (alleged) New York spitter should be arrested. Smith then suggested the fan's face and name be made public.

Also this morning, 76ers and Knicks made it official, announcing that the fan involved in both incidents would be banned indefinitely. The Sixers fan is losing his season tickets. The Knicks are turning over their information to the authorities. Is this enough? For many it sounds like the answer is "no."

CBS Sports' Seth Davis suggested the popcorn thrower be given the choice of prison or, for lack of a better term, trial by combat.

If Joe Bidden suddenly issued an executive order this afternoon saying Davis' suggestion was the new legal standard for fan incidents at American sports venues, I'm not sure anyone would argue.

Athletes have to put up with an unfathomable amount of nonsense. Look at what Young experienced even without anyone spitting on him. There are a lot of people who buy these tickets and think it gives them the right to verbally assault strangers who are just trying to do their jobs. This doesn't happen to people in any other line of work.

The idea that players should be able to go into the stands with impunity is nice, but we've seen what can happen when fans cross this line and players take justice into their own hands on the spot. The Malice at the Palace took place in 2004. One of the main players in that event, Metta Sandiford-Artest (who was just Ron Artest back in 2004) appeared on Undisputed this morning and said he was shaking watching the Wesetbrook incident unfold.

If security and team personnel hadn't been escorting Westbrook to the locker room last night, who knows what could have happened. Even if that guy did deserve to get punched in the popcorn hole, imagine the fallout the NBA would be dealing with today. If we were looking at footage of Westbrook running into the stands playing over and over on cable news this morning, the discourse would not be as civil.

In a vacuum, the idea that someone should go to jail for throwing popcorn is silly, but when you consider the situation, is it? This fan was not treating Westbrook like a human. He acted like an idiot and if he thought about it at all, he thought there would be no real consequences. He threw food at a person from a safe distance, assuming nothing bad would happen. It's complete messed up and not the kind of thing you should expect in polite society.

Players should not have to worry about being touched or have something thrown at them. Their families should not be subject to abuse. Hell, fans should feel safer. A zero-tolerance policy sounds pretty good when you just want to take your kids to a meaningless half-full baseball game in the middle of May.

The guys involved in these incidents can apparently afford decent season tickets for playoff teams in major markets. You can take away their tickets and suspend them indefinitely, but what's to stop either of these guys from buying a ticket outside the arena for the next game? Will their pictures be at every turnstile? Maybe they'll keep them out for the rest of the playoffs, but if they can get back in at some point, was that punishment really enough? What's to stop some jerk who is just in town for the game from doing this or even worse?

I don't know what the perfect answer is, but fans need to know this is not okay. The thing is, they do know. These guys already knew. you don't throw popcorn or spit, but they did it anyway. When somebody crosses that line there needs to be something that can be done to discourage anyone from doing it again. The NBA is better off overreacting now than ending up on the defensive because somebody really does get what they deserved in the future.

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