When Heckling is More than Heckling
In the waning moments of Oklahoma State’s Saturday night loss to Texas Tech, OK State point guard, Marcus Smart fell into the baseline seats while attempting to defend a Texas Tech dunk. When he pulled himself up to his feet, a man, wearing a Texas Tech polo said something to Smart. Smart reacted by shoving the man in the chest, for which he was issued a technical foul and ejected from the game. These facts were plainly evident from the moment they happened.
In the last 48 hours a few more facts about the incident have come to light. We know that the man that Marcus Smart shoved is self-described Texas Tech super-fan, Jeff Orr. We’ve also learned that Orr has a history of antagonizing opposing players, a trait that is part-in-parcel with “super-fandom”. We also know that Orr admits to saying something he shouldn’t have. Oklahoma State radio analyst John Holcomb, who was sitting courtside at the time, has confirmed that Smart claimed that Orr called him the n-word.
We’re taught, from a very young age, that it’s never okay to respond to taunts with violence. Noted literary critic John Gregory Dunne once said “Violence is the way stupid people try to level the playing field.” This line of thinking comes from a place of privilege, and buying into it requires a comfortable level of insulation from life’s uglier realities. Violence can also be a way for the powerless and tormented to level the playing field.
No word in the English language is as inextricably wed to a history of violence as “nigger”. Other words may be equally vile and hateful but they lack the implied threat that “nigger” carries. Used with bombast and fervor, nigger has fueled lynch mobs and incited riots. Uttered coldly and calmly, it is a declaration of dominance of and racism so institutionalized that the slurred is powerless to claim his or her human dignity.
Jeff Orr wasn’t a lone man on the street or an anonymous internet commenter. He was a vocal member of a very hostile crowd. Texas Tech’s athletic department has tacitly, if not explicitly condoned his actions in the past. Orr understands that he has basically been empowered by a government body to harass and intimidate young men. In this context nigger is not protected speech. It is so far from protected speech that it could easily be construed as a terroristic threat the same way burning crosses and hooded Klansmen are. It’s a lot deeper than “heckling”, and I understand why Marcus Smart may have responded with violence.
The names of Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell have been invoked as examples of players who ignored the racist taunts and soldiered on. Robinson and Russell aren’t noble warriors gifted with the virtue of stoicism. They were hostages of racial terrorism who understood that lynching was a very real consequence of lashing back. This is what happens when racism and racial intimidation are institutionalized.
Having spent countless hours and thousands of miles traveling from his home in Waco to Texas Tech’s Lubbock campus to watch Red Raiders football and basketball games, Orr is a man whose life seemingly revolves around the athletic pursuits of unpaid teenagers. The student athletes themselves are not the draw so much as staying connected to an institution where he spent a handful of years, several decades ago. His behavior is certainly boorish, and as has been suggested, possibly racist. He isn’t the sort of man we expect to control his impulses (yet somehow we expect the 19 year-old Smart to do so because he’s “representing his university”)
Bigots like Orr are easy to point out. They’re often loud, ignorant and opinionated. More nefarious, however, than a loud-mouth like Larry Orr, is the culture that empowers him. Texas Tech, a government-funded entity has a responsibility to provide a safe environment, free of racial intimidation for its students and visiting athletes…something that has clearly taken a back-seat to appeasing “super fan” boosters. Opposing players, both current and past have echoed claims that the n-word flies freely at The United Spirit Arena. It’s incredibly difficult to believe that Texas Tech is oblivious to these abuses and the hostile environment they foster. The university has the responsibility and the ability to police the behavior of its fans, and if it refuses to do so, the NCAA or even the state of Texas should intervene.
The notion of holding teams accountable for fan behavior is not novel. Before the NFL became obsessed with crowd noise, teams could actually be penalized if their fans were too loud for opposing offenses to hear the play calls. FIFA has begun fining teams whose fans engage in racist behavior. Current FIFA president Joseph Blatter has even suggested relegation as a penalty for tolerating in-stadium racism. Faced with the prospect of playing next season in Division II basketball or FCS sub-division football, Texas Tech would surely solve the problem of racism in its stands.