By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – As the global pandemic finally starts to loosen its grip, fans are returning to sporting events at all levels, and while that is reason to celebrate, there is also a downside.
The NBA playoffs have had at least five incidents in the past week or so where a fan has crossed the line with unacceptable behavior.
A Boston Celtics fans was arrested this past Sunday night after allegedly throwing a water bottle at Brooklyn Nets guard and former Celtic Kyrie Erving as Erving walked off the court following Brooklyn’s 141-126 playoff win in Boston.
A fan in Philadelphia recently dumped popcorn on Washington Wizard guard Russell Westbrook as he walked towards the locker room, while another fan at Madison Square Garden in New York City appeared to spit near Atlanta guard Trae Young.
Commit any of those acts away from a sporting event and it would be considered assault, yes, even dumping popcorn on somebody.
To spit on a person is disgusting and one of the lowest forms of disrespect.
Just because you purchase a ticket doesn’t give a person the right to assault somebody, nor does it mean you’re above the law.
Fans already have a lot of freedom and rights just from being allowed to heckle and taunt opposing players during the heat of competition.
Where else can a person hurl insults and mock and tease somebody and it’s considered playful banter?
I’ll never forget the verbal abuse that Tom Davis faced as the Iowa men’s basketball coach on his final trip to Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill in 1999.
Illinois fans were brutal that day, chanting among other things “Tom got fired” in reference to his contract not being extended beyond that season.
But they never crossed the line. Nobody charged the court or tossed anything at the Iowa players or disrupted the game.
It was just good old-fashioned verbal abuse, mean-spirited at times, but far from confrontational.
Kinnick Stadium is considered a hostile environment from a sports standpoint because fans are seated so close to the field, and close to the visitor’s bench.
It makes for some playful banter, and there probably are times when it goes beyond just being playful.
But thankfully, Kinnick Stadium is known for being hostile for all of the right reasons.
It’s a tough environment for the visiting team, as it should be.
Former Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon heard the wrath of Iowa fans during a game at Kinnick Stadium in 2013.
Gordon was a target for abuse as a star player who also had previously been committed to Iowa.
“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it would be that bad,” Gordon said at Big Ten Media Day in 2014.
Gordon was amazed at how knowledgeable those taunting him were about his life, on and off the field.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be that bad.”
While it was bad, Gordon didn’t accuse any Iowa fan of crossing the line.
Part of the challenge of winning on the road is overcoming home-field advantage, while part of the challenge for a home crowd is to be hostile and intimidating, but without crossing the line.
Iowa fans, for the most part, know where that line crosses, and hopefully, that will be the case again this fall with Kinnick Stadium expected to be full.
After being cooped up for more than a year, fans are restless and ready to bask in the thrill of being at a live sporting event again.
So maybe security has to be on heightened awareness.
But on the other hand, there is only so much that security can do.
It ultimately comes down to individual responsibility, and knowing your boundaries as a fan, and also knowing the risks.
It took several people to keep the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Westbrook from climbing into to the stands to confront the person who had dumped popcorn.
The situation could have turned ugly and dangerous if Westbrook had managed to break loose and chase down the person.
Nov. 19, 2004 is a day that will live in NBA infamy because that’s when a brawl erupted during a game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.
What started with players from both teams fighting stretched into the stands when Indiana’s Ron Artest charged after a fan who Artest believed had thrown a drink at him while Artest was lying on the scorer’s table trying to calm down after the altercation on the court.
That triggered a massive brawl between players and spectators that lasted for several minutes, a disturbing event that is now referred to as the Malice in the Palace.
Again, most fans behave the right way and know their boundaries.
But it only takes one or two to spoil the moment.
The influence of alcohol, obviously, is a factor, but most fans know their limits and how to handle it.
It is reasonable to believe, barring any setbacks with the global pandemic, that basketball arenas will be at full capacity this coming winter.
That is another reason to celebrate because this past year without fans has been depressing, and, of course, costly.
Fans are a major part of the sports landscape, and play a key role on game day.
But that still doesn’t give fans a free pass to break the law and behave like jerks.
This needs to stop before somebody gets seriously injured.