An African-American athlete pushes a white fan, and there is an allegation of a racial slur. And suddenly a regrettable college basketball incident is about much more than sports.
It is about race. About an alleged racial slur, and what the acceptable response is to such a slur. It may be as much a generational issue as a color issue, but the topic is hot and emotions are raw in the aftermath of Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart’s meltdown at Texas Tech on Saturday night, which drew a three-game suspension from the Big 12 on Sunday.
For the naïve who want to believe our world is now post-racial, here is your reality check.
Saturday night and Sunday morning, I heard from a huge number of people who disagreed with my original column on the topic. They believe Smart was justified in shoving Tech fan Jeff Orr as Orr stood in the stands at United Spirit Arena, or at least that Smart does not deserve significant punishment for it. They believe a middle-aged adult who spews racial invective at a college athlete – Smart reportedly told the Oklahoma State radio crew that Orr dropped the N-word on him – deserves the shove he got. And then some.
(Yahoo Sports’ attempts to reach Orr on Sunday for his version of events were unsuccessful.)
As stated in my column Saturday night: if Orr directed a racial slur at Smart, he should be banished from Tech home games for life. He's the worst kind of fan.
But that doesn’t justify what Smart did. No words do.
A great many respondents believe that a white middle-aged man such as myself is disqualified from telling a young black man how to respond to racist comments. So instead of me doing the talking, on Sunday I queried some black college basketball coaches, past and current, for their thoughts on the matter.
When Hall of Famer John Chaney grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., he was relegated to the “colored” drinking fountain at the park while the white kids went to their own fountain. After attending HBC Bethune-Cookman, Chaney entered a profession in which it was always possible that his race would be a factor in every single opposing gym he entered. He won 714 games as a college head coach at Cheyney State and Temple, and endured plenty along the way.
“My player manual covered this [responding to racist language],” Chaney said. “It said very clearly: under no circumstances can you allow these things to get under your skin. You can always find yourself being called names. We found ourselves in a better position of dealing with these things with education, as opposed to fighting back. It was our decision not to go after them in a physical manner.
“Athletics should teach us a lot better about how to control ourselves and control our reaction to others. You cannot ever, ever retaliate. … That gentleman may have said something. Even if he did, it wasn’t right. You’ve got to be told, ‘Never, ever go in the stands.’
“During my time, the N-word was a big problem and a big no-no. Nowadays, I just don’t think the youngsters hear it as much. I came from an era where we had to deal with it every day.”
Without naming him, Chaney believes Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford enabled Smart’s outburst Saturday night by not disciplining him a few games earlier, when Smart kicked a chair on the bench during the Cowboys’ game against West Virginia.
“When things do not go well he’s taken out of the game and he’s kicking like crazy at the chair,” Chaney said. “I’m thinking, ‘What? How did this happen and how did it get to this point?’
“What amazes me and frustrates me, who is responsible for this youngster? He should have been ushered to the locker room. I don’t care what the circumstances are. I don’t care if you’re involved in a championship or whatever. Some bigger person has to say, ‘Stop.’ Somebody’s got to be in charge.
“I felt like going through the television set and putting him on my shoulder and throwing him in the dressing room myself.”
Before Nolan Richardson won the national title at Arkansas in 1994, he was the only black kid in a Mexican neighborhood of El Paso, Texas, and the first black high school coach in that city. He went on to break barriers in junior college and Division I coaching as well, first at Tulsa and then at Arkansas.
Richardson played and coached with a simmering rage that he would not allow to spill over physically.
“[Racial taunts] pissed me off,” he said. “I was angry. My racial situation was constant. But I had an old grandmother who loved Jackie Robinson, and who thought I needed to do what he did. Maybe I was raised totally differently, in the days when you had to take things to prove yourself. I never allowed myself to be in a position to attack anything physically. You just cannot attack.”
As of Sunday morning, Richardson said he has only heard descriptions of what happened with Smart. But he described the situation as, “So sad. I am sad for the young man. … But the doors have been opened. There’s many people who have taken arrows so he doesn’t have to take as many arrows as those who came before him.”
Chaney and Richardson are two of the most accomplished black coaches in history. But they are from a different era, and as mentioned earlier there seems to be a generational divide over whether Smart should have turned the other cheek or gone after the fan who allegedly slurred him.
For that reason I also asked a current African-American coach for his insight. He did not wish to be named because he was sensitive to commenting on another program’s handling of the situation, but he said racial taunts are not a thing of the past in college basketball gyms.
“It’s still in play,” the coach said. “You still hear it. I’ve heard it, too, just recently. But you can’t react.
“I feel so bad for the kid. I hurt for him. It’s so hard – the social media and the fans are brutal. But you’ve just got to be stronger, bigger and not let it get to you. You’ve got to have a little thick skin and play through it.”