Imagine calling someone a “b----” on Twitter and watching that person emerge from your phone to pop up right beside you, not to insult or injure you, but to have a face-to-face conversation.
That was what Washington Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas did Saturday, when a 76ers fan was overtaken by his desire for a free Wendy’s Frosty (valued at approximately 99 cents) and repeatedly called Thomas a b---- after he declined to miss the back-to-back free throws that would have awarded the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center a coupon for a cup of ice cream that — I’ll take the liberty of assuming — would not make anyone froth at the mouth in regular circumstances.
A packed NBA arena, however, is anything but regular. There is no seat in sports like front row at an NBA game. Being so close to the action is invigorating and intimate. There is no barrier between the arm’s length that separates fans and players, putting players face-to-face with the insults hurled their way, with no reprieve but to walk away. I often wonder if the ability to taunt without consequence is a feature or a bug. When trash talk teeters into barbarism, is it priced into the seats that can sometimes sell for upward of five figures, or into Thomas’ $2.3 million contract?
Regardless, incidents between fans and players have increased, and players have made it clear that there’s certain behavior they’re not willing to put up with anymore. The NBA has largely sided with its players, enacting new rules governing acceptable fan behavior this season.
That’s why it was surprising that on Sunday the NBA suspended Thomas for two games for entering the stands and barred two fans from 76ers games for a year. The imaginary line between fans and players has been governed strictly since the infamous Malice at the Palace incident, but not every punishment needs to be administered with the worst moment in NBA history in mind.
For someone who’d just been insulted, the 5-foot-9 Thomas was almost cartoonishly disarming when he approached the fan and his companion. Thomas looked and spoke calmly, and he didn’t lay a hand on anyone.
“I say, ‘Don’t be disrespectful. I’m a man before anything, and be a fan.’ His response was, ‘I’m sorry. I just wanted a Frosty,’” Thomas recounted to reporters after the game. “I didn’t scare nobody. I didn’t even use a curse word,” he added. “So when the league investigates, I’m going to tell them the exact same thing and hopefully they should understand it.”
It didn’t. Instead, the NBA punished Thomas for merely having a conversation, communicating that the only appropriate reaction to fan abuse is no reaction at all. Ignoring a bully isn’t always the best way to deal with one, as anyone who’s ever been on a playground can attest to.
Another concept I learned in elementary school might be more cogent here: Treat others as you’d like to be treated. The closer Thomas got to the fan, the more relevant the social contract that governs most human interactions became, and the more the fan turned into a puddle: from surprised to confused to apologetic. Simple human interaction. Rather than ramping up conflict, often disarm it.
But when boundaries change the way people communicate, certain nuances about the way we interact with each other are lost, increasing our capacity for sociopathic behavior.
Thomas didn’t put the fan in danger, but he did embarrass him into submission, which is enough to make people think twice. For the NBA, that should be instructive. If the NBA wants to protect fans and players while keeping them at a close distance, it should give players the space to react reasonably and let that be its own form of regulation.
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