Marcus Smart got off easy.
The three-game suspension handed down jointly by the Big 12 Conference and Oklahoma State to the Cowboys’ star guard after shoving a fan at Texas Tech is lighter than it should have been. Not egregiously lighter – three games is not insignificant – but Smart should have missed at least half of Oklahoma State’s remaining eight regular-season games, if not more.
Smart crossed a line that athletes have known for decades not to cross – do not assault a fan. No matter what is said. That’s why I’m mildly surprised the penalty was not more severe.
To be sure, there is no need to “crucify” Smart, to use the loaded verbiage of Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder. The hope here is that a young man learns from a destructive series of decisions in recent weeks and emerges a better man for it. But a more significant suspension would not ruin the young man’s career or life, and would reinforce the vital message that athletes cannot go into the stands (or even to the edge of them) and get physical with fans.
Then again, this isn’t the first time Oklahoma State has under-disciplined one of its best players in school history. When Smart had his chair-kicking tantrum against West Virginia on Jan. 25, there was no public institutional reaction. Not during the game, not after, and not in terms of the starting lineup two days later against Oklahoma in Norman.
Travis Ford went soft on Smart then, tacitly enabling the uncontrolled behavior that would only get worse Saturday night in Lubbock.
To be sure, the three games Smart will miss are important ones: at Texas on Tuesday, home against rival Oklahoma on Saturday and at Baylor on Feb. 17. On paper, the loss of their best player likely dooms the Cowboys to three more defeats, which would extend their current losing streak to seven.
If that happens, a team that began the year ranked in the top 10 would be 4-9 in the Big 12 and would seemingly need to mount a furious rally in the rest of the regular season and the conference tourney to reach the NCAA tournament. Of course, having Smart in uniform for that stretch (which includes games against likely NCAA tourney teams Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State) would at least theoretically make such a rally possible.
Having Smart for the Big 12 tourney is the bottom line. That looks like the place where Oklahoma State’s season either will be salvaged or lost for good.
The other unsatisfying element of Oklahoma State’s press conference Sunday was the school’s refusal to say what words Smart heard from Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr. The OSU radio broadcast team reported Saturday night that it overheard Smart tell the Cowboys coaching staff he was called the N-word. In an apologetic statement Sunday, Orr refuted that, saying he called Smart “a piece of crap.”
Neither is acceptable communication from an adult to a college athlete, and it is welcome news that Orr said he will voluntarily attend no more Texas Tech games this season. But a racial slur would be significantly worse.
Set the record straight, Oklahoma State.
If we want to eradicate such hateful speech from athletic venues, step up and call it out. Identify the churls who need to be tossed out of sporting arenas, and the words that fans should never be allowed to say without (non-violent) repercussion.
The silence from Oklahoma State on this issue doesn’t help the situation. And it doesn’t help clear Smart’s name. If he concocted the racial slur as an excuse for his actions, that’s one more reason to question his character.
Marcus Smart’s first game back is Feb. 22 against Texas Tech, the team he melted down against Saturday night. The stage is set for a made-for-TV parable about the chastened guard’s return as a wiser young man.
Hopefully he will be. But for a guy whose biggest historic impact on college basketball will probably be going after a fan, this feels like a premature return.