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Isaiah Thomas suspension is appeasing bad NBA fans

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As one great NBA evaluator wrote, “For money, or ratings, I’m not sure which.”

NBA: Washington Wizards at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still strange to see Isaiah Thomas donning a Wizards jersey after he torched Washington in 2017 wearing Celtics green. That series made Thomas a household NBA name. Recent struggles with a lingering hip injury landed him in Washington, though he’s fortunately returned to averaging double-figure scoring.

That’s not what landed him in headlines this week.

Thomas joined Marcus Smart and Russell Westbrook among prominent NBA players to clap back at fans berating players with obscene, disrespectful language and gestures. These circumstances have ranged from homophobic and dismissive to Thomas’ situation: two fans flashing middle fingers and yelling obscenities because IT made a free throw, squandering their hopes for a free Wendy’s Frosty.

IT strolled across the baseline after a timeout and calmly and addressed the fans. He told them to be a fan and stop disrespecting him. Wizards security met him in the stands immediately. After Thomas addressed the fans, he identified the pair to security staff and both were ejected.

Unfortunately, as Cedric Maxwell pointed out on his podcast this week, there’s a better chance the 76ers cut off the Frosty promotion rather than deal with the larger issue of erratic fan behavior. The NBA and Philadelphia did ultimately ban the fans from Wells Fargo Center for one year, but it’s hard to imagine anyone even noticing the taunts if Thomas had not confronted them.

On the flip side, the NBA is essentially withholding nearly 3% of Thomas’ $2.3 million salary because he respectfully dealt with a situation where he felt unfairly disrespected. Some might argue that that’s the responsibility and purview of stadium security, but those good people aren’t getting paid enough to handle a mass of drunk harassers. More so, it’s a widespread issue that a two-game player’s suspension or a one-year ban for a fan won’t solve. Instead, the league must confront what has for too long become normalized harassment that players must grin and bear.

The rules are clear: players can’t enter the stands. Because of the Malice in the Palace, the Cedric Maxwell rule, or whatever you want to call it, it’s clear why it’s in place. However, nowhere in Thomas’ or Smart’s contract is he being paid to eat the insults of fans.

“If we was on the street, I guarantee you wouldn’t say that,” Smart said after his similar incident in November. “I told the security, they didn’t do anything about it ... that’s a problem in the league we have to fix because if we retaliate to protect ourselves, we’re the ones getting in trouble.”

Such was the case with Thomas here, who had to choose between letting it go or taking a stand, and that doesn’t happen without sacrifice. This isn’t to rip poor security. They do the best they can covering hundreds of people. Despite the best intentions of the league, the lines between acceptable fan interaction and freedom to say what you want because you’re a paying customer remain blurred. But let’s be clear: this is yet another wake-up call for a culture that normalizes dehumanizing verbal abuse towards professional athletes.

Maxwell suggested this deeply-rooted phenomenon stretches back to the Roman Colosseum. Modern forces like TV consumption, talk shows, and video games have introduced athletes to consumers as figures that appear anything but human. Especially considering what they’re capable on the court and what they’ve deflected for so long, they appear bulletproof or deaf. Athletes aren’t celebrated for their relatability nearly as much as they are for their disrespectful dunks.

As the Philly incident showed, a few rows of seats doesn’t block chants from reaching the athletes. The NBA suspending Thomas for breaking that barrier is understandable in a post-Malice world, but it’s also fully reflective of the strange normalization of berating players in sports. A player becomes the threat for responding rather than the victim of verbal abuse.

On Jeff Goodman and Bob Ryan’s podcast, the pair highlighted the relatively low threshold a four-letter word and middle fingers meets, compared to more racially-driven or family-related material. Older fans might wince at the idea that Thomas’ reaction is anything close to trash hitting Ron Artest in Detroit. Back in the day, stadiums and fan bases made names for themselves based on the nastiness and vitriol they could stir up against opposing teams.

But isn’t this behavior just an evolution of the dehumanizing insults players once faced in the past that we’ve since frowned upon? Georgetown’s John Thompson once held his team off the court for a game to draw attention to racist banners directed at Patrick Ewing, who also had bananas thrown at him during his college career. Why must there be a minimum severity to be insulted?

I’ve booed LeBron James at TD Garden and DeMarcus Cousins after he flipped Marcus Smart to the floor. I’m as big of a fan of a good “boo” as anyone. Europe gets it wrong with whistling instead. I’ll let it slide. But here’s the thing: is that even in my top-10 things I love about attending a sporting event? Would I stop going if it was gone?

You probably have to evaluate what you’re in the game for if it is.

Negative cheering, love it or hate it, is an established part of sports and fans would likely fear a chilling effect if everyone who dropped a word that can’t be mentioned on CelticsBlog got banned from the stands. However, there is a discernible line between negative and dehumanizing, and sadly, it’s become the recipient’s responsibility to draw it. It’s an unfair burden if we’re putting it on athletes to inform us of how much they can take. Thomas entered the stands fully aware of the league rule he was breaking, but the fans, in Thomas’s mind, had broken a moral code.

The NBA understandably doesn’t want players defending themselves because it creates the image of large men attacking helpless fans. Unfortunately, when players react--even in a calm and cool manner like IT did--it’s news. Fan incitement is as normal as tickets and concessions, but the league needs to hold the fans’ end of the bargain up too though, that “players and fans respect and appreciate each other.”

Remember Westbrook and that Jazz fan? The fan sued Westbrook and Utah for $100 million, claiming his “heckling was of the same kind and caliber as that of the other audience members in the section.” This reflects what’s inherently wrong: fans expect to the freedom to rip players without consequence.

Stadiums hire security and some NBA teams like the Celtics don’t own their buildings, so this isn’t an issue the league can solve itself. Ultimately, there’s a greater issue beyond sports though. This is on individuals to realize themselves that they’re yelling at real people and not just basketball players who should shut up and dribble.

Thomas simply reminded the fans of that, peacefully and without threat of any harm. The answer may not be a trip into the stands every night, as Goodman feared. So someone else needs to deliver the message. IT did it directly, human-to-human, without malice. That should be celebrated, not admonished.