by Zeke Tweedie
Several weeks ago, on February 1, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers were in Atlanta to play the Hawks in primetime. But it was an interaction between LeBron and a fan sitting courtside that made the news.
Throughout the game, a noted Hawks superfan, Chris Carlos, better known as @daddycarlos, had repeatedly been heckling James, engaging in his usual trash talk. During the fourth quarter of a close game, LeBron apparently had enough. After what LeBron later called an “out of bounds” comment made by Carlos, LeBron turned towards him and shot back a quip of his own. Though it is unknown what he said, @daddycarlos’ wife, Juliana Carlos, went ballistic, removing her mask to yell at LeBron and defend her husband, before finally being escorted out by security, followed by her husband and two others.
Though heckling has always been a staple at sporting events worldwide, or maybe because of this, there has never been a shortage of fans going over the line in talking to players. Even in recent history, there are several troubling episodes of fan heckling that went too far, including an incident where Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was called the n-word while playing in Boston in 2017, and back in the NBA, a 2019 altercation between Oklahoma City star Russell Westbrook and a fan in Utah who made racial comments to Westbrook, who threatened the man and his wife. All that could be seen in the initial video of the incident was Westbrook’s threats, and he was roundly criticized. As much as fans like to talk, they sure do seem to hate when athletes return the favor. However, once the full story became clear (and the fan was banned for life by the team), a new discussion arose surrounding the epidemic of racially motivated fan trash-talk.
These incidents were made all the more potent by the resurgence of racial justice protests, most notably the Black Lives Matter movement, which arose in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the murderer of Trayvon Martin. Given the platform that comes with being a star player, it was not surprising that several Black athletes became premiere figures in this movement. It is also not surprising that many of their efforts were met with sharp criticism. The most notable example is former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality. Despite being statistically and intangibly better than the majority of the league’s QBs, Kaepernick has not played since 2017 and claims that the league has blackballed him for his protest.
Both fan confrontations and the immediate backlash to virtually any Black athlete’s political statement are part of the same trend, and one that LeBron himself is not new to. In 2018, after LeBron and fellow superstar Kevin Durant appeared on an ESPN program to speak about Trump and racism, pro-Trump Fox News host Laura Ingraham laughed off their comments, asking “why must they run their mouths?” before, in what has become a reverse rallying cry for the athletes, telling them to “shut up and dribble.” Ingraham would later defend New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who is White, when he criticized players who kneeled because “this is a moment when we should be listening.”
The fact is, race plays a crucial role in understanding the treatment of these athletes. Consider the landscape of race and professional sports. It is a huge industry, and according to the ASU Global Sport Institute, three American leagues, the NFL, MLB, and NBA, are the three most valuable in the world; they are collectively worth well over $35 billion. Especially in the NFL and NBA, this revenue and wealth is driven by Black athletes (each league’s player population is roughly 70% Black). However, the wealth (and thus, power) ends up elsewhere, with the team owners. Of the 92 principle owners across the three leagues, exactly one is Black: Michael Jordan.
So we return to the question of why fans regularly harass athletes, expecting no response, and why they become even angrier when those athletes dare to exercise their First Amendment right and make political or social statements. Consider race, and the answer becomes clear. Ingraham’s statement of “shut up and dribble” was racist, and so is she. Unfortunately, her statement also encapsulates the attitude of many fans. In a literal and physical arena where elite Black athletes sacrifice their bodies and often minds for the entertainment of a majority White country, fans’ expectation for athletes to also sacrifice their humanity is consistent with the racist history of the country.
This mindset is the same attitude that ruled the Jim Crow South, where Black people were faced with constant, vicious verbal and physical abuse from the dominant caste, but were expected not to react in any way, save humility, lest their punishment be multiplied tenfold. In the North, this looks like tokenism, wherein Black people are allowed a seat at the proverbial table, as long as they promise to smile for the brochure and always fit the restrictive expectations put upon them by the White establishment.
As college students, this issue is part of our daily lives. We live with student-athletes, eat with them, learn with them, and they are often some of the most important voices in our community. And though they account for a disproportional revenue source for most colleges, they are not paid at all for the revenue that they produce, even in uses of their likeness, like video games and jerseys sold in the school bookstore. And as with the professionals, student-athlete protests around the country have been met with severe resistance from the schools who they enrich, most notably at the University of Missouri in 2015, conflicts that are impossible to read about without recalling the problematic racial history of Mizzou and many other top schools, including Fordham.
Our proximity to this issue also brings opportunity. We are perfectly positioned to begin to change this mindset, as we know firsthand that however electrifying a player may be on the court or field, they interact with the real world the same way as everyone, with opinions and problems, just like the fans who watch them. LeBron should not be expected to “shut up and dribble” while being abused from the sidelines or when he sees injustice. It has become standard for athletes’ beliefs, privacy, and health (especially mental) to be prioritized below their team’s win-loss record. Changing that starts with all of us as fans staying vigilant of how we and others talk about athletes, and though we can always appreciate their talent, we should ensure that they are always seen first as people.