Late in a game Feb. 8 at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart jumped into the first row of the stands to confront and shove a heckling fan. It was a disturbing image that made national news, but it hardly was surprising. The surprise is that it doesn't happen more often.
What a sad week it was for abhorrent fan behavior. The same night of the Smart incident, an Arizona State student spit at an Oregon assistant coach and trainer as they left the floor at halftime. Two nights later, Kansas State fans used a shortened version of the f-word to direct an obscene chant at the Kansas team. At least the Arizona State kid was caught and had his ticket privileges revoked. But how do you punish those in a crowd of 12,500 for using that kind of vulgar language? They are a nameless, faceless and shamefully bold mob for just that reason, because they know there will be no consequences for their actions.
This sort of thing happened a few years ago at West Virginia during a game against Pitt. Students chanted a sexually charged slur at Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. It can't be reprinted here, of course. Just know that you wouldn't want to have to explain its meaning to your 10-year-old son or daughter if you were at that game.
Players frequently are subjected to the abuse. Photographers, who are closest to the fans, tell stories that would make you blush. Mothers and sisters are favorite targets of the anonymous crowd. The obscenities happen at most arenas and gyms. I've been told, on many nights, you really wouldn't want to sit on the baseline at Pitt's Petersen Events Center.
Smart went after an adult fan -- Jeff Orr -- at Texas Tech because he thought he heard Orr use a racial slur. Orr said he didn't use the n-word -- audio tapes backed him up -- but admitted he called Smart "a piece of crap." Maybe you are wondering what I am: How does Orr look himself in the mirror every day? His kind and worse make it hard for a young player to keep his cool in those emotionally charged moments.
"When you sign up to play a sport in college, you sign away whatever freedoms you thought you had coming to college," Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma told the Associated Press. "You can't react like a normal human being. Someone says something, you can't react. All of a sudden, people, especially adults, say and can do what they want to a college kid on the floor knowing they have no recourse. They have to take it. I don't agree with that, but that's the world. Someone pays $20 to watch a basketball game and you can be an idiot."
All coaches preach to their players about remaining calm in those trying moments but say it is harder to get that message across. Tom Izzo of Michigan State went on ESPN after the Smart incident and blamed social media to some degree. Again, in those situations, the nameless and faceless feel empowered to say anything. They are so courageous when they're behind their keyboard, right? Actually, they are among society's biggest cowards.
"We have no way of getting away from it," Izzo said. "When you're in the gym, two hours, they're yelling at you. You get away, go back to your dorm and life becomes normal. Not anymore. Those same people at that arena are now yelling at you on Twitter. You can say, 'Don't read it,' but I don't think it's the way our kids are brought up ...
"We all get frustrated."
None of this is to condone what Smart did. Under no circumstances -- even if there is a racial slur -- should a player have physical contact with a fan. He has to be smart enough to walk away, no matter how difficult that is. Smart was lucky to be suspended for just three games by the Big 12 Conference. He easily could have been suspended for the rest of the season.
But doesn't more have to be done, not just to better protect the players and coaches but also to make the game a more fun experience for those decent, clear-thinking fans?
More security would be nice, but that costs money. Beyond that, would 20 more security people really be enough to help handle crowds of 12,000 or 15,000 or 20,000? Stiffer punishments would be even nicer. Ejecting a disruptive fan and taking away his or her ticket privileges hardly seems like enough. There has to be a way to bring a public nuisance charge and fine the fools.
Maybe the best solution is to have game officials threaten the home team with a technical foul unless the crowd controls itself. This happens occasionally when something is thrown on the court, but maybe it needs to happen more often. Here's how it works: The referee hands the home coach a courtside microphone and instructs him to restore order. This strategy has produced mostly positive results with one glaring exception. In a game against Missouri in 1989, Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs took the microphone and said, "The referees have requested that regardless of how terrible the officiating is, do not throw objects on the court."
Not surprisingly, Tubbs was T'ed for his trouble.
Can we agree Tubbs was a nut?
The guess here is Dixon would do a better job with the microphone at Petersen Events Center. Same with Bob Huggins at West Virginia. Their crowds also would respond.
Something needs to be done. Rotten fan behavior isn't going away by itself. It only will get worse.
What a shame it is to think that a few idiots can spoil a great game for everyone else.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.