“Under absolutely no circumstances can a player physically react to a fan.”

James Brennan

That sentiment has been repeated countless times over the past few days, as think piece after think piece has rolled in discussing the Marcus Smart incident. Smart, a 19-year-old basketball player at Oklahoma State University, shoved Texas Tech University fan Jeff Orr after Orr yelled something at him.

Looking at the tape, it’s hard to gather exactly what Orr actually said, but rumors are buzzing that Smart told his coaches Orr yelled a racial slur; others claim they can see Orr mouthing out the words “go back to Africa.” Orr denies saying either, but admits that he said something he shouldn’t have.

To say that Orr definitely or probably used a racial slur is founded in about as much evidence as saying he didn’t. Other players have alleged that Orr is known for crossing the line and that Lubbock, Texas is notorious for racist fans, but Marcus Smart is also a player with a well-documented history of hot-headedness. Maybe Orr used a slur, maybe he didn’t. What I think is more important is the one-sided debate in these think pieces about the appropriateness of Smart’s response — regardless of what Orr said.

For a moment, let’s forget the Marcus Smart incident and just imagine it’s any other Black basketball player at any other stadium. The player tumbles into the stands and the fan tells him to “go back to Africa,” so the player shoves him and runs back onto the court.

If I’m that kid’s coach, I’d commend him for having the restraint not to clock that guy across the face, too. But according to the consensus opinion of sports commentators, even if Orr did say something that crossed the line, Smart couldn’t react.

Why not?

To apply the standard “there is no circumstance where a player can react” is making a conscious choice to be blind to the pure hatred some people still openly express and the deep pain it causes others. When someone is called something as horrible and hurtful as what Orr might have called Smart, expecting that person to restrain himself is completely illogical. There is such a thing as “fighting words” — words so hateful and incendiary that, when personally directed at someone, will provoke hatred or violence right back. Calling a 19-year-old Black kid the N-word a foot from his face? Yeah, I would call those fighting words.

I’m not a person of color, nor am I gay, Jewish, a woman or of any other identity that faces a hatred comparable to what African Americans do. There is no word someone can use toward me that would sting quite like a racist, sexist or homophobic slur. It’s not my job to tell someone with a different identity how they should or shouldn’t feel when people spew hate at them. Even if I were a woman or if I were Jewish, I shouldn’t tell someone who is Black how to feel when they’re called a name, and vice versa. We don’t know the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people.

It’s a totally unfair double standard for people who experience hatred to be expected to act with uncompromising restraint. This politically correct, violence-is-never-okay ideology ignores the realities of racial animus and hatred in our society. It isn’t 1947 anymore; stop holding everyone to the Jackie Robinson standard. Not everyone can just sit there and ignore it when someone angrily unloads racism on a person they don’t even know. I’m not advocating for violence, but I’m sure as hell not going to tell Marcus Smart how to react if someone says something hateful toward him. Saying a situation like Smart’s is unwarranted in all circumstances applies far too broad a brush.

If you’re walking down the street with a Black friend and some random guy gets in his face and calls him the N-word, what are you gonna do? Yeah, we’d all hold our friend back, tell him “he’s not worth it” and try to get out of there, but if he ends up kicking this guy’s ass for a couple seconds, we wouldn’t tell our friend he “crossed a line” and that what he did was unwarranted. In the heat of the moment like that, some of us may even jump in and help teach the guy some manners.

People who express that kind of personal, horrible hatred deserve exactly what they get, and no one should be made to feel guilty for giving it to them.

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.

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