By Matt Norlander
It was way over the line. It was egregious. Appalling. It was visceral and it was the latest example of how far and fast things can get out of hand between fans and competitors at a sporting event.
Those Arizona State fans that allegedly spat on Oregon coaches and players on Saturday: How could they?
Ah, you didn't hear about that? Yeah, the first incident of despicable fan behavior from over the weekend came a few hours before Marcus Smart's catastrophe halted all other headlines in the sports world. Nobody's talking about that, though. Spitting's way worse than shoving. Way, way worse. But you didn't see that discussed on SportsCenter or spinning through your Twitter feed last night or this morning. Why is that?
Part of it, of course, is because we don't have video of the spitting incident. Without moving pictures, we don't have proof to react with indignation. The blowback is almost non-existent because we can't see someone hocking a loogie toward Joseph Young, or see the spit that landed on Oregon assistant coaches -- and the police were on hand to see the scene unfold -- as the team was forced to walk past ASU students on the way to the locker room after losing 74-72 at the buzzer.
We did see Smart, though. You've probably got every frame of that highlight burned in your mind at this point, not even a day removed from the contemptible push. And now we await the punishment from the Big 12. How many games will Smart sit out? How will this affect his draft stock? Where does Oklahoma State go from here? What happened to this team, anyway? Predictable -- and legitimate -- questions we should be asking.
That's the other part of it. We didn't react to what happened at Oregon-Arizona State because the villain has no face -- and I'm not just talking video here. I'm talking the fan, singular and collectively. That's the issue we should focus on. When do we turn our resentment toward the fans in cases like this? Do we resist it as a society because society in itself comprises the collective fan? That's no excuse. It's high time we held fans completely accountable -- and at the very least as part of ensuing investigations -- for incidents involving them and players. They have no more right to verbally or physically attack a player than a player has to attack them. They are equals -- they are humans separated only by different perspectives of entitlement -- and both sides should treat each other with respect.
This of course happens 99.9 percent of the time. Games are played, some booing or mild-mannered heckling goes on, and everyone heads home. But when it goes wrong, though, the player is always the one associated with villainy.
Smart's shove will be all the talk on Sunday and into Monday in the sports world. It will overshadow the Olympics in the short-term. Anything involving athletes and fans and confrontation is ripe for opinion more than reflection. But let's reflect. And let's vow to change things.
Let's have arenas and teams and organizations hold ticket-holders responsible for the things they allegedly say and actions they do. In almost all cases, they are the catalysts. Let's hold them to their words, the words they clearly use to incite reaction. There's a grand difference between jeering or booing and outright inducing violence from a player. I'm not absolving Smart; almost no one will. But no matter how long or short the fuse of a player, it's not acceptable for a fan to use language that incites that kind of reaction.
Even if that, somehow, wasn't the case with Jeff Orr -- the fan who was the one shoved by Smart, the man who is the No. 1 TTU hoops fan according to the school and a person who's not exactly been a model citizen with other opposing players in the past -- we know bad language is usually what flares these dust-ups. We know it happens too often, even if it almost never happens at all.
It happens because there is almost no downside for the fan. They get a reaction from the athlete, and they win. The athlete loses. The athlete becomes the vilified one. The athlete stands to lose everything, because the fan already has nothing.
We expect athletes -- especially college-age athletes -- to put their feelings in check when someone is using hurtful language? This notion that athletes can't "cross a line" by laying hands on a fan: it's ideal but unreasonable. If in no other walk of life is it acceptable to just out-and-out heckle or belittle or harass or racially incite a person, why should we turn around in that same breath and expect all athletes to compose themselves and be above a moment of ignition?
If someone used racist language, incendiary dialogue against your family or malicious speech against you at your worst of moments at work -- would you be above a shove? Could you compose yourself, in an instant, and walk away? Could you look at someone's lizard eyes of evil and not feel moved to defend yourself?
Emotions are powerful. And athletes -- usually for good -- accelerate and buoy off them in order to perform. Asking them to turn off that internal kindle in an instant, especially amid a terrible loss like the one Oklahoma State was about to take before Smart defended his honor, is a near-impossible task.
"I really didn't see it," Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith said afterward. "The frustration, when you're losing sometimes. I've been there before. It can be tough. I'm sure he regrets doing that, whatever he did."
Without question, on some level, Smart does. Just as you or I would.
The Big 12 investigation begins today. Smart's character will be picked apart, and more than likely, the fan involved will be mostly absolved for what he did. The fan will go on in his life, likely be boosted by the Tech fan base, and Smart will be left to pick up the pieces of his college legacy. The OSU sophomore -- who said before the season he was NBA-bound -- is not without fault. He's not without fault because he is human. Because he is learning what it's like to play with a target; to lose more often than he wants; to compose himself in the lowest of moments.
He screwed up. But he wasn't the only one.
This is a culmination for Smart, too. It ultimately could be a great thing for him. He's developed a reputation as college basketball's most talented flopper. Oklahoma State (16-7, 4-6 in the Big 12) recently had to dismiss a player named Stevie Clark, who was booted after his second arrest -- of 2014. OSU's dropped five of six games, and in the one win, Smart stomped a chair, then stomped off the floor, then eventually apologized for his behavior, vowing never to repeat it.
He didn't repeat it Saturday. That was a whole new chapter of regret. Now comes his chance to completely change what he is seen as. It will take time, but it can absolutely be done. He's young enough, talented enough, intelligent enough and mature enough -- hard as it might seem to believe, Smart's known for his maturity away from the court in a big way -- to overcome this.
What happened Saturday night in Lubbock, Texas, wasn't all his fault. Remember that. And know that both ugly events from Saturday in college basketball reflect the issue at hand and how we should judge and address it going forward. Fan and player assaulted each other, and both deserve equal time under the harsh light. Neither is above the other when it comes face to face, mouth to mouth, or hands to chest.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.