Who hasn’t been there?  Time is running out, your team is down by two.  Or, for that matter, time won’t run out quickly enough, and your team is down by thirty.  Either way, we have all likely experienced the emotion that goes with rooting for our team, and the natural counterpart, hating the other guys.  With that in mind, it is really not surprising that the Texas Tech/Marcus Smart fiasco happened on Saturday; what is more hard to believe is that it hadn’t happened sooner.

Across the nation, we have seen incidents like the one that unfolded on Saturday. No one can forget the “Malice at the Palace” when Ron Artest went, well, Ron Artest and charged after a fan.  In Louisville, fans who are my age and older will remember the 1988 South Carolina game where Pervis Ellison attempted to go after a University of South Carolina law student following an in game brawl.  Recently, Kentucky freshman guard Aaron Harrison was challenged by an Arkansas fan following an emotional defeat on the road.

However, we now live in a different time.  Fans are closer, interaction is more intimate, reporting is done via social media and is instantaneous.  For the right amount of money, a fan can sit with their feet on the court.  Fans can be seen arguing calls with officials, being run over on loose ball plays, and generally becoming “part of the game.” In 2012 NC State alums and former players Chris Corchaiani and Tom Gugliotta found out the hard way when Karl Hess ejected them from a game where the Wolfpack played against Florida State in Raleigh.

Fast forward to Saturday night.  Marcus Smart is obviously frustrated.  His team is about to extend their losing ways when, while trailing by two, Texas Tech steals a pass and is headed for an emphatic dunk.  The arena had been raucous all night.  It was the 11th sellout in the history of the arena for a Texas Tech game.  Emotions were high, and fans were at a fever pitch.  As Smart runs, trips and falls out of bounds, one of the more well known Texas Tech fans made a comment.  It has been reported the fan used the N word.  Later, it was said the fan called Smart a piece of crap.  Who knows what was said.  Smart’s reaction, while visceral and understandable in nature, was the wrong one.  For his part, Marcus Smart has received a 3 game suspension and may have effectively ended any hope that Travis Ford had of being in the tournament in March.  But what do we do about the fan?  Or, more importantly, what do we do about all of the fans?

The fan in Lubbock, Jeff Orr, has said publicly that he did not use a racial slur against Smart.  Orr also self imposed a season long ban from attending any remaining TTU home basketball games.  But what does the University do?  What does the NCAA do?  Is there a vehicle to enforce civility amongst the fans?  The legal answer is yes, the reality is less clear.

A ticket is a revocable license.  This means, the ticket holder is bound to conform to the rules of holding such a license.  The school issues theses licenses, and in almost all cases, they list the terms and conditions on the back of the ticket itself.  Fans typically do not pay attention to the fine print, in fact, they likely don’t ever read it at all. While the school, or the licensing entity, has the legal right to limit a fan’s attendance at a sporting event, the reality of the situation is that the fans, who’s behavior is the most likely to be noticeable, probably paid a hefty price for the ability to sit in the choice seat.  With the exception of student tickets, all of the lower level seating at the KFC Yum! Center require a sizeable contribution to the Cardinal Athletic Fund.  Herein lies the rub.  Do you toss heavyweight donors to the curb for their boorish behavior?  What is acceptable?  Who decides? Fortunately for U of L, this is not an issue that has proven problematic.

At other schools, the same cannot be said.  In West Virginia for instance, they imprison, err…  contain, the student section with fencing.  In Illinois, Eric Gordon was assailed because he had once committed to play for the Fighting Illini, and reconsidered before signing with IU.  Even the Former President of the NCAA Myles Brand wrote about the treatment from “fans of the game” in 2008.  From Brand’s article titled, Getting a Grip on Fan Behavior in College Sports, the President said, “These behaviors represent a threat to the integrity of intercollegiate athletics. Rule by mob will as quickly undo the role intercollegiate athletics plays in the national sports culture.”

At U of L I cannot recall an instance where players from the opposing team have responded to a fan’s outburst or constant criticism.  I do recall coaches having less decorum, (See Deane, Mike) also see (Pastner, Josh).  One thing that is certain, sportsmanship, and fan etiquette, along with player/coaches reactions will certainly receive additional scrutiny in the days, weeks and years to come.  It is our responsibility as fans of the game, to ensure we will have something to cheer for.  It is our responsibility to behave appropriately.  Unfortunately, it is not a responsibility that all will embrace.

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Keith Poynter

Keith Poynter graduated from the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law in May of 2011. While in law school, Keith studied Sports Law as well as other core curriculum. Prior to becoming an attorney, Keith worked in the insurance industry for 6 years, and was a police officer in both Kentucky and Tennessee for 6 years. As an avid sports fan, former basketball official and current youth sports coach, Keith is heavily involved in sports when not at work or with his family at the lake. Keith's diverse background makes him an excellent source for legal opinion about issues surrounding the sporting world. Whether the matter be criminal or contractual, Keith's unique experience and education allows him to offer insight that may be missed by the casual fan. Keith is available for commentary on any legal issues that may arise in the Kentuckiana area and will routinely post articles concerning local and national sports law topics.

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