Did Racism Cause the Russell Westbrook Fight? That May Be the Wrong Question.

Photo: Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Russell Westbrook is the starting point guard for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, which means he is rich and famous and gets paid to hawk Mountain Dew. He also attracts no shortage of criticism and hostility: The raucous cheers of his hometown crowd are matched by the vitriol spewed at road games by opposing fans. This is par for the course in sports. Spectators have always invested outsize emotional energy into what happens on the field of competition.

But on Monday, one such provocation drew Westbrook into a verbal spat with a Utah Jazz fan in Salt Lake City. In what Westbrook characterized as “racial” abuse, the fan — Shane Keisel, who is white — allegedly told the black 30-year-old to, “Get down on your knees like you’re used to.” Keisel denied to reporters that he said anything untoward. “Ice those knees up!” he claimed to have yelled. “You’re going to need it.” Westbrook’s teammate, Raymond Felton, confirmed his fellow guard’s version of events. Westbrook responded to Keisel with threats and obscenities: “I swear to God, I’ll fuck you up,” he shouted in a tirade captured on cell phone video. “You and your wife, I’ll fuck you up.”

The NBA fined Westbrook $25,000 for his outburst, and Vivint Smart Arena, where the Jazz play, banned Keisel for life. The question of whether racism drove the exchange seemed moot, as such — Keisel’s penalty would have probably been the same either way. But digging deeper requires more than punitive action. Like most social events in America, an NBA game is a place where racist hierarchies are navigated and reproduced. Rather than pick apart Keisel’s motives, it is perhaps more useful to ask if an arrangement where black Americans are doing most of the work and white Americans are doing most of the watching can, or should, escape its participants understanding it in terms of those racist hierarchies.

Westbrook is known for being both one of the league’s most athletic players and one of its most demonstrative performers. His blinding footspeed and ability to slice through defenders and finish plays with dizzying slam dunks can make his post-play celebrations — roaring at the sky, flexing his arm muscles, barking and sneering at opponents — seem excessive to the unappreciative. This is especially true for those on the receiving end. The Thunder guard perfectly embodies the archetype of a player who you love when he’s on your side, but hate to play against.

In recent months, though, the outrage that he provokes has become markedly more venomous. In at least two instances, opposing fans have bypassed the NBA’s porous security measures and confronted Westbrook on the court. After the Thunder lost a close road game to the Denver Nuggets in January, a Denver fan made his way toward Westbrook and started puffing out his chest and yelling in the Thunder guard’s face. Westbrook — alarmed initially and then confused — pushed the fan in an apparent effort to create distance. Late February saw another confrontation in Denver. A young boy sitting courtside shoved Westbrook from behind after referees halted a play, prompting the Thunder guard to turn and issue a warning to the child’s father. “I told his dad, ‘Be careful, man, you can’t have your son just hitting random people,’” Westbrook told reporters after the game. “‘I don’t know him, he don’t know me.’”

There is a degree to which sports celebrity functions as a blank screen for projection. Everyday spectators don’t just invest emotional energy into teams they don’t work for and players they don’t know personally — they come to understand these entities as proxies for their own triumphs and anxieties. A win or loss carries weight beyond the locker room. For some fans, it can be a matter of pride in one’s city, consolation after a bad week, or validation of one’s commitment to what outsiders might view as esoterica — knowledge of names, statistics, defensive schemes, and other items that enrich one’s love for a game that, by its nature, cannot love back.

The false sense of intimacy this creates can be a harmless diversion. In fact, it is part of the reason we care about sports. But it can also be justification for inappropriate feelings of entitlement. Pair the latter with the geography of NBA arenas — unique among professional sports, in that there is no barrier between players and the fans seated in the front row — and save for the threat of ejection, only self-restraint prevents hyped-up spectators from getting physical with players. “[There’s] too much leeway for the fans to be able to touch the players and get away with it,” Westbrook said on Monday. “[There] has to be some type of rule or some type of boundaries set that you can’t allow that.”

New boundaries may be erected in the future, but those that exist now are visibly racial. Seventy-five percent of the league’s players are black, and a plurality of its fan base — at about 46 percent — is white, according to FiveThirtyEight estimates. The latter number is probably even higher among attendees at the NBA’s often prohibitively expensive live games. One can extrapolate how this racial makeup shapes Westbrook’s experiences: His opponents in all three recent cases — the Utah Jazz and the Denver Nuggets — are among the seven teams with the whitest fan bases. The Jazz rank number two.

This is not a natural state of affairs, although many Americans would argue otherwise. Racist hierarchies thrive on the belief in their purported racial neutrality. It is easy, for example, and perhaps more comforting to people who believe that America is meritocratic, to attribute the overrepresentation of black players in the NBA to innate physical qualities. The reality is less flattering to everyone: that America is a society where more attainable and less physically demanding options for wealth accumulation — such as inheriting family money or capitalizing on one’s access to wealthy social networks — are routinely denied to black people because of their race.

In fact, there is evidence that the optics of NBA games — a largely black performance consumed by a largely white audience — are fastidiously policed in order to maintain these hierarchies. Ex-Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson was compelled to sell his majority share in the team in 2014 after a two-year-old email surfaced where he decried the high share of black fans at live games. Black spectators, he theorized, were a drain on his bottom line — they were a less “significant” season-ticket-holder base than white fans, and their presence scared the white fans away (although, he made sure to clarify, they hadn’t actually done anything “threatening”).

The white bigotry implied in this scenario did nothing to dissuade Levenson from wanting to invest in its perpetrators. The value of whiteness overrides such quibbling. A similar calculus led to a lifetime ban by the NBA against Donald Sterling — the ex-Los Angeles Clippers owner who was audio recorded imploring his mistress not to bring black people to Clippers games. “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want,” Sterling told her, also in 2014. “The little I ask you is not to promote it on [Instagram] … and not to bring them to my games.”

It is almost impossible to ignore how racism shapes the racial dynamics of an NBA game when such stakeholders are so invested in reproducing it. Not every example is so flagrant, of course. It is possible to interpret Monday’s events in Salt Lake City as a racially neutral confrontation between a fan and a player, of the sort that has defined athletics since before professional sports were integrated. As far as sports leagues go, the NBA is leaps and bounds ahead of its competitors in terms of its share of black people and women in positions of power (if not ownership).

But even if one buys this colorblind interpretation, the “racial” subtext that Westbrook saw in a white fan’s alleged demand that he “get down on [his] knees” suggests a more unsettling truth: The same racist hierarchies would have been reproduced had Shane Keisler said nothing. The game they play in Vivint Smart Arena is the same game that America plays everyday, and everyone has a role to fill, whether they recognize it or not.

Did Racism Cause Monday’s Russell Westbrook Fight?