Last week, NBA superstar guard Russell Westbrook was caught on camera threatening to “F—up” a fan and his wife during a game against the Utah Jazz. The episode resulted in think pieces in ESPN’s The Undefeated, The Guardian, and The Athletic.com, and consumed most major sports talk shows and podcasts for multiple news cycles last week.
Almost all the pundits and professional commentators moved to justify Westbrook’s outburst and quickly began bemoaning the horribly “racist” fan culture in Utah. Not one major media outlet offered anything critical of the actual evidence for Jazz fans being racist, nor did any outlet bother to seek out an insider perspective on Utah fan culture.
Almost no one (online or otherwise) sided with the fan’s version of events. After Westbrook uttered the word “racial” in a postgame interview, the Jazz organization immediately went into damage control, launching “an investigation” that concluded with banning the fan for life not just from future Jazz games, but any events at the Jazz-owned Vivint Smart Home Arena.
The next day, video surfaced on social media of a different Jazz fan calling Westbrook “boy” prior to a playoff game at the arena last spring. The Jazz organization launched a second investigation, identified that fan, then quickly banned him and a compatriot for good measure.
Where Is the Racial Dimension Here?
What do we know, though, about the first fan interaction that inspired such intense reactions and the enormous volume of media bandwidth? Westbrook claimed that the fan yelled at him to “Get down on your knees like you’re used to,” which Westbrook told reporters he considered “inappropriate” and “racial.” Most sane people would agree with the first characterization, but the second is, well, questionable.
As many pointed out on social media, the comment was more likely a gross way of saying “You suck”—the insult NBA players probably hear the most. If anything, the remark seems homophobic, not racist, but perhaps the fan thought he was simply being creative. Either way, what a doofus.
Without in any way siding with the banned Jazz fans, or defending their vulgar actions, the hasty way national media downplayed Westbrook’s threats of violence against fans—and accepted his claim that he needed to “defend his family”—without examining the specifics of the interaction is troubling.
The whole process of summarily declaring not just all Jazz fans, but all Utah fans, “racist” displays an anti-Middle American prejudice common throughout coastal media operations, something I witnessed working as a news writer at Air America Radio in New York while completing a graduate degree in journalism at New York University.
In my experience, east coast journalists and media members are all too eager to tar Middle Americans of all stripes (except the supposedly enlightened ones who relocate to New York or Los Angeles) as “racist” and “ignorant” hicks. In this specific case, the eagerness to label Utah culture racist and “inappropriate” reflects something deeper: an anti-Mormon nativist sentiment that began in the mid-19th century and caused Mormons to flee Missouri and then Illinois soon after.
Mormon Stereotypes Inflate Perception of Racism
Mormon stereotypes live throughout American culture, as is evidenced by many major misconceptions about Salt Lake City. Salt Lake politics have been dominated by Democrats for at least 30 years, yet no one in the media seems to ever mention this fact, or even appear aware of it.
Mormons are super conservative, don’t you know. In all of the coverage of the Westbrook incident, not one national journalist or commentator even attempted to understand “Salt City”—its affectionate nickname amongst locals.
Utah’s capitol is a highly rebellious place defined not by devout Mormonism, but by “Jack Mormonism”—slang for fallen Mormons, halfhearted Mormons, or ex-Mormons. Because of this, it is a highly artistic and angry place. The purity of punk rock is taken very seriously in the local music scene.
Only about one in four residents in Salt Lake actually attend a Mormon church regularly. To good Mormons, Salt Lake is Gomorra. Provo, where Brigham Young University is located, is the mecca.
Why Mormons Can Be Aggressive Sports Fans
Whether devout Mormon, Jack Mormon, or “non-Mormon” (yes, this is common term in Utah), the Jazz fan base is indeed uniquely aggressive and frequently, if not constantly, insulting referees and opposing players. That has been true since the Jazz arrived in Utah in 1979.
Why would Mormons and ex-Mormons like myself feel the need to insult strangers in a sporting environment? The quick answer is that inside Mormon culture, sports represent the area where it is acceptable to behave badly. Sports are the Mormon version of Carnival. Everyone in Mormon culture knows this, even if he is hesitant to admit it.
Mormon culture derives from a frontier mentality of a persecuted people who were driven to a beautiful, but frozen piece of Rocky Mountain real estate where no one thought you could grow crops. The culture is nice on the surface, but its sporting environment is hyper-aggressive, hyper-masculine, and hyper-competitive.
When you enter the Jazz arena, you witness an unusually intense us versus them mentality where anyone not wearing a Jazz-note logo is seen as suspect. The same thing happens in Mormon church sports between players of the same faith.
I remember, on multiple occasions as a child, my father getting into fisticuffs at intra-church Mormon basketball tournaments. It is a common joke inside Utah that “the best place to get into a fight” is at a Mormon ward basketball game. In 2007, Mormon filmmakers even turned this well-known fact into the comedic film “Church Ball,” a small “Mollywood” effort aimed solely at a Mormon audience.
Jazz Fans Yell Crazy Stuff a Lot
Because of this mixed martial arts meets Carnival aspect, at spectator sporting events in Utah there is a competition of sorts to see who can yell the cleverest—and sometimes the harshest—thing at referees and opposing players. In the 1998 playoffs, with the Jazz playing the Houston Rockets, I yelled from the 12th row at Charles Barkley that he “needed his mommy Dick Bavetta to protect him.” The insult must have hit home. Barkley gave me the finger and was fined thousands for doing it.
All the taunting and heckles I’ve yelled at Jazz games over the years have been light-hearted, good-natured, and, hopefully, humorous. I can’t say the same for all Jazz fans, but I have never heard a single Utah fan yell a racist taunt at a player in the span of the 30 years since I started going to games with my father in 1988.
Raja Bell, who played with the Jazz for four years across two separate stints, told the Salt Lake Tribune he had never heard a single racist taunt, insult, or chant aimed at a black player during a Jazz home game. Current all-NBA Jazz Center Rudy Gobert, who has played with the team for six years, went on the record saying the same thing.
Over the 440 home games played between these two players, they did not observe a single instance of fan racism. Not one. However, nearly the entire focus of the U.S. media coverage of the incident went toward digging up a small list of opposing players who have interpreted taunts or insults they received at various points in time as “racially motivated,” but never actually referenced any specific racist language used.
It is unfortunate that some opposing players felt targeted because of their race, but the details of the rhetoric they heard are important. Without it, there is no way to have a productive discussion.
It’s Not Racist for White Fans to Heckle Black Players
As with Twitter, or any crowd environment, it is also worth revisiting the inevitability of stupid people existing in minimal amounts across this thing we call humanity. Even if all of the accusations of racially motivated taunts discussed were entirely true, that would still leave a ratio of five or six instances out of the tens of millions of possible fan-player earshot interactions over the course of the 39 years the Jazz have played in Salt Lake City.
But how much of this entire media firestorm relates to the rise of social justice culture and its loose adaptation of so-called critical race theory, which interprets all white people as indelibly racist regardless of the specifics? In our highly sensitized environment, would my heckling of Barkley from 1998 be considered “racist” today?
Do any insults or taunts become racist because a white fan directs them at a black player? Many in academe today would say yes, and this perspective is filtering down throughout the rest of American culture, including NBA players.
Claiming to know what motivates someone else’s actions is a dangerous game always fraught with bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions about that person and his or her group. The irony of these stories about Westbrook and Jazz fans is that it is indeed about prejudice, but not those of Jazz fans.
What it exposes instead is the prejudice of journalists and commentators based on the coasts and their total lack of interest in the perspective or unique culture of America’s largest, home-grown religious minority, which has its own long history of persecution and stereotypes.