February 10, 2014

FORKEN | In Defense of Marcus Smart

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Marcus Smart, a member of the Oklahoma State basketball program, was suspended three games on Sunday afternoon for his role in a physical altercation with a fan, Jeff Orr, during the closing seconds of a game against Texas Tech Saturday evening. Prior to returning to the court, Smart shoved Orr, who appeared to have yelled at Smart as he fell to the ground. In a statement released Sunday, Orr claimed to have called Smart a “piece of crap,” although initial reports from radio analyst Kevin Holcomb indicated that Smart told the Oklahoma State coaching staff that Orr had called him the n-word. Unsubstantiated claims from ESPN anchor Stuart Scott and various local news stations suggest that what Orr actually said was, “Go back to Africa.”

As you can imagine, the media had a lot to say about the matter. Most notable basketball analysts, such as Doug Gottlieb and Dick Vitale, essentially remarked that no matter what Orr had said to Smart, Smart had a responsibility to walk away. Immediately following the occurrence, the ESPN announcer anchoring the game referred to Smart’s actions as “disgusting behavior.” If Orr really only referred to Smart as a “piece of crap,” then maybe Smart’s reaction may have been unwarranted; the only thing is, I don’t think that’s what Orr said.

To start, let’s set the scene. The game took place at Texas Tech, located in the county of Lubbock. When President Barack Obama was campaigning for reelection in 2012, Lubbock County Judge Tom Head, the highest elected official in the county, claimed that if Obama was reelected he was expecting Lubbock to be in a state of civil unrest with a potential civil war involving his constituency who would “take up arms and get rid of the guy.” This is all to say that maybe, just maybe, Lubbock County, Texas, where Jeff Orr resides, may not be made up of the most tolerant people in the country.

Now for a little background on “superfan” Jeff Orr. Texas Tech University has long been aware of Jeff Orr due to his intense loyalty to the program, and even featured him in a University-sanctioned promo video. Former Texas Tech coach Pat Knight has even commented on how much Orr means to the team. While Jeff Orr may in fact be a “superfan,” he sure isn’t a stranger to controversy. In 2010, a video surfaced of Orr leveling obscene gestures in the direction of an African-American Texas A&M player. Furthermore, former OSU and current NBA player, John Lucas III, tweeted about how he recalls Orr yelling a lot of “crazy ish” back in 2001-2005 when he was in the Big 12. It would seem, if the alleged hate words were in fact uttered from Jeff Orr, it wouldn’t be the first time he has verbally assaulted an African-American player.

On to the incident itself. Are we to believe that Marcus Smart, who has undoubtedly been previously subject to the abuse that former players describe, really reacted in the manner he did because he was called a “piece of crap?” After Smart was restrained by his teammates, he was still yelling and pointing in Orr’s direction. Something tells me that in order to elicit the reaction from Smart that Orr did, something other than “piece of crap” must have come from Orr’s mouth.

I’m not advocating for violent reactions. If anything, Smart’s reactions unfortunately work to perpetuate already existing, unjust negative stereotypes. I’m saying that if Orr hurled any of the aforementioned horrible epithets towards Smart, then the reaction is warranted. How is it still the case in 21st century America that an old white guy can allegedly say a word embroiled with such a history of hate and injustice towards an African-American player, and the general consensus is effectively, “get over it?”

In general, this speaks to a disturbing trend in America. It started with Richard Sherman, who was labeled a thug and exposed to intense racism on Twitter, all for emphatically declaring his dominance on national television. Really? A man with a graduate degree from Stanford who has a reputation of giving back and being heavily involved in his local community is a thug? Meanwhile, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who is actually an elected public figure, threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony for attempting to ask a meaningful question regarding his campaign fraud, and the ensuing media reaction was relatively quiet. I guess we should focus more on African-American athletes who lose their cool for a second rather than an allegedly corrupt white Congressman tasked with running the country. People like Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart aren’t the problem. The problem is people like Jeff Orr. The only way to eradicate institutionalized racism in this country is to have a zero tolerance policy, not to shame the victims for their reaction. The story shouldn’t be about Marcus Smart; it should be about what Jeff Orr said to get Smart to that point, and why prominent analysts believe it’s acceptable for athletes to be subject to racism.

It was disappointing to see countless figures in the public spotlight condemn Smart for his actions without stopping to think why racism is still tolerated in society. Yahoo!’s Pat Forde tweeted, “Marcus Smart is ruining his reputation this season. This is just unfortunate and ugly.” No, Mr. Forde, the only thing unfortunate and ugly was the way we as a society reacted to this incident.