Column: Between A Sideline and A Hard Place

Down to the Wire is a monthly column written by Echo Sports Editor Madeline James.

Madeline James, Sports Editor & Columnist

On March 11, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in Salt Lake City to play a game against their Northwest-division competitors, the Jazz. Towards the end of the second quarter, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was sitting on the bench after starting the game, icing his knees and waiting to enter in for the end of the quarter. A heckler, sitting on the sidelines in courtside seats, began to yell at Westbrook, teasing him and making comments. They began to exchange a heated dialogue, which then escalated faster than a ski slope in Park City.

The fan, who was later identified on social media as Shane Kiesel, continued to make several derogatory remarks towards him, one of which was, according to Westbrook, “get down on your knees like you’re used to.” In response, Westbrook got up from the bench, yelling, “I’ll f— you up” towards Kiesel and a woman sitting next to him, later identified as his wife. The rest of the game went without any further altercations between the two, but the event was quickly shared with onlookers and then made its way to the front page of the internet. Kiesel, who was sitting with his wife at the game, was interviewed by a local news station post-game, where he spoke about the “offensive” remarks made towards him and his wife.

The interview, which was on KSL5, the NBC affiliate for Salt Lake City, followed the game, where a reporter asked Kiesel about the interactions he experienced during the game. Kiesel said that the comment he made towards Westbrook was to “ice those knees up,” and following his comment, he said that Westbrook “went nuts.”

Westbrook shared his side of the story in the locker room, following OKC’s win against Utah. ESPN, USA Today and several other sports news sites shared information about the incident, and on first impression, it looked as if Westbrook was at fault. Most people would agree that yelling to someone and their wife that you will  “f— them up” is not appropriate conduct, especially not for a professional athlete. Yes, Kiesel’s comments were completely uncalled for and had an extremely racist undertone. But Westbrook’s severe reaction seemed to put him in the wrong. Until Tuesday morning.

Shane Kiesel’s name quickly became recognized after he gave his interview of the incident and his social media pages and other information about him continued to spread. His Twitter page was loaded with racist, violent and xenophobic content. It appeared that Monday night was not the first time that Kiesel had used suggestive and offensive language. Both sides of the story were becoming clearer, and it was easier to empathize with how strong Westbrook’s reaction was to the incident. In the age of the internet, everyone’s name is no further away than a quick Google search, and Kiesel found this out the hard way, eventually deleting his social media accounts later that week.

Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller addressed the incident Thursday night before a home Jazz game, where he called for adherence to the NBA code of conduct for fans and said that the racist comments Kiesel said were out of line of their community standards. Westbrook was handed a $25,000 fine by the association for his behavior, while Kiesel received a lifelong ban from attending Utah Jazz home games.

Despite the air clearing in the days following the incident, it is hard to know how to pick a side in issues like this. Professional athletes are paid to perform their sport and to display sportsmanship and appropriate conduct, not to argue with fans sitting courtside. But fans are also expected to understand boundaries with athletes and where crossing the line (in this case Kiesel literally stepped over the sideline) happens. Discriminatory language of any kind should never be tolerated, and Kiesel acted inappropriately in doing so. Was this justification enough for Westbrook, a 200-lb something, 6’5 towering NBA player, to make a threat towards him? Depends on who you ask.

The NBA’s Fan Code of Conduct is a 282 word statement that gives protocols for fans attending live NBA games, and explains that appropriate consequences — in Kiesel’s case, being kicked out — will be issued. Fans that are sitting courtside are within five feet of the basketball court and have the best seats for all of the action. That five foot boundary does not offer any protections for the players however, and the NBA’s front office has been reluctant to change any of its legal protocols for interactions like Kiesel’s in the past. Westbrook was fined. Kiesel was banned. But where do we go from here? Greater fan distance from a player would, in theory, grant greater security, but not without eliminating courtside first and second row seating, a financial deterrent for the league. Any visitor to an NBA arena should be capable of knowing their boundaries and to not interfere with the pace of the game. Shout your complaints at the refs, eat an overpriced soft pretzel, but leave the players out of it.