Jusuf Nurkic is a seasoned basketball player with Portland Trailblazers in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
While the 7-footer’s name itself lends little value to this story, the arc of his experience on March 23, 2022 does.
What he encountered that night is emblematic of what athletes endure. Every. Single. Day.
That night, Nurkic took bait to an Indiana Pacers’ fan. The fan was hoping to elicit a reaction from the NBA star and succeeded eventually.
Nurkic confronted the intoxicated fan, grabbed a hold of his still-recording phone and flung it into the stands. The league fined Nurkic $40,000.
The Bosnian, surely, informed the league that the fan called his mother ‘trash’ and his grandmother a ‘b*****’ (Nurkic admitted to censoring these words).
The league, and the fans, were aware that Nurkic had lost his grandmother to Covid-19 and his mother was fatally ill for a couple of years before this 'transgression'.
Granted, Nurkic could have handled the situation in a manner befitting of professional athletes. But just because the league expects him to be a ‘role model’, he does not have to be one. Not in the least when his family is dragged through the dirt in public.
He is human. All athletes are. They should be treated thus.
See, athletes can’t always turn a deaf ear to fans and ignore a full range of tasteless comments (and occasionally stuff) thrown at them. More pertinently, they shouldn’t have to.
Athletes choose to ignore most things directed at them and their success at ‘silencing the outside noise’ is deemed a value. But, that does not mean the non-athletes should get away with saying or doing as they please because bullying is not pardonable, not to any degree.
The line between banter and bullying blends insidiously at times, and losing sight of that difference in intent leads to moments such as the one Nurkic encountered that evening.
That Nurkic was fined is appropriate. That the fan went on to watch the rest of the game - fresh beer in hand - isn’t.
Fact is, even if reprimanded, life goes on for fans as their own personal spaces are rarely compromised. Athletes, on the other hand, can’t go on as if they aren’t dangling in the grey area between fanaticism and psychopathy. Not always.
Take for instance the recent hotel room breach involving Virat Kohli.
A contractor working for Crown Resorts in Perth slid into the former Indian skipper’s room and put up a video of the contents of the room.
Kohli’s privacy was violated, and he made a mention of this sentiment on a social media post, but a singular word he used later described the detrimental consequences of such a mindless act. Kohli, not one of meek disposition, said he felt ‘paranoid’.
All this because a ‘fan’ was vying for a few seconds of virtual fame.
Fans assume ownership of these characters since athletes, like all other celebrities, seem so distant from their own versions of reality. Little thought is given to the fact that the fans are the ones turning these athletes into commodities, and administrators benefit from perpetuating this narrative.
Yes, athletes do sign up to bare their lives to us and to be commodified as much as we are at our jobs, but they do not want to share their lives with us without any control. We wouldn’t either.
“We (athletes) do not want to be worshiped,” says a former Indian medium pacer. “People assume that because we play for the country, we want the attention, and want it at any cost. We enjoy validation as much as anyone else, but after a point, it’s uncomfortable. It would be for you too. We try and stay as connected to the fans as possible because without them we won’t have a job, but that doesn’t mean we have to put up with everything they do.”
The medium pacer spoke of the matter without once alluding to the fact that his house was vandalised in the late 2000s. Perhaps one lets go of the emotions attached to such events when they’ve been away from the game for a while. Those in the now, though, are still treading on thin ice.
“A fan in Mysore wanted to take a picture with me,” remembers K Gowtham, the Karnataka all-rounder. “I told him we could take a picture after practice. I was in the middle of it, but then he started calling me ‘blackie’ and said it repeatedly with other added expletives.
“I was angry but I decided to tell the match official. I wanted the security to bring him to a safe spot behind the pavilion to talk to him. I didn’t want to shout at him, that would not have served the purpose. I only asked him why he did what he did and how that would make me feel. This guy, who was dark-skinned too, immediately said ‘sorry’.”
“But frankly, because there’s that fence between them and us, they feel like they can say whatever they want…”
In some cases, they also do whatever they want. In India alone, there have been several instances of near-riots at stadiums, including infamous ones in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru.
Expecting a level of in-stadia civility even in metropolises is, perhaps, an exercise in futility!
That said, it’s as bad in Europe and the Americas. While Europe and North America witness a never-ending fight against racism, players’ safety is constantly under threat in South America.
In fact, of late, there has been a wave of Nazi salutes doing the rounds, even in Australia. It’s a vile gesture, and it targets people who have been targeted for far too long.
Perpetrators were held accountable, and one of them was even issued a life ban, but more needs to be done because platforms of abuse now have a digital avatar to complicate matters.
Administrators cannot be afraid to lose a few fans to ensure sporting sanctity among athletes and a vast majority of other fans, who are there to enjoy a good game - nothing more, nothing less.
Life bans must be issued in severe cases. Venue-specific bans for smaller transgressions must become a norm. Law enforcement agencies in charge of stadium security have to be aware of what constitutes abuse. Fans must be given a space to lodge complaints against fellow fans who cross boundaries.
Stadium cameras must be installed and/ or updated and monitored thoroughly to catch people in the act. This also helps ensure that the right people are reprimanded come judgement time.
Also, social media channels must be monitored and those perpetuating hatred in and through sport need to be ‘cancelled’.
Yes, it can and must go both ways. We cannot expect athletes to be accountable while absolving ourselves of irresponsible deeds.
There is no harm in having an opinion of an athlete or a team. Hell, banter done right - the kind that even athletes have the sensibility to laugh about - is necessary, but to bring up their families, their communities, and their personal lives is out of bounds.
It’s not dissimilar to a vaguely familiar guest walking into your living room and swearing at you and your family. Granted, you let them in, but you still expect them to operate with decorum.
It is your home. Just as the playing field is an athlete’s.
So, instead of joining fans who are bawdy in their denouncement of Indian cricketers in the wake of their fresh exit from the T20 World Cup, be mindful of what you say and how you say it.
Again, they are human and feel just as we do. So unless we don’t believe in extending human decency to everyone, we cannot abuse anyone.