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Why Do Sports Fans Hate on Athletes So Much?

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On Saturday night, at the very end of a road loss to Texas Tech, Oklahoma State basketball star Marcus Smart shoved Jeff Orr, a self-described Texas Tech “superfan” who travels thousands of miles a year to attend the school’s games. The game broadcast makes it clear that Orr shouted something at Smart, and Smart responded by shoving the fan. It’s impossible to tell, from that video, what Orr said. 

According to Smart, Orr called him a serious racial slur; according to a statement from Orr released by Texas Tech, he called him a “piece of crap.” Texas Tech released a sideline video of the incident, and no racial slur can be heard on the recording. Deadspin‘s Timothy Burke notes that the audio has been edited, though that’s not as damning a fact as it may seem. Regardless, we’ll never know for certain whether Smart or Orr is telling the truth; it’s also possible that neither are lying, and Smart misheard Orr. Whatever was said, Orr apparently felt appropriately chastened afterward that he texted a friend that he “kinda let my mouth say something I shouldn’t have,” and agreed to “voluntarily” suspend himself from attending any more Texas Tech games this year.

There are plenty of people already writing about how Smart should not have shoved Orr, and that is true. Violence is never the answer—sticks and stones, etc—and Smart, who played his high school ball at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, has a recent history of being easily irritated. Bleacher Report declared him “out of control,” citing the fact that he kicked a chair after a game in which he struggled, and that he “pouted” after a non-call for what the writer characterized as “endless flopping.” 

It’s also worth pointing out, though, that Smart is nineteen years old, and is in an unenviable position: He’s a public figure whose every “pout” is fodder for breathless columns that claim to know the inner-workings of his mind (also from the Bleacher Report story, which does not interview Smart or anyone who knows him: “When the Cowboys started to struggle this year, Smart, probably for this first time in his life, felt powerless on a basketball court. He didn’t know how to handle the losing.”). Smart is subject to hurled insults from strangers, and he’s also a student playing a game for no money. It’s a tricky situation for an “amateur” athlete—because he’s a hot prospect for the NBA with a high profile, he’s fair game for the insults and the armchair psychoanalysis, but because he’s a young man and a student, he’s not playing this game professionally.

That’s Smart’s position, anyway. Orr, meanwhile, is a man who is presumably in his fifties—he graduated from Texas Tech in 1983—who has a history of heckling the teenagers playing against Texas Tech. In 2010, he made an obscene gesture after Texas A&M’s Bryan Davis made a dunk at halftime (you can see Orr behind the hoop in the video), and those two are just the incidents caught on camera by ESPN. 

If people can agree that shoving a man in his fifties is inappropriate, then we can presumably also agree that grown men should not be hurling insults (regardless of whether Orr used a racial slur) and obscene gestures at teenagers who are playing a game. Yet a big part of sports culture is treating athletes like they’re simultaneously more and less than human—and Orr, while he’s easy to scapegoat, is only one example of that. 

Read the comments section of just about any story on the Internet about an athlete and you’ll find egregious namecalling, snark, vitrol, and other ugly sentiments. Look at Twitter in the minutes after Tony Romo throws an interception, or recall the glee with which fans mocked Manti Te’o for his imaginary girlfriend, or the incessant trolling LeBron James receives, or the celebration of the dumb things said by Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, or the frequent attacks hurled at the Williams sisters, or the living embodiment of schadenfreude that is Johnny Manziel. Loving sports often goes hand in hand with hating athletes, and while Jeff Orr is just the fan who got shoved back by a young player he heckled, he’s otherwise not that much of an outlier. 

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