Background for the Teacher:
This is Part 1 of a two-part lesson that has students consider a confrontation between Russell Westbrook (a Black NBA player) and a white fan, its aftermath, and the public discussion that ensued about racism in the NBA and society at large. Part two of the lesson has students read and discuss an essay stemming from the controversy, by white NBA player Kyle Korver, which focuses on white privilege.
The NBA controversy began in March 2019, after a video went viral of Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma Thunder, who is Black, confronting a white Utah Jazz fan at a game in Salt Lake City. The cause of the confrontation was soon revealed: The white fan had made a racist and degrading comment to Westbrook.
The Utah Jazz quickly moved to permanently ban the white fan from all future events at their arena for his “excessive and derogatory abuse.” Westbrook was fined $25,000 by the NBA for directing profane and threatening language at the fan and his wife. Black players, among others, spoke out to defend Westbrook for standing up to racist abuse.
The incident led to widespread discussion in the media and among players, fans, and the public, about the racist and insulting comments Black players regularly receive from white fans, and what to do it about it – as well as larger issues of racism. It also led Kyle Korver, a white NBA player with the Utah Jazz, to publish, a month later, a thoughtful essay entitled “Privileged,” which also went viral. In his essay, Korver reflects on the level of racism in the NBA and in society at large; white privilege, including his own; and the responsibility that he and other white people have to counter racism.
This lesson has two parts:
- Part 1: A Courtside Confrontation and Its Aftermath. Students consider tweets about Westbrook’s confrontation with the white fan (which include some profanity). They discuss the statement from Westbrook following the incident about what prompted the confrontation and how he views it. Then they read and discuss a timeline of events that occurred after the confrontation.
- Part 2: An Essay about White Privilege. Students read and discuss two excerpts from Kyle Korver’s essay “Privileged,”and consider a series of quotes from the essay.
Note: Before beginning the discussion, consider reviewing these guidelines on discussing controversial issues in the classroom.
An NBA Controversy Over Racism
Part I: A Courtside Confrontation and Its Aftermath
Ask students if they know what the following tweets are in reference to:
Elicit and explain that on March 11, 2019, Russell Westbrook, a Black NBA player with the Oklahoma Thunder, confronted a white Utah Jazz fan and his wife at a game in Salt Lake City. He was visibly agitated as he threatened to “f*ck up” the fan and his wife. The video of the confrontation went viral, and people criticized Westbrook for threatening fans.
But soon after, the tide turned, as it became clear how the confrontation had started.
Westbrook’s March 11 Press Conference
Following the game, Russell Westbrook held a brief press conference about the incident. Out of the noisy stadium, away from the fan and his wife, Westbrook calmly shared what had happened to push him over the emotional edge earlier in the night.
Play this 2-minute clip of the press conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1YvyMIH4Ho
Alternatively, invite a volunteer to read Westbrook’s words out loud (view as PDF):
… How it started was, a young man and his wife in the stands told me to “get down on my knees like you used to.” And for me that's just completely disrespectful. To me I think it was racial. I think it’s just inappropriate, in a sense of, there’s no protection for the players.
I think there are a lot of great fans around the world that’d like to come to the game and enjoy the game. And there are people that come to the game to say mean, disrespectful things about me my family.
For many years … I've done all the right things. I’ve never done anything to hurt or harm anybody. I never been in any trouble. Never fought a fan. Been in the league 11 years. Clean slate. Humble. I take whatever, all the criticism from everybody. I've been doing the same thing for years. And for me disrespect will not be taken from me. ….
That's just one video, but throughout the whole game … since I've been here, especially here in Utah, every time I come here, a lot of disrespectful things are said and for me I'm just not gonna continue to take the disrespect for my family. I just think that there's got to be something done. There's got to be some consequences for those type of people, that come to the game just to say and do whatever they want to say. And I don't think it's fair to the players, not just to me, but I don't think it's fair to the players. And if I had to do it over again I would say the same exact thing because I truly will stand up for myself for my family, for my kids, for my wife, for my mom, for my dad every single time. I expect anybody else to do the same.
So that's kind of where I'm at with the whole situation. As for beating up his wife, I've never put my hand on a woman, I never will. Never been in any domestic violence before … but once he said the comment and his wife repeated the same thing to me as well … so that's kind of how that started. I know you guys only got the tail end of the video but the start of the video was way more important and way more disrespectful than what you guys heard, so I appreciate you all.
The fan, in an interview with a local TV station, denied saying anything racist or profane to Westbrook. He said that it was Westbrook who was “acting a fool,” and described him as “classless.” However, the Utah Jazz verified the fan’s racist comments through video and eyewitnesses, including Westbrook’s teammates Patrick Patterson and Raymond Felton. Moreover, tweets have since surfaced showing the fan to be racist and biased against Westbrook in particular. The tweets were deleted from the fan’s account soon after the incident.
Invite students to turn to a partner to discuss what Westbrook said in the press conference.
Large group discussion:
With the whole class, discuss some or all of the following questions:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about what Westbrook shared in the press conference about the incident?
- How do you think Westbrook feels about the incident? (Note: For a lesson on emotional triggers, see our earlier lesson on an incident at an NFC championship game. )
- What are your thoughts about the “consequences” Westbrook speaks of – and the “accountability” Patterson spoke of in the earlier tweets?
- What do YOU think should happen in response to the incident?
Now add that some additional context about the incident:
The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin notes that “this incident doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Salt Lake City has a long reputation for fans’ treating visiting Black players poorly. As 10-year NBA veteran (and my radio cohost) Etan Thomas said to me, ‘I remember the atmosphere in Utah reminding me of one of those movies from the ’60s when they had segregated schools and the black team would come play the white team …. That’s what the atmosphere reminded me of, and hearing different NBA players talk now, not much has changed from when I played.’”
According to the 2010 census, 89.2 percent of Utah’s population is white, while less than 2 percent of Utah’s population is Black, the lowest percentage of any state that has a major sports team.
Current and retired NBA players from other teams have stated that they faced racist taunts from white fans, especially in Salt Lake City. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Draymond Green, and Kenyon Martin reported being called the N-word. Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim, was forced out of the NBA when he bowed his head during the playing of the national anthem during the 1990s.
- Does that change how you feel about the incident?
- Does that change how you feel about what should happen in response to the incident?
Timeline: The Days Following the Confrontation
Invite students to read what happened in the days following the March 11, 2019, confrontation between the white fan and Russell Westbrook. Either display or print out a handout of the quotes below, or print them out on separate sheets and post them around the room in sequence for a gallery walk type activity. In the case of the latter, ask students to walk around the room, reading the quotes in silence.
Once students have read the quotes (in either fashion), discuss them using some or all of the following questions:
- What are your thoughts and feelings about the various responses to the incident in the days after the confrontation between Westbrook and the fan?
- What stands out to you? Why?
- Is there anything else you feel should be done at this time? Is anything missing?
- The Utah Jazz moved swiftly, investigating the incident. Based on video evidence and eyewitness testimony, the fan was found guilty of the accusations and was permanently banned from all future events at the Salt Lake City arena.
- The following tweet went out to explain the ban:
- In a closed-door meeting with the president of the Jazz the next day, [Jazz players] … shared stories of similar experiences they’d had — of feeling degraded in ways that went beyond acceptable heckling…. This wasn’t the first time they’d taken part in conversations about race in their NBA careers, and it wasn’t the first time they’d had to address the hateful actions of others.”
- Westbrook was fined $25,000 for “directing profanity and threatening language to a fan,” which is in violation of National Basketball Association regulations.
- The Utah team’s Black players immediately came to Westbrook’s defense, especially center Rudy Gobert, forward Thabo Sefolosha, and guard Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell stated, “As a Black man living in a community I love and playing on a team that gives me the opportunity to live out my dreams, this incident hits close to home. Racism and hate speech hurt us all, and this is not the first time something like this has happened in our arena…. Over the coming months I will work with the team, my teammates and the league to help make our arenas and our communities more inclusive and welcoming. That includes bans on hate speech and racism.”
- “I stand 100% with Russell Westbrook on what happened in yesterday’s game,” [Utah Jazz player Thabo] Sefolosha wrote. “I love our fans but there are lines that cannot be crossed! Support and cheer for your team and enjoy the action but fans like Shane Keisel, who use that platform to share their hateful and racist views need to be held accountable.”
- Former Knicks player Raymond Felton said: “It’s a touchy subject, man. I’m going to speak on this and I want everybody to hear it and to really tune into this and really understand. At the end of the day, we’re human beings and we have feelings. Just like [fans] got feelings, we have feelings, too. That was unnecessary what they said to Russ [Russell Westbrook], that’s not fair, that’s not right. And this ain’t the first game it’s happened …. It’s happened in pretty much every arena we go to. They’re always picking on Russ, and it’s just not right …. I’ve been around this guy … since he’s been in the league, 10 years, …. I know him personally, he’s like a brother, and he’s not that type of guy. They’re trying to make him out to be this bad guy.”
- Jazz president Steve Starks said in a statement: “Everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy and play the game in a safe, positive and inclusive environment. Offensive and abusive behavior does not reflect the values of the Miller family, our organization and the community. We all have a responsibility to respect the game of basketball and, more importantly, each other as human beings.”
- An email went out to the Jazz’s mailing list, in which behavior violating the NBA’s Code of Conduct was detailed: “We do not permit hate speech, racism, sexism or homophobia. We also do not allow disruptive behavior, including bullying, foul or abusive language, or obscene gestures. Violators may be subject to ejection and other penalties, including a lifetime ban.”
- Jazz owner Gail Miller delivered a speech ahead of the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves (three days after the incident with Russell Westbrook and the white fan) in which she claimed that Salt Lake City is not a racist community. “We believe in treating people with courtesy and respect as human beings. From time to time, individual fans exhibit poor behavior and forget their manners. Some disrespect players on other teams. When that happens, I want to jump up and shout, ‘Stop!’ We have a code of conduct in this arena. It will be strictly enforced.”
NBA clip & the ‘Band of Brothers’
If time allows, show the following NBA clip and discuss it using some or all of the following questions. In the clip four commentators (all white men) discuss the incident. They applaud Westbrook and other players for speaking up, and are positive about the response by the NBA and Jazz.
- What are your thoughts and feelings about the clip?
- What do the commentators say about crossing the line? Do you agree?
“You can heckle, you can have some fun, when fans cross a line, we all know what this line is.”
- What do the commentators around the table say about Russell Westbrook standing up in the moment?
- What do the commentators say about the idea of “band of brothers?”
- Who have been the “brothers” we’ve heard from so far? What do these players have in common? What voices are missing?
Invite students to reflect on the following quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., and how it relates to our lesson plan so far:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
See Part 2 of this lesson: An Essay about the NBA and White Privilege.