Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook was recorded by a fan Monday in Utah issuing an expletive-laden threat at a heckler, and after the game he said he stood by what he said.
“I just think 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,” said Westbrook, who said he thought there was a racial component to the heckler’s taunts. “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 again, I would say the same exact thing.”
The Jazz fan in question was interviewed after the game and said he thought the verbal sparring that led up to Westbrook’s more heated comments were all part of “fun.”
The fan is white. Westbrook is black. There’s no video (at least none that has surfaced) of what the fan said exactly before Westbrook’s reaction was captured. And Westbrook said he has had problems in the past with Jazz fans in Utah.
It’s about as messy and complicated as it gets, which is often what happens as we get more and more details but seldom all of them.
There are cameras and microphones everywhere, and the means of distributing what is picked up on those devices creates widespread and nearly instantaneous reactions.
Sometimes, as in the case with Westbrook’s interaction, what an athlete says is not in question. The debate comes over whether the response was appropriate.
In other cases, though, an even trickier grey area emerges: Did an athlete really say what we think he or she said?
An example of that also emerged Monday, when a microphone picked up what sounded to some like a Toronto Maple Leafs player using an expletive followed by a an anti-gay slur. The NHL is investigating the incident, but the complicating factors are two-fold: It’s hard to tell who exactly said what, and it’s plausible that the second part of the expression was not a slur but instead a suggestion to “rag” the puck — a hockey term that basically means control the puck and waste time.
We dealt with this a couple months ago locally, when it was reported by some outlets that Andrew Wiggins called Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder “gay” in a postgame interview.
The thing is, none of the reporters who were there for the interview gave it a second thought — adding credibility to Wiggins’ clarification later that he said “getting” instead of a homophobic slur. I listened to the recording a bunch of times and agreed with Wiggins (while also remembering how many times I’ve heard him talk and struggled at times to understand him through his accent).
But if you go back and read the ESPN story that still exists on its web site two months later, you’ll see the first sentence gets the story all wrong and still suggests wrongdoing on Wiggins’ part.
The ability to capture athletes (or anyone) at their worst — or at least most heated — moments is a powerful tool. Recording brings power to the powerless, altering how we have been conditioned to believe the versions of stories presented by people in charge.
It can hold people accountable, exposing when things are flat-out wrong or at least messier than image-handlers would like us to believe they are.
But these tools also tend to collide with our insistence on labeling something 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong — and doing it as fast as possible before moving on to the next thing.
Reality has a lot more gray area than the pace of modern life would prefer. I can see why Westbrook said what he said, and as much as I’m not surprised that he said it the ability to watch and hear him say it adds a layer to the story.
I can see why a fan would think he crossed a line. I can see how they’re both wrong, how they’re both right, and how the tension of high-stakes sports plays out between athletes and fans.
I don’t know if these kinds or interactions are happening more frequently than the used to, or if we’re just seeing more of them because almost everyone in the world has a camera with them at all times now.
I don’t know exactly what the Leafs player said. I’m almost positive I know what Wiggins said, but a recording is different than being there in the moment.
In world where everyone is recording their lives to watch them later, sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.
It’s there for posterity, even as we forget about it quickly and move on to the next recorded controversy — probably coming Tuesday.