You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, athletes have heard it, we’ve all heard it.
Heckling inside arenas and stadiums.
Sometimes it’s clever. Sometimes it’s comical. Sometimes it’s crass. Sometimes it’s clueless.
And sometimes it’s cruel.
That’s what it was on Saturday night during Utah State’s basketball game at Colorado State. As the Aggies’ Max Shulga was shooting late free throws, a group of “fans,” if that’s the right word to describe them, started chanting, “Russia … Russia … Russia.”
Shulga is from Kyiv, Ukraine. That’s where many members of his family still live, doing their best to survive a war that has seen their country — including elementary schools, hospitals, neighborhoods, churches — invaded, rocketed, bombed, shot up, destroyed.
You watch the news. You read the reports. You see the devastation, the destruction, the killing of men, women, children, combatants and innocents alike.
War is like that, no respecter of humans, whether they are armed soldiers or babies in a crib.
And all of that is heavy on the minds of peace-loving people everywhere, and certainly on the minds of all those directly involved, as well as a college kid with loved ones in harm’s way as he plays basketball at Utah State.
“This has been an extremely difficult and challenging year with my family and loved ones so far away and living in constant danger,” Shulga said in a statement Sunday. “I pray daily for the conflict to come to a close and peace to be restored for my people in Ukraine.”
College basketball is not war.
For a cluster of individuals at a b-ball game to throw that kind of hurt at a player on the court as he tries to help his team win a road game in Fort Collins is about as pathetic as fan behavior can get.
It’s not violence, thank God. But as verbal assaults go, it’s the closest thing to it.
Other athletes, at varying levels, have suffered similarly.
When current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was a player at Arizona back in 1988, a group of Arizona State students started in with pregame chants, such as, “PLO … PLO … PLO,” and … “Where’s your dad?”
Where Kerr’s dad was was dead and buried.
Malcolm Kerr, who was the president of American University in Beirut, Lebanon, had been assassinated four years earlier.
The chants cut Kerr to the core. He had to sit down to gather himself as he prepared to play what suddenly seemed like a silly basketball game.
“It was amazing and, I think, pretty disgusting,” Kerr said shortly thereafter. “It’s hard to believe that people would do that, but it had happened to me one other time before, a couple of years ago, also at Arizona State. But that time it was just one or two people, so it wasn’t noticed much. Saturday, it was about 10 or 15 people in unison.
“When I heard it, I just dropped the ball and started shaking. I sat down for a minute. I’ll admit, they got to me. I had tears in my eyes.”
A note: Kerr went on to score 22 points in that game, hitting all six of his 3-point shots, leading the Wildcats to a lopsided victory.
Arizona State apologized to Kerr, in similar fashion to the way Colorado State apologized to Shulga.
Shulga accepted that apology.
In a statement Sunday, the USU guard said: “As for the chants last night, while extremely upsetting in the moment, I also know how emotions can run high during competition and people do and say things they do not really mean. Colorado State and its fans have apologized and I accept and appreciate the apology.
“I hope you will all join me in praying for peace in Ukraine.”
These are extreme examples, but there are a thousand others of heckling that blows five freeway exits past what’s decent.
We’ve all become sadly aware of racist remarks hurled at athletes in the midst of competition, games that stir in some people dark emotions that spill out of ignorant minds and mouths and into ears that should never be blistered in such an awful manner.
Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez issued a statement on Sunday that read, in part: “We are aware of the insensitive language used by select spectators during the Utah State at Colorado State men’s basketball contest which is directly contrary to the principles of the Mountain West Sportsmanship Policy. We acknowledge Colorado State’s response to the conduct and we stand with them and our fellow Mountain West member institutions in our unwavering commitment to ensuring that all of our venues are safe and inclusive and that every student-athlete and coach feels respected and safe.”
That last part is as hilarious as it is hard to believe.
There are many words to describe sports venues at the high school, college and professional levels, but anyone who lobs out that visiting athletes and coaches are made to feel “respected” in those competitive shadowlands has been, as PM Dawn once sang it, and of which I have no actual idea about what it means, “set adrift on memory bliss.”
They are not existing in what’s real.
Visiting coaches and athletes are rarely respected by home fans. Things are said, shouted in arenas that if they were said, shouted in any other environment would be deemed completely improper, certainly inappropriate.
It ain’t Sunday School, I get it. But sports venues are often downright hostile places where voices are angry, aggressive and rude. Some people say, “Well, if you buy the ticket, you should be able to say what you want, within reason.”
It’s the “within reason” part that frequently gets blurred.
The extreme cases, as mentioned, are obviously shallow-brained and not to be tolerated. They are to be dealt with via an invitation out the door and, in some instances, never to be allowed re-entry. The space just above the extreme is where questions arrive in large numbers.
But let’s say it all clear here: When fans hurl racial epithets or celebrate the death of a loved one or chant the name of an entity that is bombing out an athlete’s homeland, it’s time not only to reevaluate what the hell’s happening inside competitive venues, but to throw the hammer down on those who, for whatever reason, won’t or don’t see the obvious.