Yes, braying jackasses say the darndest things. Shocking, I know

Coaches and players involved in sports listen to a lot of guff from fans. Well, guff is too mild a word. Let’s just call it what it is and be done with it. It’s crap is what it is.

My dad had another word for it: Horseshit.

There, I wrote it for public consumption – not that I would advise consumption of such a thing in any amount. By the way, I couldn’t write that word for a newspaper. Freedom, what an amazing thing.

And if the, ahem, horseshit fits …

Wednesday night I was reading while an ACC basketball game between the University of North Carolina and Louisville was on TV in the background. After having dozed off during the Duke-Syracuse game – awakened just in time to see the Orange drop that short-of halfcourt bomb at the buzzer for the upset win – I was pretty wide awake for Heels-Cardinals, a potentially intense matchup between two Top 10 teams. It was in Chapel Hill at the now venerable and aging rapidly Smith Center.

And indeed, emotions ran high even though it was one of those games where one team – in this case UNC – took an eight to 10 point lead that Louisville could never really overcome.

As teams moved toward the locker rooms for halftime, something caught my attention. Louisville coach Rick Pitino was engaged in some serious jawing with an unseen fan. The longtime coach finally had to be restrained by his assistants or else he might’ve gone after the fan. Looked extreme. The kind of action that can get a coach in serious trouble.

I wondered what the fan said that sparked such a reaction. After all, as I noted earlier, coaches and players listen to a ton of crap from fans in sports venues around the nation.  And in basketball the fans and players are particularly close. Face it, even the most obnoxious fan in a football stadium can’t really get the attention of a player or coach from such a distance. In basketball it’s an often horrifying mess

braying-jackassA minute or two after the initial Pitino explosion, the roving sideline reporter found at most of the more important games on TV these days had the answer. Usually I see little role for sideline reporters other than as an annoyance for coaches who have to answer a usually worthless question just before or after halftime. This time the sideline reporter had some real information. The ESPN reporter said the fan told Pitino, “You suck!”

On the surface, this seemed pretty mild. In fact, I’d bet Pitino has heard much worse in his career as a player and coach – much, much worse. My initial reaction was that he really needed to get over it and probably overreacted. By now Pitino and anyone involved in athletics at that level know fans can be rotten. Fans can be obscene. Fans can be unfair. Fans can be demanding. Fans can be uncaring. Fans often feel they paid for the right to be braying jackasses in public.

Then I wondered if Pitino was bothered by something else and the fan’s crude observation simply pushed him over the edge. After all, coaches are human – they have other issues to deal with beyond the games they’re involved in. And Pitino has been heavily scrutinized as the coach of a nationally prominent program embroiled in some scandal in recent years.

After the game Pitino explained it thusly: “He just got in my face and said something I didn’t like. I take it from the students all the time, you expect it from the students. But from an adult? And then to turn his back on me like he’s a coward?”

Pitino’s point is well taken. Adults should know better but anyone who has attended a game in the last 30 years knows that fan behavior by so-called adults has become progressively repugnant. Pitino’s also right that students will be students and prone to youthful indiscretion sometimes fueled by alcohol or, well, over-exuberance.

He also acknowledged that fans at UNC are usually “classy” and noted this person, who was asked to leave the arena after the incident, is not emblematic of Carolina fans in general.

Obnoxious fan behavior is pretty common and is no stranger for UNC coach Roy Williams either. After the game he noted that he has to listen to crap no one should have to hear in arenas all over the ACC and the nation. And as usual, he made his feelings clear to UNC fans and to his coaching peer.

“I just heard about one fan being ejected at halftime, yelling something at Rick,” Williams said. “I don’t like that. I mean, we’re North Carolina. We don’t have to be like everybody else. You can raise Cain and you can boo, but you don’t have to say stuff that we as coaches have to put up with.

“I hope that never happens again at North Carolina. I apologize to Rick.”

As our culture continues its decline fueled by social media, the internet, TV, partisan politics, mental instability, booze, the death of manners and the erosion of good taste I sadly expect this to happen again at UNC because it occurs everywhere else. That doesn’t excuse or make it right.

Coaches and players shouldn’t be put in a position where they’re verbally abused in public no matter how awful fans believe those public figures to be. This is especially true for high school and college players who might not be able to harness their emotions. They understand the rules but as we saw Wednesday night, it’s tough sometimes for adults, too.

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