From backboards to message boards; the harmful realities of athlete/fan interactions

By Caleb Nguyen, Apr. 26, 2022

It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers are arguably the most famous franchise in the NBA. Winning isn’t just a tradition, but it’s an expectation for the purple and gold, as 17 championships ties for the most of any team in the history of the league.

As unfair as it may be, the Lakers hold the biggest fanbase in the entire league online, where they often sound miserable when things don’t go their way in the season. Entertaining as it may be to scroll Twitter, it’s often sad seeing a basketball team bear the brunt of the anger and vitriol from Laker fans.

This entitlement to winning is the expectation year in and year out for the Lakers, but what happens when these expectations aren’t met? Fans voice their frustrated opinions to the whole organization where they can be heard: social media. As powerful as the medium can be, the reality can be frightening with just how personal exchanges can get between fans and public figures.

This year marked a prime example of these expectations falling short as a roster with championship expectations failed to even reach the playoffs for a multitude of reasons. It was a miserable season for the organization as Lakers fans looked for scapegoats to blame for this catastrophic outcome.

I’m no stranger to this phenomenon, often going onto my favorite teams’ social media pages to criticize the team’s play during losses and celebrating them during victories. However, going to players’ personal pages to voice my frustrations is something I haven’t done nor will ever do.

Lakers fans have been known to find scapegoats for their lacking success in recent seasons. After missing a three-point shot in a series that would eventually lead to a championship in the NBA bubble, guard Danny Green and his family were subjected to death threats, a horrifying outcome over a simple missed shot.

Last season guard Wesley Matthews, brought in as a free agent piece, was subjected to racist and derogatory comments regularly for his ineffective play, completely uncalled for over simply missing shots.

This year, the fall guy appears to be guard Russell Westbrook, who has grown irritable in subsequent months in press conferences, having clearly been affected by a disappointing season. Despite this, fans seem to be more frustrated than the player himself.

Westbrook is no stranger to confrontations with fans. He previously experienced getting phones directly shone in his face after heartbreaking playoff losses, racial comments thrown at him and food spilled on him throughout his career.

The difference in previous locations Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington was that while reported, Westbrook was playing exceptionally well. As his performance faltered and more cameras were on him, Westbrook realized that the LA market gave much tougher criticism from its fans and media demanding winning at all costs, sometimes irrationally.

What happened in turn was fans not only continuing the verbal abuse, but calling Westbrook “Westbrick” directly to his face. Social media interaction with fans and players is a powerful yet scary thing, as many of the former can hide behind an online persona without any fear of consequence for thoughtless comments they may make.

ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that head coach Frank Vogel had coached his last game before the Lakers would later notify the fired coach of his fate the next day, making for an awkward press conference after the Lakers had just won their final game of the season.

Some would blame Vogel for the season’s failure, whose rotations with an aging, injury-plagued roster left his notable defensive schemes hard to execute. Given the circumstances of an awfully fitted roster for his strengths as a coach, Vogel gets a pass from me.

Some would blame star LeBron James, the unquestioned face of the franchise whose influence over personnel decisions in offseason moves contributed to some of the roster problems the team had to begin with. However, averaging 30 points per game at 37 years old was a heroic task that displayed how talented he still is despite completion of his 19th year in the NBA. James, to me, is not at fault entirely.

Some would blame star Anthony Davis, who, despite his talent hasn’t been healthy enough to help his team win games, missing over half of the Lakers’ season.

Alternatively, injuries aren’t something you can just control; they simply just happen. To those who blame Davis, I don’t find that very warranted.

Davis himself said that so-called fans calling him “soft” for not playing through his injuries, then changing course to comment on his lethargic condition from an ailing body, simply don’t understand the toll that this past season had on him as a player.

The insensitivities that fans can have blaming players for playing for their entertainment isn’t fair criticism in the slightest. After all, they can just turn the TV off or change channels, while players will continue to earn their living simply playing a game.

While it’s totally warranted to criticize a player’s performance during the games, what bothers me is when fans get personal in their attacks to elicit reactions from these players. In Westbrook’s case, such criticism is excessive after months of recognition that his season hasn’t been on par with his previous reputation.

Fans make the game fun and give these performers a chance to show off their craft in athletic skill. When heckling turns personal or even violent at times, these unjustified actions can make athletes feel victimized and mentally drained.

As social as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Reddit among other platforms can be leading to such interactions, fans should be wary that the lines of negativity disguised as humor from their comments matter just as much as the ones drawn on fields of play.

Feature image courtesy of Ramiro Pianarosa

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