NCAA should guard against fan attacks

Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart has been suspended three games after shoving a fan in the stands during a game at Texas Tech, as well he should be -- if only because no one wants to give anyone an excuse to bring up the Malice in the Palace ever again.

Ron Artest comparisons aside, plenty of people have weighed in about how unacceptable it is for athletes such as Smart to go after fans such as Jeff Orr, an air traffic controller who travels to see Texas Tech basketball games. But let's get to the other side of the equation for a moment.

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When did it become acceptable for us to take out our collective frustrations on 19-year-olds such as Marcus Smart?

When did it become acceptable for us to take out our collective frustrations on 19-year-olds who play a sport? We pack arenas for the privilege of howling our approval at every slam dunk and releasing a cubicle full of frustration at every missed foul shot. I've done it, too, from the safety of the 300 section at Madison Square Garden in the era when Patrick Ewing's Knicks got so close to winning it all.

But things have gotten increasingly personal.

Remember last spring when the well-dressed woman courtside at a Miami Heat game flipped off Joakim Noah, her middle finger inches from his nose? She had that disdainful look on her face, with a security guard standing passively right there between them.

Somewhere, our collective id crossed a line -- getting further from cheering a team and closer to the mob that calls for burning witches at the stake.

I stood in the tunnel at the end of an NFL game, where the visiting Jets streamed in after a game against the Patriots and were subject to red-faced fans spitting angry words as they ran by. We tell players they are paid enough and that's part of the job, so they have to take it. If they flip the bird in response or throw a snowball back at the crowd, the NFL issues fines as a reminder: Angry interaction with fans is a one-way street.

College athletes, however, aren't paid. There is a fiction that they are engaging in some purer form of competition, and of course that's not really the case with the billion-dollar industry college sports has become.

But whatever tuition costs at Oklahoma State, is it really enough to cover being called a "piece of crap" as Orr claims he said? Maybe Smart can bring it up in economics class, a cost-benefit analysis of letting people scream at him and his future basketball career.

If the NCAA maintains this idea of student-athletes, the least it could do is offer some insulation from the grown-ups who try to use these games as a way to work out their untended anger issues.

You know the fine print on the back of your ticket? It's different for every sport, but it usually includes some kind of language giving the venue the ability to revoke your right to the seat. It might mention something about "conduct deemed to be disorderly or inappropriate."

Usually, you have to get into a fight before being escorted out of the building. Security guards should be empowered to flag anyone who verbally abuses individual players at NCAA games -- even before the players hear it. You call anyone the N-word, and you are escorted out immediately.

People who come to games to use players as their verbal punching bags shouldn't get a free ride, either. It would be great to bring a 10-year-old to an NCAA game -- until the moment you have to explain your neighbor's vocabulary.

We have resorted to mob rule at professional games -- and there's just a sliver of difference between those games and the semi-pro version at the NCAA level. But decorum should work both ways. There's really no reason to call an athlete in the middle of competition a "piece of crap."

That's not Smart's issue, that's ours.

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