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

By Caleb Nguyen, April 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 purple and gold, as 17 championships are tied for most of any team in league history.

As unfair as it may be, the Lakers have the largest fan base in the entire league online, where they often look miserable when things don’t go their way in the season. As entertaining as it can be to scroll through Twitter, it’s often sad to watch a basketball team bear the brunt of the anger and vitriol of Laker fans.

That right to win is the expectation year after year for the Lakers, but what happens when those expectations are not met? Fans are voicing their frustrated opinions all over the organization where they can be heard: social media. As powerful as the medium can be, the reality can be chilling with the way personal exchanges can take place between fans and public figures.

This year marked a prime example of those expectations falling short, as a roster with championship expectations failed to even make the playoffs for a host of reasons. It was a miserable season for the organization as Lakers fans searched for scapegoats to blame for the disastrous result.

I’m no stranger to this phenomenon, often going to the social media pages of my favorite teams to criticize the team’s play during losses and celebrate them during wins. However, going to players’ personal pages to vent my frustrations is something I haven’t done and never will.

Lakers fans have been known to find scapegoats for their lack of success in recent seasons. After missing a three-point shot in a series that would ultimately lead to a championship in the NBA bubble, guard Danny Green and his family faced death threats, a horrific result on a single missed shot.

Last season, guard Wesley Matthews, brought in as a free agent, was regularly the subject of racist and derogatory comments for his ineffective play, which was totally unjustified for simply missing shots.

This year, the downfall guy appears to be guard Russell Westbrook, who grew testy over the next few months during 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 had previously experienced receiving phones directly in his face after heartbreaking playoff losses, racial comments thrown at him and food spilled on him throughout his career.

The difference between previous locations in Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington was that, although reported, Westbrook was playing exceptionally well. As his performance faltered and more and more cameras were trained on him, Westbrook realized that the Los Angeles market was coming under much harsher criticism from his fans and the media demanding the victory at all costs, sometimes irrationally.

What happened in turn was that fans not only continued the verbal abuse, but called Westbrook “Westbrick” right in his face. Social media interaction with fans and players is a powerful but scary thing, as many of them can hide behind an online persona without any fear of consequences for any thoughtless comments they might make.

ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that head coach Frank Vogel coached his last game before the Lakers later informed the fired coach of his fate the following day, hold an awkward press conference after the Lakers have just won their last game of the season.

Some would blame Vogel for the failed season, whose rotations with an aging and injury-plagued roster made his notable defensive plans difficult to execute. Given the circumstances of a roster awfully suited to his strengths as a coach, Vogel gets a bye from me.

Some would blame star LeBron James, the undisputed face of the franchise whose influence over personnel decisions during offseason moves contributed to some of the roster issues the team had to start with. However, averaging 30 points per game at age 37 was a heroic task that showed how talented he still was despite finishing his 19th year in the NBA. James, for me, is not entirely responsible.

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

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

Davis himself said the so-called fans calling him ‘sweet’ for not playing through his injuries, then changing course to comment on his lethargic state of a sick body, just don’t understand the toll that last season had on him as a player.

The callousness that fans may have in blaming gamers for their entertainment is not a fair criticism at all. After all, they can just turn off the TV or change the channel, while gamers will continue to make a living just by playing a game.

While it’s totally justified to criticize a player’s performance during games, what bothers me is when fans get personal in their attacks to elicit reactions from those players. In Westbrook’s case, such criticism is over the top after months of acknowledging that his season did not live up to his previous reputation.

The fans make the game fun and give these performers a chance to show off their athletic skills. When the heckling becomes personal or even violent at times, these unwarranted actions can leave athletes feeling victimized and mentally drained.

As social as Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Reddit, among other platforms, can lead to such interactions, fans should beware that lines of negativity disguised as humor in their comments matter just as much as those drawn on the grounds of Game.

Image courtesy of Ramiro Pianarosa