This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Playoffs are a time when our emotions are tested. The stakes are high and our devotion during the regular season comes to a critical point.
We commit money, time and energy to support teams and players. As a fan, it becomes part of the game to have a say. We go to social media, the water cooler, or the Slack chat and opine and critique as we become immediate experts without ever having competed at this elite level. It is all in good fun. Most of the time.
But what about when it isn’t fun anymore and becomes harmful?
On Sunday night during Game 4 between the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, two fans were ejected from the arena because of an incident involving Phoenix star Chris Paul.
It was initially reported that there was unwanted contact from the fans toward members of Paul’s family. The interaction had occurred on the concourse level, but was not captured on any surveillance camera or released to the public. But a video of Paul yelling at a fan went viral. According to reports, Paul’s father had told him what happened. His family did not return to their seats after the incident.
It was later reported that the fan had approached Paul’s mother and wife and left them feeling “very unsafe.” The fan’s attempt to give them “unwanted hugs” in front of his sons resulted in a ban from the American Airlines Center until 2023.
After the game, which the Mavs won 111-101, Paul took to Twitter to share his frustration.
There are people who are already shouting that the fan who was ejected looks fairly young and that it was only “unwanted hugs.” What could possibly go wrong with that? There are even folks who say Paul overreacted.
But there is a vicious history in sports of fans approaching players to injure them, and so for Paul to be on the court, knowing only that his family had been confronted would indeed be terrifying and upsetting at best. Chris Paul appears a devoted father whose family is undeniably important to him. Of course, he has the right to be upset.
Ignoring bodily autonomy
If a man approached women and children and made any type of physical contact that was not consensual, it would be considered unacceptable. But if the man is white and the family is Black, why is the concern less understood?
A piece from The Guardian from October 2021 reported that violence against Black women is on the rise in the U.S. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning a decision that will impact the physical and emotional health of millions of women. Their bodies and their agency are so inherently disrespected that it makes this interaction seem so minor.
But this particular incident of a young white man ignoring the bodily autonomy of Black women is exactly the type of culture that is so dangerous and that if not dealt with appropriately, continues to foster harm against marginalized women and compromise their safety. People can’t be roaming about and shielding their reckless actions with the label of “sports fan.”
Life-long healing process
I am old enough to remember when 19-year-old tennis star Monica Seles was attacked on-court by a fan of her opponent, Steffi Graf, in 1993, stabbing her with a nine-inch knife in her back. Seles did not play competitively for two years, but the psychological effects were arguably the most severe. Reckoning with that type of vulnerability and fear is a life-long healing process that Seles wrote about in her memoir. She struggled with depression and an eating disorder as a result of her attack.
I am grateful that Paul’s family was not injured but am concerned for them after this incident. Can they watch their son, husband and father play without being harassed or touched? Can they not enjoy the games that fans get to?
Anyone with a public-facing presence knows the stress that comes with the public identifying yourself and your loved ones. An “unwanted hug” may seem like nothing, but in a political climate that is actively telling women that their bodies may be governed by laws created by men with power, I don’t think that ejecting the fan was a severe response. In fact, the sooner this young man learns that there are consequences to ignoring consent, the better it is for himself and society.
The entitlement of a fan does not mean that they get to touch whomever they choose. It means that they need to understand what boundaries are and it is never too early to start those conversations. I hope that other young men out there see this incident and understand why it was so problematic. I hope that pundits do not dismiss what happened as an exaggeration. I hope they not only understand the concern that Paul had for his family and truly absorb why it was so disturbing.
The sooner that people recognize that approaching women without their approval is violence, perhaps we will all be able to actively enjoy sports in a manner that isn’t harmful and is truly enjoyable for all.