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Mitch Albom column: The dark side of sports fandom

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. (File / McClatchy Newspapers)

Marcus Smart went to block a shot and landed near the crowd. It was the final seconds of a college basketball game that his team, Oklahoma State, was losing. He hit the floor hard, got to his feet, then straightened at hearing something. A man in his 50s, just inches away say, had yelled, "You're a piece of crap!"

At least that's what the man, Jeff Orr, confesses to saying. Some believe it was worse.

You're a piece of crap.

Smart, who grew up hard in a bad section outside of Dallas, who saw one brother die and one brother drug-addicted and who chose basketball as a means to perhaps a better life, took offense to the insult.

He shoved the man in the chest.

That was the sum total of the contact. Smart turned to the court and was immediately whistled for a technical foul. He knew it was coming. He knew it more than he knew being called "a piece of crap" from a man more than 30 years older than him was coming. A white man. Smart is black. We can pretend that doesn't matter. And it shouldn't. But it's there.

You're a piece of crap.

Smart was suspended three games for his action. This is proper punishment. Smart rightly apologized through his university, where he is, lest we forget, a 19-year-old student.

Meanwhile, Orr, who is called a "superfan" for the Red Raiders, issued an apology of his own. He said in a statement that he regretted calling Smart a "piece of crap." He never said why he did it.

And therein lies the issue.

If America can agree on only one thing about sports, it's that fandom is out of control. The things you hear screamed at arenas and stadiums are lewd, disgusting, insulting and unending. An opposing player is like a new inmate walking past raucous prison cells. And the Internet has created a fresh world of vitriol, a never-closing factory of name-calling, insults and racist attacks -- all behind the veil of anonymity. Negativity is now expected.

But the anger level is so high in sports that we accept behavior not practiced elsewhere. So a guy like Orr, who seems proud of the fact that he once traveled 30,000 miles in a year to follow Texas Tech basketball, can yell all kinds of things at a game he would never say at his job as an air traffic controller.

Why? In our culture, some fans fancy themselves so vital, they think they are part of the game. When coaches credit the "12th Man," they boost this notion. When we admire Duke's "Cameron Crazies," we do the same. When we shrug and laugh at profanities screamed in unison, we nourish this sense of significance.

But I have news for Orr and others. You don't change a thing. Most college players -- and certainly pros -- have long since tuned out the crowd. If a player chokes, it's likely because he thought too much. If a player hits an impossible game-winner, it's due to years of practice.

Neither moment turns on fan noise.

It might shock a guy like Orr to learn that the game can go on without him. He will learn that now, as he voluntarily excused himself from the handful of remaining Texas Tech games this season. That is proper. It saved Tech the trouble of banning him.

But the problem won't stop.

You're a piece of crap. Who deserves such an insult? Maybe someone who molested children or bombed a church. But really. On what planet do you confuse such things with landing near the stands after trying to block a shot?

On Planet Crazy, that's where. A place that sports fandom, more and more, calls home.

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at malbom@ freepress.com.