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Wharton School professor Ken Shropshire, who has written several sports books, including In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, thinks change in the way fans relate to their teams is fueled by everything from close-up TV coverage to video games. "With the realistic, violent sports video games and the pervasiveness of sports on television, there's closeness, and fans feel they're actually part of this thing now," he says. "From a marketing aspect, all the major sports convey that fans are right in the middle. So they feel they should be part of the game."
Many commentators have delicately cited race as a factor in the brawl (all the players involved were black, most of the fans white), but Shropshire argues that race is less a factor than it was during the 1970s, when the predominance of black players in the NBA gained widespread attention--not to mention in an earlier era when black players in any sport were a novelty. "Look at what Jackie Robinson had to endure," Shropshire says. "For three years, he never went into the stands, and the abuse hurled at that time was more severe. A small percentage of fans have forever done the wrong thing. It's up to the individual athletes to decide to do the right thing."
A bigger factor, says Shropshire, may be the class differences between fans and players, particularly as star salaries soar ever higher. "The working-class guy who has pulled together the money to go to that game is spending a significant portion of his income," he says. "And the most visible thing he sees is that his money is going to the salaries of these players." Stern calls that ridiculous, arguing that fans still consider athletes their heroes. (Just look at this year's Boston Red Sox.) "Nobody is saying Shaq [O'Neal] and Kevin Garnett don't deserve the salaries they get," he says. "Because they are MVP candidates, and they never let up."
For their part, most NBA players insist that they either ignore the abuse or use it as motivation. "The hostile arenas make the game fun," says New York Knicks guard Allan Houston. "They make you want to hit a big shot so you can silence them." Houston, one of the league's gentlemen, admits, "As a player, it's hard not to go after some people, but you have to be a bigger person than that. If you hold back, it makes them look bad. It puts the stain on them."
In some respects, the fans are just taking a cue from the players. Beating the opposition isn't good enough; in-your-face humiliation is preferable. Profane language among players on the court got so pervasive that the NBA had to make it a violation. In football, the NFL has started calling penalties against players for taunting and excessively celebrating after touchdowns. Still, it's players like Philadelphia receiver Terrell Owens--who trampled the Dallas Cowboys logo after a touchdown this fall--who get most of the attention, since their antics are replayed and reinforced on ESPN and sports talk shows.