02/25/2013 07:41 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Crossing the Line: Fans Chants of Cruelty

A story recapping the men's basketball game between Duke and N.C. State on February 8 has an eerie sidebar. Duke won the game, 98-85, but along the way civility and sportsmanship took a beating. Newspaper accounts in the Charlotte Observer confirm that a segment of the Duke student body chanted, "How's your grandma?" while N.C. State guard Tyler Lewis was shooting free throws at 13:47 in the second half. Lewis' grandmother had died on February 1st. Lewis' father, Rick, heard the chants. News accounts said only a portion of the Duke student section chanted the vile question; the balance chanted "Past your bedtime," poking fun at Lewis' youthful appearance. What does it mean that this reprehensible behavior came in a revered college basketball arena?

Those new to basketball may imagine this is a one-off, but sadly that is not so. Six other cases involving prominent college basketball players echo this odious behavior: Steve Kerr, Scott Williams, Juan Dixon, J. J. Redick, Chris Paul and Angel Rodriguez. These instances raise the question: where is the line between cheering and hateful speech and why do people yell at an athlete from the sidelines what they would never dare say in person?

The earliest case is that of Steve Kerr, a star at the University of Arizona in the 1980s and later a stalwart of the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs (1988-2003). He went on become GM of the Phoenix Suns (2007-2010). On January 19, 1984, Kerr's father Malcolm, president of the American University of Beirut, was murdered in one of the early acts in the unraveling of the Middle East. Steve was a freshman at the U of A who had gotten the last scholarship slot on the team; two days after the murder he came off the bench to go 5-for-7 in Tucson and help upset arch-rival Arizona State. As a fifth-year senior, Kerr faced ASU on its home court in Tempe in February of 1988. A handful of ASU students chanted "PLO! PLO!" at Kerr during warm-ups in the mistaken belief that the group was behind his father's murder. Kerr hit six three-pointers in the first half and described the chanters as "the scum of the Earth."

In 2005, Kerr traded fan-favorite Shaquille O'Neal from the Suns and he received hate-filled emails. One critical email concluded, 21 years after his father's murder and 17 years after the ASU students' chants: "One last thing. PLO, PLO, ASU had it right." Another critical email used the address "dead@Beirut" and gave the name of the sender as "Your Father."

Two players are alleged to have been targeted by the student section with the chant "Orphan, Orphan" while playing against Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. In 1988, the cheer was directed at UNC's Scott Williams of the University of North Carolina; his father had murdered his mother and then killed himself. Juan Dixon of the University of Maryland, whose parents had both been heroin addicts and died of AIDS, was similarly targeted at Duke. At the University of Virginia students chanted "Crackhead parents" at Dixon. The UNC and Maryland Internet fan sites swear these incidents happened; Duke message boards deny the charges. That there is no love lost among these institutions is clear.

J. J. Redick was a sharp-shooting guard for Duke. He entered the Maryland's Comcast Center in 2004 only to be greeted by a handmade sign that claimed its holder had sexually assaulted Redick's sister (then twelve years old). In addition, the Maryland student body chanted "F.U. JJ" during the nationally televised game.

Chris Paul was a sophomore point guard for Wake Forest in 2005 when a group of NC State fans chanted "Chris Paul I killed your grandpa" during a late season game in Raleigh. In 2002, Paul's grandfather Nathaniel Jones was robbed and beaten to death at age 61 at his Winston-Salem home. A sports information official and a newspaper reporter confirmed hearing the chant. In the course of the game, Paul delivered a low blow to NC State star Julius Hodge, perhaps in reaction to the chant and to related trash talk. Because of the blow, he was suspended for the first game of the ACC tournament. That spring he was taken as the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft. He was Rookie of the Year in 2006 and has been an All-Star six times. He has been involved in no altercations since 2005.

The final case before the Duke/NC State game came in the 2012 NCAA tournament when members of the University of Southern Mississippi pep band chanted "Where's your green card?" while Kansas State guard Angel Rodriguez prepared to shoot a free throw. This incident, clearly audible on game video, led to an apology from the USM president. The apology and the promise of disciplinary action came within two hours, though it misspelled the player's surname. Rodriguez, as a native of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an American citizen.

There is no evidence of institutional responses in most of these cases. Just as the current example of misbehavior comes from Duke, so does the most effective response. In 1984 Duke students threw panties and inflated condoms onto the gym floor to humiliate a visiting player who had been accused of, but not charged with, sexual misconduct. Duke President Terry Sanford, who had also served as North Carolina Governor and United States Senator, wrote an open letter to the student body decrying its excesses. Sanford wrote, "Resorting to the use of obscenities in cheers and chants at ball games indicates a lack of vocabulary, a lack of cleverness, a lack of ideas, a lack of class and a lack of respect for other people." In place of this misbehavior, Sanford urged students to "think of something clever but clean, devastating but decent, mean but wholesome, witty and forceful but G-rated for television, and fix it for the next game."

Sanford's advice decries cheap humiliating stunts; it does not anticipate cruel allusions to murder and sexual assault. His solution works nonetheless: "clever but clean, devastating but decent." Universities and student cheering sections can promote sportsmanship and keep rivalries keen by adopting the "clever but clean" mantra. Fans and schools should stand for rivalry without cruelty.

The only chant Tyler Lewis should have heard was "Past your bedtime."