Fans are a big reason why we love the game. They provide the source of emotion for sports. The crowd creates palpable tension and drama through their rabid, unflappable and sometimes irrational support of their team. They are the reason we have debates over legacies and dwell on mistakes or questionable coaching decisions. Consequences can feel life-altering in the moment in large part because of the atmosphere the fans build, one that perhaps on a subconscious level fuels our own perception of the game as it unfolds. Their role becomes more accentuated in March.
The NCAA Tournament creates a natural setting for chaos. For the fans, comprised heavily of fervid student bodies, they are concerned with propelling their team to victory, sometimes by any means necessary. Emotions run high, and if fans do not get the outcome they want, they look for someone on which they unload a year’s worth of frustration and rage upon. The referees are the perfect scapegoats. The disturbing hatred and utter classlessness that fans of the University of Kentucky basketball team showed referee John Higgins highlights the darker side of college basketball, as the term March Madness takes on a whole new, shameful meaning.
The Wildcats and University of North Carolina Tar Heels contested a classic clash in the Elite 8 this past Sunday, which ended in one of the most frenzied finishes in the tournament’s storied history. It surpassed the sky-high hype and was resounding proof that college basketball can still reach the heights of the golden age of the 1980s. Kentucky’s freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox, who should be declaring for the NBA Draft any day now, was brought to tears following the loss. When the one-and-doners want it that bad, the prestige of the game is restored ever so slightly as we yearn for a return to the days where former number one overall pick Patrick Ewing played in three National Championship games. It was supposed to be a shining moment for college basketball, but some members of the Big Blue Nation couldn’t let the loss go.
Higgins was mercilessly berated for questionable calls he made, particularly in regards to fouls. Kentucky’s freshmen triumvirate, Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo, all finished with four. Head coach John Calipari voiced his displeasure about the officiating following the game, saying how, with the excess whistle-blowing, it was “amazing that we had a chance.” Some fans were far blunter as they hit Higgins, the head referee in the game, with below-the-belt-shots. Dozens of disgruntled UK supporters invaded the Facebook page of his other occupation, his roofing company, and gave him poor reviews that attacked his character. The line was crossed right there, but Calipari, who is known for being one of the most outspoken coaches, did not initially give a statement.
The situation escalated to an alarming level as Higgins reportedly received death threats at his home and office. Calipari indirectly commented on the matter via Twitter just before his plane left for the Final Four in Phoenix. “I always brag that we have the classiest fans in the country,” Calipari tweeted. “Let’s make sure we remain that way even after a tough loss.” The statement never directly addressed Higgins, and felt more like a finger wag than a denouncement of their actions. Yes, he is not the law enforcement or the dean, and it is not his job to police a few extremists, but this is an issue regarding basketball fans and deserves a heartfelt, thorough statement rather than what is minimally expected of him.
Despite his postgame semi-rant, he is certainly not responsible for the barrage of hate Higgins has been forced to endure. But as a prominent member of the institution, he is expected to condemn such behavior that reflects poorly on his school. It is an obligation that deserves more attention than 140 characters.
The fans, for their part, are showcasing the gloomy world of amateur athletics that the NCAA does not even try to hide anymore. Crooked recruiting practices and academic violations have now become the norm, but we should at least expect better from the fans, who are supposed to be emblems of what makes sports great. Sure there will always be a few blowhards shouting obscenities at a player, sometimes just because he is wearing a different colored jersey, but attacking a man in his private and professional life cannot stand. Few people really sympathize with referees, myself included, but Higgins has now incurred the wrath of petty, despicable excuses of fans, and will now deal with trauma and humiliation that may never truly dissipate. Coach Cal should remember that before he makes another passing tweet.