A lawsuit against the Utah Jazz by a fan who was banned for life from the team's arena over what were called racial taunts directed at point guard Russell Westbrook was dismissed by a judge, according to court documents filed Thursday.
Shane Keisel has said there was nothing racial about his heckling during the 2019 game and that the high-profile incident cost him his job and exposed him to online threats. The Jazz, however, said the team investigated the episode that ignited a national conversation about race and fan behavior and stood by the decision to bar him from the arena.
The ruling came just hours after Westbrook was once again a victim of unruly fan behavior, this time in Philadelphia where someone sitting over the tunnel that leads from the floor threw popcorn on him as he left the game with an ankle injury Wednesday night. The 76ers apologized Thursday and announced the unnamed fan who was a season-ticket holder would be banned from all events at the arena.
The NBA said rules surrounding fan behavior will be “vigorously enforced” going forward. In a separate incident Wednesday night, video showed that someone spit on Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks while he was preparing to inbound the basketball in the fourth quarter of New York’s win over Atlanta at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks apologized and banned that fan from the arena.
An unrelated verbal altercation occurred at the Jazz arena Wednesday night that resulted in the removal and banning of three Jazz fans indefinitely, the team said, declining to provide additional details.
“Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior,” the Jazz said in a statement. “We apologize to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behavior."
In the 2019 incident, Westbrook was fined $25,000 by the NBA after video surfaced of him directing vulgar comments at Keisel in the crowd. Then a point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder who had had other in-game exchanges with fans, Westbrook was shown along the sideline using threatening language that also referred to Keisel’s girlfriend, who was at the game.
Westbrook said at the time that he had been provoked by the fan who told him to “get down on your knees like you used to.”
Westbrook said he would never abuse a woman, but that Keisel’s racial taunts went over the line, especially after past disrespectful comments from other Utah fans. His stance was backed by Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, who said it wasn’t the first time a racially motivated event occurred at a Jazz game.
The Jazz banned Keisel the day after the game, saying there is no room for personal attacks or disrespect.
In the lawsuit, Keisel acknowledged heckling Westbrook, who now plays for the Washington Wizards, and telling him in a mocking way to “take care of his knees” because the point guard had them wrapped in towels while he sat on the bench. But he denies making the comment that Westbrook said he did.
Jazz attorney Jeff Hunt said the team was “pleased with the court's ruling” and will continue to enforce its fan code of conduct.
Scott Hoyt, Keisel’s attorney, said his client intends to appeal the trial court’s decision.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.