Marcus Smart (left) and teammate Markel Brown during a game against the Kansas Jayhawks on Jan. 18, 2014, in Lawrence, Kansas.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Let’s be clear, if Oklahoma State University sophomore basketball star Marcus Smart was still in the running for sportsman of the year, he isn’t now.

Saturday night, after trying to block a shot and falling into the stands in the waning moments of a heated game against rival Texas Tech, he reacted to something said by a fan from the opposing team by shoving the fan, and was quickly—fortunately for everyone involved—restrained by his teammates and sent to the bench for the duration.

But whether you think his on-court comportment was just bad judgment (and maybe an occasion to cut the guy some slack) or a transgression worthy of harsher punishment than the technical foul call that he received from the refs, before anyone—fans, media or the Big 12 Conference—passes judgment on Smart, they ought to consider the context of the incident in question.

Here’s why:

Something Was Said

Several reports or headlines are already describing an incident in which Smart “pushes fan in stands” or he “goes into stands.” But it’s not like he tried be in the stands. He risked injury to make a play and landed on the sidelines. Just watch the video, and you see Smart run down the court, try to block a shot, fall on the floor in front of the seats behind the basket and then start to get up, with the help of another fan and, most importantly, while facing the court and facing away from the fans. As he stands up, he clearly looks to be heading back into the game, but then spins around in reaction to something that’s said in his direction:

If It Was Racial …

Right after the play, one of ESPN’s announcers suggested that there was “nothing” a fan could say that should provoke a response, adding, “I don’t care what he said, you’ve got to walk away.”

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Except Smart’s not Jackie Robinson, and this isn’t 1947.

We don’t know yet what was said by Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr. And if it was garden-variety taunts of the kind you might expect at a rivalry game, then it’s fair to say that Smart overreacted when he shoved Orr. But if it turns out that it was a racial epithet—or anything in the ballpark of “go back to Africa,” as was initially reported by a couple of outlets—that was hurled in Smart’s direction, then the idea that he has to walk away and take it is more than a bit antiquated.

If it wasn’t racial, then Orr certainly should get a chance to clear up what he did or didn’t say—anyone should get the benefit of that doubt. So far, though, it’s been reported that he texted, “I kinda let my mouth say something I shouldn’t have.”

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And that’s the point: that until the facts are in, Smart deserves the benefit of that doubt, as well.

This Isn’t the Pros

And polls show that Americans don’t favor paying student-athletes for their effort—that’s fine. But if players aren’t paid, then colleges should be treating them like the college students they are.

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When Smart goes pro—and when he’s paid to play ball—then he’ll be on his own the next time that he loses his cool. But if he’s punished with more than a token suspension for what happened Saturday, it’ll look like OSU, Texas Tech and the Big 12 are letting a student—their student—be a patsy for a relatively brief moment of rancor in which that college student was providing entertainment, and taking abuse—on his school’s behalf—for thousands of paying customers.

OSU’s coaches should have brought Smart back to the locker room, instead of leaving him on the bench to be further taunted by Texas Tech fans, and Texas Tech’s campus security should have escorted Orr out of the arena, to find out happened.

If OSU throws him under the bus, though—or if this turns into a pile-on—then shame on the “fans” for demanding that players show us heart when they’re on the court, and then when they do, we don’t show them any compassion of our own.

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David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.