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SALT LAKE CITY — Fair or not, there’s a reputation. And it only got worse this year.
With incident after incident, Utah sports fans haven't been cast in the greatest light lately. This year alone, three fans have been issued lifetime bans from stadiums due to racially fueled speech. Obviously, those few offenders don't represent entire fan bases, but the Utah Jazz still felt like something needed to be done.
On Friday, the team announced it has partnered with the other local professional franchises and the local universities on a new campaign to hopefully help improve fan behavior and impact the community positively.
“Lead Together" is a long-term project hoping to promote a culture of inclusion and belonging.
A video — which includes Utah Jazz stars Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles and Rudy Gobert; Utah Royals and World Cup stars Christen Press, Kelley O'Hara, and Becky Sauerbrunn; and coaches from the local college football teams — has introduced the campaign and will be played at sporting venues all across Utah.
BYU, Utah, Utah State, Weber State, the Salt Lake Bees, Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals FC have all partnered with the Jazz on the project.
“In sports, we’re always looking for ways to improve and get better, and this is no different,” executive vice president of Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment Don Stirling said. “There have been too many negative instances in our community, and we all felt a shared responsibility to act.”
"Lead Together" comes on the heels of some high-profile fan incidents.
In March, Russell Westbrook and a Jazz fan got into a very publicized verbal altercation. The then-Oklahoma City point guard was caught on video spewing a profanity-laced rant toward the crowd after a fan had used racial language when talking to the NBA star.
The Jazz were swift in their response, issuing a lifetime ban to the offending person and owner Gail Miller addressed Jazz fans with a heartfelt message before the team’s next home game.
“This should never happen,” she said. “We are not a racist community. We believe in treating people with courtesy and respect as human beings. From time to time, individual fans exhibit poor behavior and forget their manners. Some disrespect players on other teams. When that happens, I want to jump up and shout, ‘Stop!’"
Last month during a Utah Royals home match, a fan yelled racial slurs at Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. After a week-long investigation, the Royals banned the offending fan for life. The NWSL also banned the fan from all league matches.
"I am a proud black woman. I play for a team and fans that I love,” Press said last month. "Acts of racism and hate hurt everyone. This club stands for equality. What we won’t accept from any fan is racism or discrimination at any level."
And on Thursday, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan publically apologized to Arizona State football player Evan Fields, who received a vulgar message from what appeared to be a Ute fan. Fields was ejected from Utah’s win over the Sun Devils on Saturday after being called for targeting on a scary hit to Utah running back Zach Moss.
“We strongly condemn the behavior of the individual who directed such hatred toward an Arizona State student-athlete,” Harlan wrote on Twitter. “There is no place for such behavior from anyone who represents Utah Athletics directly or indirectly.”
Harlan said that the school is looking into what can be done to address the behavior.
Utah isn’t the first place where a few instances have put a dark cloud over a fan base. The New England area has had similar issues in its stadiums, and the Jazz took inspiration for the new campaign from the Boston Red Sox, who began a similar project.
“When you start to have these conversations, you begin to realize that even within your own walls there are times and places we could have done better,” Stirling told UtahJazz.com. “The teams in New England experienced that and, frankly, we did too. It gives you the opportunity to say, ‘From this point forward, we’re going to do better. We need to do a better job.’”
But the project isn't just to improve fan behavior.
The Jazz are planning to conduct a series of “Let’s Talk” town hall events to help educate the community on diversity, inclusion and belonging. Those will include actionable steps that can be taken by both individuals and organizations.