SALT LAKE CITY — A judge on Thursday dismissed a $100 million lawsuit against the Utah Jazz and NBA player Russell Westbrook that claimed defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
The case stems from a March 2019 verbal exchange between Shane Keisel and Westbrook during a game in which the Jazz hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder. The end of the altercation was captured on video and was heavily shared on social media. It led to Keisel getting a lifetime ban from Vivint Arena, Westbrook getting fined, and a wider conversation about racism among Jazz fans.
Now two years later, it seems to finally be put to rest — at least that incident.
On the same day the court threw out that case, the Jazz issued a statement saying they had indefinitely banned three fans from Vivint Arena after they heckled family members of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant.
Morant's father, Tee, told ESPN that he enjoys heckling and friendly banter but those three fans crossed the line. He told the Worldwide Leader one fan made a sexually explicit remark to his wife, Jamie, and another said, "I'll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy."
The Jazz released a statement that upon finding out about incident, arena security removed and banned the three fans.
"We apologize to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behavior. The Utah Jazz are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful environment," the statement read.
Jazz owner Ryan Smith wrote a message to the Memphis Grizzlies and the Morant family, stating that: "We are embarrassed and sorry. The (Utah Jazz) have zero tolerance for offensive behavior. We are committed to creating a respectful, competitive environment."
Utah star guard Donovan Mitchell said on Twitter: "I'm glad those fans were banned and they should never be allowed back.... this is ridiculous!!! The fact that these words are being thrown around to players and there families is ridiculous! Enough is enough smh!"
The incident with the Morant family was one of a number of altercations from Wednesday's slate of NBA games that ended with fans being dismissed and banned from arenas — one of which happened in Philadelphia when Westbrook, now with the Washington Wizards, had popcorn poured on his head as he left the court.
"In these arenas, you gotta start protecting the players. We'll see what the NBA does," Westbrook said after the game — a statement that, in some ways, echoed some of the sentiments he shared over two years ago in Utah.
"The Utah Jazz have zero tolerance for offensive or disruptive behavior. An incident occurred last night involving a verbal altercation during Game 2. Arena security staff intervened, and the investigation resulted in the removal and banning of three Jazz fans indefinitely. We apologize to all who were impacted by this unfortunate incident and condemn unacceptable fan behavior. The Utah Jazz are committed to ensuring a safe and respectful environment."
–Utah Jazz team statement
Following the game on March 11, 2019, Westbrook claimed that Keisel told him to "get down on your knees like you used to." The claim was backed up by written statements made by other fans sitting near Keisel, according to court documents.
A fan sitting two rows in front of Keisel recorded Westbrook's threatening and vulgar reaction to the comments and sent it to Keisel. According to court documents, Keisel forwarded it to a friend with the hopes of it going viral. Those hopes were granted.
Multiple national and local outlets picked up the video and it was shared widely on social media. After the game, Keisel participated in interviews with KSL TV and ESPN to discuss the confrontation.
The incident, which Westbrook saw as racially charged, led to conversations about racism among Jazz fans and how fans should interact with players. After an investigation, the Jazz announced a fan had been banned following the incident but never referenced Keisel's name. At the next home game, then-owner Gail Miller issued a statement admonishing the fans to be better.
"My heartfelt request to all of you is that, from this time forward, we will all take pride in holding ourselves and those around us to the highest standard of decency," she said.
Months later, Keisel and Jennifer Huff filed the lawsuit against the Jazz and Westbrook.
On Thursday, 4th District Judge Derek Pullan ruled that while Jazz's statements never mentioned Keisel or Huff by name, they were still capable of defamation due to the known context of the case. However, he ruled that the statements were matters of opinion.
"Calling a person a racist — or implying it — is an expression of opinion which cannot be objectively verified as true or false," the ruling says. "The weight of authority on this point is substantial."
The ruling used the facts of the case to demonstrate this point further. The fans who heard Keisel's statement to Westbrook, for example, did not perceive the statement as racially charged. Westbrook, however, did.
Westbrook shared those feelings with media members following the game back in 2019.
"A young man and his wife in the stands told me to 'get down on my knees like you used to,' and for me that's completely disrespectful. I think it is racial," Westbrook said.
Those comments served as the basis of Keisel's complaint against the former NBA All-Star.
The court, though, ruled those comments did not concern Keisel or Huff since they were unknown to Westbrook at the time.
"No hearer could have reasonably understood the statement to be directed at Keisel and Huff, who were just two of thousands of fans in the arena," the ruling states. "The only way a hearer could identify Keisel or Huff as the 'man and his wife' to whom Westbrook referred would have been able to access other news sources over which Westbrook had no control."
The court also noted that, like the Jazz's statements, Westbrook's comments were protected by opinion privilege.
"We are pleased with the court's ruling," Jazz attorney Jeff Hunt said. "The court ruled in favor of the Jazz on all claims and determined the lawsuit had no legal or factual merit. The Jazz properly enforced the fan Code of Conduct and will continue to do so."