During Saturday night’s Utah State win at Colorado State, a few members of the CSU student section were heard chanting “Russia” while Aggies guard Max Shulga was shooting free throws.
Shulga was born in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and his family still lives there. He played for the Ukrainian Under-20 junior national team this past summer.
His response to the matter has been nothing short of admirable and a good reminder to us all how such things should be handled, even in the high-emotion, intense arena of live competition.
“While extremely upsetting in the moment, I also know how emotions can run high during competition and people can do and say things they do not really mean,” Shulga — the target of the taunts who has family in a war zone — wrote Sunday in a statement shared on social media.
Nowhere did Shulga say what was shouted at him was acceptable. It wasn’t.
But he also didn’t join in some of the social media, mob-mentality calls for not having students at future games, expelling those responsible or even the broad-stroke condemnation of the entire Colorado State fan base as a result.
This was far from the only such embarrassing “taunt” from a Mountain West Conference student section in recent years — yes, even the one representing your favorite school.
And, guess what? It won’t be the last, especially with one of the most meaningful, emotionally-charged home stretches of Mountain West basketball in recent memory staring us in the face over the next month, with five teams fighting for NCAA Tournament berths and a league championship. Arenas will be full and intensity — especially from student sections — will be high.
Here’s hoping we all understand when lines are crossed, that’s not OK.
But these incidents aren’t larger representations of the great fan bases this league has (sorry, fans, but that one school you really hate isn’t all bad people).
As for Saturday, almost immediately upon learning of the incident, Colorado State put out a statement apologizing. Sunday, Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez issued a statement stating such things wouldn’t be tolerated and emphasizing the league is “committed to good sportsmanship, integrity and a healthy environment for competition.”
Rams head coach Niko Medved immediately following his team’s loss to Utah State posted his own apology on social media — far more off the cuff and far less filtered through the process of multiple sets of helpful editors reading through it first.
“I have so much respect for @USUBasketball and Max Shulga,” Medved wrote. “We have amazing fans and students but this is not acceptable! My sincere apologies.”
Shulga’s statement on Sunday accepted the CSU apologies and noted, “This has been an extremely difficult and challenging year with my family and loved ones so far away and living in constant danger. I pray daily for the conflict to come to a close and for peace to be restored for my people in Ukraine.”
Statement from Max Shulga regarding last night’s game: pic.twitter.com/4Jaa91CNHU
— USU Men's Hoops (@USUBasketball) February 5, 2023
But he also showed maturity in taking a step toward de-escalating future drama about what happened — something from which others can learn.
No. Saturday’s taunts aren’t indicative of the entire CSU fan base or student section.
Just like it wasn’t representative of the entire Utah State fan base or student section — the Hurd — when former Lobo Makuach Maluach was taunted in a game in Logan, Utah, on Jan. 31, 2018.
In that game, as reported by the Journal that night and witnessed by several Utah-based journalists on press row, a lone USU student repeatedly yelled at Maluach, “You look like a refugee!”
After three or four such taunts, a Journal reporter sitting courtside turned to the student sitting several rows behind and informed him that Maluach and his family indeed were refugees from Sudan and to stop the taunting.
After 3rd or 4th time a student in the Utah State student section yelled at UNM’s Makuach Maluach “You look like a refugee!” I turned and told him his family actualy are refugees from Sudan. To fellow students’ credit, a couple girls in front of him were telling him to shut up
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) February 1, 2018
While that incident wasn’t followed with any such public apologies or statements from teams or the league, the taunts stopped and in no small part thanks to several other USU students making sure of it.
It also wasn’t an indictment on the larger San Diego State fan base in 2013 when “The Show,” the well-known and admittedly antagonistic student section that helps make Viejas Arena one of the toughest places to play in the country, took to social media to make light of the emergency appendectomy of former Lobo Cullen Neal and even wished death upon him.
And it’s not an indictment now on the entirety of the UNM Lobo fan base when the resurrected student section “The Howl Raisers” put on its pregame “Howl Sheets” the names of opposing player’s girlfriends with the intent of in-game taunting — something common among student sections for many years, but seemingly catching some concerned Lobo fans off guard as they have reported their concerns to the Journal that such tactics are in bad taste.
Sure, we would all hope most would recognize on their own where “the line” is and stay on the acceptable side of it. And, yes. Maybe that line is far more conservative for some than others. But let’s be clear. The next month of Mountain West basketball is going to be exciting, fun, intense and at times uncomfortable.
Here’s to hoping we can all handle it as well as Shulga did this past weekend.