The last time America got riled up about a slap was in February, moments after the University of Wisconsin’s basketball team closed out a 77–63 win over Michigan. As the teams lined up for the customary postgame handshake, Michigan head coach Juwan Howard angrily told the Wisconsin coach Greg Gard that he’d “remember that shit,” referring to a timeout Gard took late in a game where the outcome was no longer in doubt.
Howard’s agitation at this alleged breach of sportsmanship escalated into a dust-up with Gard and the Wisconsin coaching staff. Then, as the two teams excitedly milled around them, Howard lashed out: He took a swing at Wisconsin assistant Joe Krabbenhoft—some called it a slap, a few said it was a punch, others better recognized it as a “mush”—and hell threatened to break loose. But both sides settled down in fairly short order. There was no fight. The teams exited the arena without incident.
My thoughts turned to that moment Sunday night after Will Smith stormed onto the stage during the live broadcast of the Academy Awards. Smith swiftly moved toward Chris Rock, who made the mistake of telling a joke that compared the buzzed head of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, to Demi Moore’s in the movie G.I. Jane.
Before anyone could make sense of what was happening, Smith stood before Rock and landed a theatrical slap to the side of the comedian’s face. Smith literally knocked some of the spit out of Rock’s mouth, a description that doesn’t do anywhere near justice to the experience of actually watching the confrontation unfold on live television.
“Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me!” said Rock, whose job was to get off a few jokes before announcing the award for Best Documentary. Rock was clearly rattled, but muddled through. In those first shocking seconds, it all seemed like an outlandish, scripted skit to inject a little life into the annual tedium of the Oscars. But then the TV cameras followed Smith back to his seat, where he twice yelled at Rock: “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”
That was enough to make it clear, to me at least, that this was real. Will Smith broke character in about as dramatic a fashion as anyone could have imagined. Not the character he was about to win Best Actor for—that character he would soon invite comparisons to. No, the character “Will Smith” that he has crafted, somewhat openly, over 35 years in the public eye, up to and including his latest run as a TikTok star. That character has always been an exemplar of self-control. And at the Oscars, Smith totally lost control in public, something that I can’t remember him doing in the decades since he was the goofy kid in the “Parents Just Don’t Understand” video. Later, during his acceptance speech, Smith tried his damnedest to explain himself without really explaining what happened, making an awkward and not quite apt analogy to the man he portrayed in King Richard: “a fierce defender of his family.”
It has seemed somehow, in the not yet full day since Sunday night, that every possible reaction to the incident has already been aired. Some people have understandably cautioned against any possible expression of tacit support for violence in public, as if we’re not already awash in a culture that glorifies it. Others placed blame on Rock for gleefully passing along a tasteless joke that made light of Jada Pinkett Smith’s autoimmune disorder. A few have pointed out the hypocrisy of the Academy’s public statement against violence, noting that it has long coddled and even glorified accused abusers like Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen, among others. Others connected the moment to racism, sexism, ableism, and even the larger breakdown in social mores in recent years. Like so many controversial events these days, it has taken on a miragelike quality of something that might explain what’s wrong in American life, in different ways to different people.
But as I was reminded of the Howard slap from a month ago, my main thought was just: We don’t have to take this too seriously. We don’t have to live like this, mapping complex social phenomena on something fundamentally as straightforward and unexceptional as dudes using a personal slight—or a perceived one—as a pretext for getting physical.
Unsurprisingly, the social media response has followed its own inevitable arc, from shocked to bemused to serious to exhausting. As a sports fan who has seen scenes like this play out umpteen times, I’ve felt the familiar dread of watching relatively minor transgressions by Black men turn into a vehicle for everyone’s agendas. We can’t even gawk at a little scuffle without worrying that it’ll become a referendum on Black male anger. There was no real harm, and we don’t have to call a foul. Smith and Rock have reportedly reconciled, according to Diddy. Hockey players regularly pound at each other in front of enormous audiences, and fans almost never have to deal with the anthropological weight of this kind of discourse. Is it unprecedented at the dolled-up Academy Awards? Sure. But let’s have some perspective.
In February, after the Michigan-Wisconsin game, the confrontation quickly mushroomed into a larger national conversation about Howard’s lack of restraint and what sort of punishment was appropriate. Everyone mostly acknowledged that Howard deserved a penalty, but some people took it too far. ESPN’s Dick Vitale, the face of the network’s college basketball coverage for five decades now, best represented those fragile sensibilities by calling for substantial measures: “INEXCUSABLE behavior by Juwan Howard MUST LEAD TO SEVERE PUNISHMENT. UM President & AD should take ACTION NOW!” This despite Vitale’s undignified defense of Rick Pitino, whose program at Louisville was accused of providing escorts to his players and recruits, and his mostly unwavering support for abusive bully Bob Knight.
Howard ended up serving a five-game suspension. He issued a public apology, served his penalty, and came back to lead the Wolverines into the NCAA Tournament.
Then, a week ago, in Michigan’s win over Tennessee, Howard warmly consoled an opposing player after the Wolverines’ win. The scene of Howard embracing the Vols’ distraught point guard was more in line with the man we’ve observed him to be since he came into national fame as a star freshman basketball player: a fundamentally gentle and beloved man who a month ago had a lapse in judgment.
On Monday, a day after Smith’s slap overshadowed every other story from the awards, the Academy stood poised to take further measures against him. “We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law,” read a statement. At least one member called on the Academy “to take disciplinary action” and added that Smith “disgraced our entire community tonight.”
Imagine being Smith today. This is an embarrassing scandal for him, something that, despite his prodigious image-management skills, he may never live down. His loss of composure overshadowed what should have been the pinnacle of his acting career. Monday evening, he issued a public apology to Rock, saying, “I was out of line and I was wrong.” It’s an appropriate corrective to the defensive crouch of his acceptance speech. But it also exists because the slap has caused Smith injury: He will be forever linked to one of the most shocking moments in television history.
Meanwhile, Rock, the man who got smacked, declined to press charges against Smith and has been quiet since he left the stage that night. So far, it looks like Rock took that blow much better than the rest of us.