Vicious comment allegedly made to Kris Murray after Illinois game sparks focus on fan behavior, athlete mental health

The final buzzer in Illinois men's basketball's 74-72 win over Iowa on Sunday night was the culmination of highly contested, highly emotional game. Two rival schools met with postseason implications on the line in a sold-out arena, where Illinois claimed its first regular-season Big Ten title in nearly two decades.

In short, it was a heated atmosphere with emotions running high. 

Following the game, allegations about derogatory and threatening comments made to Iowa players became part of the focus, as well. 

Iowa sophomore forward Kris Murray missed a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds. Afterward, according to his father, Kenyon, a fan told Kris to kill himself. 

Kenyon Murray, an Iowa basketball alum from the 1990s, understands the emotions in that moment. Since the conclusion of his playing days, he's become an advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. He sits on the board of multiple nonprofits, including The Choices Network, a local organization that works to help teens and young adults battle substance abuse and mental illness

Since he first tweeted about the run-in, Kenyon has been in conversations with the Illinois athletic department, which is investigating. Iowa athletics director Gary Barta reached out to Kenyon on Monday, as well. Barta and Kenyon Murray plan to meet at the Big Ten Conference tournament this week to discuss the matter and potential solutions more in-depth. 

The alleged comment hit close to home for the Murray family. Kenyon's daughter McKenna, 15, recently lost a friend to suicide, Kenyon said. Older brothers Kris and Keegan Murray were aware of her friend's suicide, as well. 

Iowa forward Kris Murray (24) was allegedly targeted verbally by a fan after the team's game against Illinois on Sunday.

Neither Kris nor Keegan commented on the situation during Iowa's Tuesday media availability. Kris was not made available for interview. 

"In a game like that with so many emotions, there's so much riding on that game," Kenyon said. "And I think it's just a lack of self-awareness by that fan to say that, and I'm not afraid to say that most fans have no idea what it's like to play in a moment like that. I've been in it; I've lost on a last-second shot in that arena. Emotions are high, for someone to say that in that moment, to me they were planning on saying that before (the players) stepped on the floor." 

On Monday night, an anonymous donor had offered money to identify the culprit, but Murray said Tuesday evening that the plan now is to instead donate the money to mental health organizations and not offer it as a reward.

On Tuesday evening, Murray tweeted that he spoke with Illinois assistant athletic director Joseph Biggs and officially announced a partnership to deliver those resources to on-campus organizations. 

"I don't ever want to make anyone a villain," Kenyon said Tuesday. "I didn't mean for it to be a witch hunt. We're not going to give the money to anybody and at this point in time I really don't care who the person is. My kid is OK. We talked about it, and we're just going to donate the money to organizations that need it." 

College athletes speaking out against fan behavior

Kris' incident is the latest in a string of recent occurrences that have sparked a larger conversation about athlete-fan relations and overall mental health: 

  • On Monday, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Russell Westbrook spoke extensively to how fans' comments and harassment have weighed on his family. "It affects them even going to games," Westbrook said. "Like, I don't even want to bring my kids to the game because I don't want them to hear people calling their dad nicknames and other names for no reason because he's playing the game that he loves. And it's gotten so bad where my family don't even want to go to home games, to any game … and it's just super unfortunate, man. And it's super upsetting to me.
  • On Feb. 25, Ohio State basketball player E.J. Liddell took to Twitter to speak about a similar experience to Kris' at Illinois when Ohio State played the Illini on Feb. 24. 
  • Iowa had its own fan behavior issue recently. In early February, Wisconsin wrestler Austin Gomez reported a racial slur directed at him when the Badgers wrestled the Hawkeyes in a dual meet. The University of Iowa athletics department issued an official statement condemning the fan, spoke with Gomez to issue an apology and launched a subsequent investigation. The fan in question has not been found.  
  • Kris' incident and a subsequent conversation on Twitter led by Kedric Prince, a recruiting analyst for, brought to light an incident last year involving Illinois center Kofi Cockburn receiving inappropriate comments on social media following Illinois' upset loss in the 2021 NCAA Tournament and then earlier this year when Illinois played at Iowa. Neither Cockburn nor Illinois took to social media to report this year's incident.
Iowa guard Tony Perkins (11) says he doesn't pay too much attention to what fans say on social media or during games.

Sunday's incident prompted Kenyon to enter what his wife describes as "papa bear mode," where fathers reach out to make sure their kids are OK as a first priority. Kenyon said he's thankful that Keegan and Kris are not regularly active on social media so they don't see a lot of the "outside noise." 

Kenyon recalled just a few weeks ago when Iowa played Nebraska that a student was escorted out of the game during warmups for something said to the players. Aside from regulation by schools, peer regulation might be the most immediate and effective answer, he said. If a fan hears another person make a derogative, threatening or racist remark, the fan should quickly report the person to the nearest authority. 

"If someone is saying something that you know is totally crossing the line, as a peer if you don't address it, then it's just as bad as if you said it," Kenyon said. "I think there needs to be more self-policing but we're trying to change a mindset of, 'I'm at a game, I paid my money so I can say whatever I want to say.' And people may think that's soft, but it's not. It's just being a human being." 

Toxic interactions on social media catching attention of schools

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery offered his thoughts on the situation and the climate of athletes, fans and social media on Tuesday. 

"We're not solving that problem today or anytime in the future," McCaffery said. "People are going to buy tickets and they're going to yell at the players. But it's a thousand times worse on social media with what these kids hear and what's said to them. I feel bad for Kris, but I can tell you that he's not worried about this. That's one tough kid right there." 

McCaffery himself isn't on social media but generally gives his players free rein to post as they please. He follows that same approach during the game regarding whether players decide to stay quiet or talk back to fans, whichever is best for them. 

"I honestly don't pay much attention to social media," Iowa guard Tony Perkins said. "People have their opinions. Think what you think, say what you say, but it doesn't really get to me. At the end of the day, I'm on the court and you're off the court. If we were to play one-on-one, I doubt you'd beat me. I hear things from the crowd but nine times out of 10, I block it out." 

On Feb. 28, the University of Illinois athletic department launched the "I Matter" campaign to challenge all social media users to change their tone and tenor on social media regarding student athletes. Through the campaign, the university set up several avenues to report any problematic remarks that are made.

It was a step in continuing to combat toxic encounters between fans and athletes. Sunday's alleged incident provided another opportunity for athletes and their families to speak out.

It's Kenyon Murray's hope that more conversations will bring more understanding. 

"I think every university should be doing something," he said. "I don't think this is an isolated incident. If this brings to light that every university needs to have a 'fan education' movement, that's one of the things I want to happen. The second thing is I think in that movement is understanding what the decorum is supposed to be and if they cross that line, then maybe they're expelled for that game. But there has to be some kind of repercussion to behaviors that are happening in the stands.

"If it creates movements within universities to do things and it holds fans accountable for what they say regardless of if they paid $10 or they're a million-dollar donor, it doesn't matter. Because in that environment it should always be about the kids that are performing. Remember: They're athletes, they're students and, most importantly, they're people." 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at