Everybody's talking about violence in sports these days, but really, what's the big deal? Sunday was the fifth day out of the last eight in which there were no huge brawls at major televised sporting events. A fisticuffs-free Monday would make for two days running -- an era of peace and harmony heretofore only imagined by dreamy pacifists.
In case you've been away from a TV for the last 72 hours, the main event was Ron Artest leading various Pacers into the stands at Detroit, swinging wildly on the off chance that they might meet the person who threw a cup of ice that hit Artest as he lay on the scorer's table.
What's this world coming to when a visiting player can't lie down on the scorer's table without getting hit by more than a tenth of a pound of frozen water?
Friday's excitement was just one of three big blowups in the sporting world in the past week. Last Sunday the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns had a pregame brawl, and Saturday the South Carolina and Clemson football teams had a pregame scuffle that served as a prelude to an on-field riot in the fourth quarter about which Martin Scorsese plans to make his next movie.
What's going on here? The last week has been particularly bad, but this kind of violence seems to be on the increase in sports arenas over the last five years.
A not-for-fun snowball fight between the Oakland Raiders and fans in Denver and a fan attacking an Astros outfielder in Milwaukee seemed to kick off this new era, which has included Dodgers players wading into the stands at Wrigley Field, two incidents of fans attacking a coach and an umpire at White Sox games, Tie Domi of the Maple Leafs wrestling with fans near the penalty box in Philadelphia, a fight between Yankees players and a groundskeeper in the Fenway Park bullpen during last year's playoffs and the chair-throwing incident in Oakland two months ago.
And that's aside from the looting and rioting among fans that often follows big wins or losses.
"Sports reflect society," NBA commissioner David Stern told ESPN after handing down a season-long suspension to Artest and long suspensions to others Sunday, "and society has become less civil. Social norms really are to some extent breaking down across a broad array of places. What you say, what you do, how you act no longer matters based upon any old social conventions."
"We live in a violent society," agreed players union chief Billy Hunter. He referred to the week's two football fights, then said, "We're in a war, you know, and people are getting killed every day. And I think what happens is after a while we sort of develop an immunity to violence, etc., until something like this happens and all of a sudden it wakes us up and we say, 'Wow, let's get control of this thing.'"
If sports are merely reflecting an increasingly violent society, it may not be possible to get control of this thing, though Stern has vowed to try with stiff suspensions and a reassessment of security leaguewide.
I don't know if we're living in a society that's more or less violent than six or 60 years ago, but there does seem to be a lot more anger evident than ever before in my lifetime. Rage would be a better word.
We see it in those celebrating crowds after championships are won. They don't just want to celebrate, they want to fuck shit up. We see it every day when great athletes make great plays in the sports we watch. For the most part, they don't look happy. They look angry. They pound their chest, scream.
Some of that is just posing, the fashion of the day, a 21st century answer to the high five. But there does seem to be a lot of pent-up rage floating around, both on the field and off. What got Artest up off of that scoring table was the idea that he'd been disrespected. There's almost no greater offense these days than disrespect.
I wonder if that's because it's so common. So many people are at the boiling point when it comes to being dissed because they get dissed so often. It's not that we're living in a violent society, it's that we're living in a disrespectful one. Everyone's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, and, in the sports world anyway, they're increasingly not taking it.
Suspensions and beefed-up security might solve that problem but I doubt it. On the other hand, I don't know what other choices the NBA has.
The Artest incident started when Ben Wallace of the Pistons shoved Artest in response to a hard foul by the latter in the last minute of a game the Pacers had well in hand. Artest's response was to back away, sardonic look on his face, and then take his little tabletop siesta as others pushed and shoved.
In the thousands upon thousands of words I've heard and read on the fracas, no one has mentioned this: Artest lying on the scorer's table was a provocative act, a middle-digit salute to the Pistons, their fans, the officials, pretty much anybody. Disrespect. What else could Artest have been saying by lying on the scorer's table?
The debate always seems to start with the cup of ice. Was the fan who threw it responsible for the mayhem that followed -- one of the ugliest scenes in American sports history, with huge athletes wading into the seats throwing Sunday punches at fans with drinks in their hands, and also, incredibly, a few fans wandering onto the court looking for a fight with a player or two? These people might have been risking concussion, if they only had a brain.
Or is Artest to blame for crossing that line that must not be crossed and going after fans?
Stern left no doubt where he stands on that question Sunday when he suspended Artest without pay for the rest of the season. Stephen Jackson, who followed Artest into the crowd, got 30 games, and Jermaine O'Neal, who slugged a fan on the court, got 25. Various other players got shorter suspensions, including Wallace, who got six games for his shove, which is odd because that's the kind of thing that usually gets you one game. Wallace got an extra five because of the events that followed, which were beyond his control.
I was pleasantly surprised by Stern's ruling, which the Pacers, the players union and the suspended players all said was too harsh. I was expecting the kind of 10-to-20-game suspensions that would be among the longest ever handed out but would be essentially meaningless, unpaid vacations for the offending players during a long slog of a season.
A decade ago Vernon Maxwell of the Rockets got 10 games and a $20,000 fine for going into the stands in Portland and punching a fan who had been heckling him. To give you an idea how light a slap that was, consider this: The Pacers, without O'Neal, Artest and Jackson, their three best players, for a combined 128 games, still have a pretty good chance to make the playoffs.
The commentariat, particularly ESPN, which has a contract to televise NBA games, seemed to leap to the players' defense Friday night and Saturday, with the dominant argument being, "There's no justifying or defending what Artest did, but ..." This was typically followed by a justification for Artest's actions, because the fans provoked him by throwing things.
This wasn't the fans' fault, just as Rangers pitcher Frank Francisco throwing that chair into the stands in Oakland two months ago and breaking a woman's nose wasn't the fans' fault. Artest's charge into the seats can't be justified, defended or explained away. It was just plain wrong, no matter how disrespected he felt. Ditto for Jackson's punch-throwing sojourn.
As Stern noted in his statement Sunday, the fans' behavior was wrong too, and there are security issues that the league has to address in the wake of Friday's incident. It was wrong for that fan to throw the cup at Artest. He should have been kicked out of the arena and maybe even prosecuted. But to even suggest that Artest was in any way justified by going after him is morally crippled.
And that's even if Artest had pummeled the guy who actually threw the cup, which he didn't. He pummeled a bystander, by all accounts. This will all come out in the copious civil suits and maybe even criminal cases that are coming down the pike.
Perhaps the stiff punishments will make players think twice about crossing the line between themselves and fans in the future, as many have suggested. But that implies that Artest and Jackson were thinking at all Friday. They weren't. They were venting their rage on fans who had been venting their rage on them.
It was outrageous, all right. And it'll probably happen again. But a season-long suspension sounds just about right.
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