King Kaufman's Sports Daily

No moat after all: A year after the NBA brawl, civilization hasn't collapsed.


Salon Staff
November 22, 2005 10:00PM (UTC)

It's hard to believe it's been a whole year since the breakdown of civil society. I'm just now peeking out of my bunker to take a look at how the world has changed since the brawl at an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game.

It was a year ago Saturday that Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers responded to being hit by a thrown cup of ice by charging into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills, escalating an incident that had begun with Artest's hard foul of Ben Wallace of the Pistons and Wallace's retaliatory shove and ended with the end of civilization as we know it.

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I have to admit, I thought the NBA wouldn't be nearly as much fun with a shark-filled moat separating the players from the fans. But a year later, I hardly notice it anymore, do you?

The machine-gun nests in each corner of every NBA arena seemed like overkill at first, especially given the gunners' early tendency to fire warning shots whenever fans chanted "L.A. sucks" or the visiting team went on an 8-0 run. The real problem there was the mixed messages the security forces were sending by chanting along as they shot.

But it takes time to strike the right balance, and once the gunners began giving out candy, they were accepted. Now they blend into the background whenever they're not shooting.

Hard fouls are way down since the league instituted a rule that gives the offended team two shots, the ball and the right to draw and quarter the fouling player.

Before locking myself and my family into our shelter, I heard a lot of people saying the NBA was overreacting. The stiff suspensions of Artest and his teammates Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson were fair, the thinking went, but martial law wasn't called for.

But it wasn't just Ron Artest and co. There was also that brawl at the South Carolina-Clemson football game a day later that really seemed to hammer home the idea that the wheels had come off our societal wagon, that order had broken down beyond repair in the sports world.

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And you don't remember this now, your psyche battered by nightly color-coded security alerts leading off "SportsCenter" for the last year, but there had also been a pregame fight between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns the week before. And two months before that a Texas Rangers pitcher had thrown a folding chair into the stands in Oakland, breaking the nose of a fan.

It was war, fans vs. players, a nightly battle of pent-up aggression and rage finally let loose. Something had to be done. Thus, the moat, the sharks, the machine-gun nests. Smart people went underground, off the grid, out of harm's way. That's what I did.

Hang on a second.

I'm catching up here, flipping through the channels, looking at some newspapers online. They didn't do the moat thing? Where are the machine guns? I can't believe the underground rumor mill led me astray!

Hmm. It seems the NBA put an extra cop behind the benches, stopped selling alcohol in the fourth quarter and did some image polishing. There's a new dress code, a charity foundation and an order for players and coaches to be more visible in the community.

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Well, that seems reasonable enough, I guess. I sure did miss fresh fruit in the bunker, though.

Evidently, people have begun policing themselves a little bit. Players became acutely aware that wading into the stands throwing haymakers could cost a person a full season. Fans probably aren't behaving much differently overall, but there haven't seemed to be as many egregious incidents of overstepping the bounds in the past year.

It turns out that reports of the downfall of Western society as signaled by the breakdown of social norms at American sporting events were premature.

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What a shame. I'd been looking forward to this whole "Mad Max" thing going on.

Listen, you get 18,000, or 30,000, or 75,000 or more people together in one place, add competition and alcohol, and it's amazing brawls don't break out more often. We had a little rash of them a year ago, three in a week, and it felt like the world was coming off its axis, spinning into madness. I felt that way myself.

It may have just been a dang coincidence.

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I still feel like there's an awful lot of rage floating around, and a remarkable sensitivity to the great crime of disrespect. I still feel that the reason we're all so sensitive to disrespect is that we're disrespected so often, so constantly, in our various roles as citizens, customers and employees.

But I also find it remarkable how quickly we were able to return to normalcy. Sure, extra cop behind the bench at NBA games, but if society were really breaking down, would that have been enough? I think not. We'd have needed that moat.

Less than a year after this signal event, the brawl at Auburn Hills, which I've seen referred to unironically as "the 9/11 of sports," I was able to go months at a time without being reminded of it. Not true for real cataclysms.

Sports are a unique, crazy little corner of our universe. There's nothing else quite like them, no match for the sporting world's combination of sameness and novelty, no other place where thousands of strangers gather nightly to witness unscripted drama that operates within such precise boundaries.

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Maybe because there's no place quite like the inside of a sports arena on game night, we tend to think of sports as separate, a playland. But, paradoxically, when the real world intrudes, we like to leap to the conclusion that this is emblematic of something in the larger world.

Maybe it is. There are certainly those among us who would argue that society is, in fact, breaking down.

I'm putting my money on society. Literally, I suppose. But what I mean is society's been breaking down in someone's mind since the first cave dwellers started trash talking about who invented fire. People have been brawling since five minutes after that.

We stagger on. We put another cop behind the bench, sentence a few guys to probation and community service, cut off the beer sales a little early. It works out. Maybe someday it won't, but so far it always has.

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Unemployed sharks and machine-gunners everywhere won't like hearing this, but sometimes a big fight is just a big fight.

Previous column: Touchdown!

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