Sports Experts Analyze the Fight Between Professional Basketball Players
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RAY SUAREZ: It all began with a foul. Indiana Pacer Ron Artest fouled Detroit Piston Ben Wallace with 45 seconds left in the game. That quickly turned into a player brawl, with coaches and officials pulling players away from each other.
But moments later, the fighting moved to the stands after Ron Artest was hit by a beverage cup thrown by a spectator. He was joined by teammate Stephen Jackson.
MIKE BREEN: Fans and players are going at it, the players trying to help each other out.
BILL WALTON: This is a disgrace.
RAY SUAREZ: Artest eventually climbed out of the stands and took on another fan who had come onto the floor.
MIKE BREEN: Now another fight’s breaking out, in front of the Pistons’ bench. It’s a fan on the court; this is very, very dangerous.
RAY SUAREZ: In the mayhem, Pacers Jermaine O’Neal threw this punch. And across the court, someone off camera hurled a chair into the crowd. The scene degenerated further as fans dumped beer, cups and trash on the players as they were escorted off the court and the game was called. Pistons’ coach, Larry Brown, afterward, was stunned.
LARRY BROWN, Detroit Pistons Coach: This is a terrible night for our game. Seeing the people in the stands and trying to explain to it your family. I’ve never seen anything like it.
RAY SUAREZ: Pacers coach Rick Carlisle.
RICK CARLISLE: A hard-fought game by two top teams was marred by the fact that in the end a lot of mistakes were made by a lot of people, without question.
RAY SUAREZ: Yesterday, NBA Commissioner David Stern handed down some of the harshest penalties in sports history. The breakdown: Indiana’s Ron Artest is out for the rest of the season, 73 games. Teammate Stephen Jackson was suspended for 30 games, and Jermaine O’Neal for 25. Pacers guard Anthony Johnson is out for five games. Detroit’s Ben Wallace drew a six-game ban. Four other players, one from Indiana and three from Detroit, were suspended one game apiece for leaving the bench during the initial fight.
DAVID STERN: The actions of the players involved wildly exceeded the professionalism and self-control that should fairly be expected from NBA players. We must affirm that the NBA will strive to exemplify the best that can be offered by professional sports, and not allow our sport to be debased by what seem to be declining expectations for behavior of fans and athletes alike.
RAY SUAREZ: In all, nine players from the Pacers and Pistons were banned without pay for a combined 143 games. Pacers’ CEO Donny Walsh apologized to the team this afternoon. The NBA Players Union announced it will challenge the penalties, while prosecutors are reviewing tapes of the incident to decide if criminal charges will be filed against players and fans.
RAY SUAREZ: So what does Friday’s incident mean for the game? For that we’re joined by Greg Anthony, an NBA point guard for seven different teams over 12 years. He’s now an analyst for ESPN; and Jack McCallum, senior writer for Sports Illustrated. And Jack, looking across the different sports played in the United States, there have been brawls in the stands, brawls on the field of play over many years.
What’s different about this one? And Jack, looking across the different sports played in the United States, there have been brawls in the stands, brawls on the field of play over many years. What’s different about this one?
JACK McCALLUM: I think, Ray, it was the protracted nature of it. I mean, it went on for a dangerous amount of time. There were multiple players in the stands. And then I think the really strange and sickening spectacle of it was the idea that players were being used as kind of human garbage disposals, that people were running from sections over to dump anything they could on their head. That doesn’t excuse the initial actions of the players, but the whole thing had a really ugly aspect to it in terms of the number of people involved and the different little fracases that went on.
RAY SUAREZ: Greg Anthony, when you saw the videotape, did you immediately feel that this had sort of transcended just a regular fight at a basketball game?
GREG ANTHONY: There’s no doubt about it. You had to be shocked and somewhat overwhelmed by what occurred on Friday night, and I think there are various parties that are culpable and you cannot absolve anybody and I’m speaking of the players, coaches, security, fans, for the actions. That is… should be unacceptable in our society that we would have people acting as such.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, when you say that there’s culpability in a lot of different places, break it down for me a little. Who are some of those who are at blame who might have done something different or better and had a whole different outcome?
GREG ANTHONY: Well, firstly, there is no question that Ron Artest was wrong for leaving the court of play, heading into the stands. There’s no justification for that. But there’s also no doubt that he was provoked. And what I would say to people is it’s not as simple as having a beer tossed in your face from the standpoint that when you’re in a competitive arena, playing at the highest level, it also takes a tremendous amount of intensity and passion to play at that level and perform like that on a consistent basis. So, in essence, you’re already on edge, if you will, to a certain extent.
There was an altercation on the floor that had occurred and Ron tried to show some restraint at that time, backed up into a corner and then I think basically was at his boiling point. I think as human beings, we all have a point at which if pushed to, we could react irrationally. And we’re also speaking about someone who has had a history of acting irrationally and not being in control of his emotions, and in essence, that, I think, triggered it. Once that cup of beer or what have you was tossed in his face, he lost it.
Again, it doesn’t excuse his actions– they were deplorable– but I think by the same token, the provocation was definitely there and we need to look at the totality of the circumstance and come to grips with ways in which we’re going to be able to deal with this from a cultural standpoint, because this is bigger than just sport. I think this is an issue that our society has to look at with a lot more sincerity and seriousness in terms of how we deal with it in the future.
RAY SUAREZ: Jack McCallum, do you agree that, first, there’s a lot of blame to go around, but would you weight it perhaps differently from the way Greg Anthony just did?
JACK McCALLUM: Well, there’s a lot of blame and I’m sure Greg agrees that there’s almost not even time to cover it. But you know, there’s an argument that could be made that the real culprit, or at least someone as culpable as Ron Artest was Stephen Jackson, who was not provoked by a cup of beer being thrown on him and leaped into the stands in a kind of, you know, full assault on fans.
That, you could argue, is when the thing really escalated. Jermaine O’Neal never really went in the stands, although he was blocked from going in the stands. So I don’t blame the… the idea of looking back and saying, “gee, the security was bad, the referees let it get out of hand.” I mean, these are huge, well- conditioned athletes. If they want to get into the stands and people want to throw things at them, there’s very little that can be done, although that’s now a subject that’s going to be visited. So, I would say Stephen Jackson is probably as culpable as Ron Artest in this…
GREG ANTHONY: If I could respond to Mr. McCallum’s comments, and I say this as a former professional athlete, one thing you have to understand, professional athletes on a team are a family in every sense of the word, and to say that he wasn’t provoked, again I’m not justifying his actions, but he was provoked. If you watch the film carefully, what happened, when he ran in the stands, he didn’t run up to throw a punch. What happened is when Ron Artest grabbed the young man and then was grabbed from behind, someone threw another big cup of beer directly in Ron Artest’s face, and that’s when Stephen Jackson reacted by throwing a punch.
It doesn’t justify the fact that he threw one, but again, he was provoked as well, because remember, in that environment– and I go back to the Monica Seles incident, that’s when I think the culture of sports really changed– you don’t know what’s coming. And you saw, when Ron Artest got grabbed from behind, there was a fan punching him, there was another fan there. You know, at that point, you don’t know what’s going to happen and the first reaction would be for someone to defend themselves or a family member, and in essence, that’s what a team is — again, not justifying his actions.
The punishments will fit the crimes, if you will. However, you can’t necessarily say that he was not provoked because he is going to the defense of his brother, his teammate, and everybody learns that from day one, learning to play sports, that you’re a family, you’re a team and you’re in it together, win, lose or draw. So I would have to take difference with you on that point.
RAY SUAREZ: Jack McCallum, did Commissioner David Stern of the NBA get it right? Were these penalties commensurate with what had gone on, on the field?
JACK McCALLUM: I guess to my mind, Ron Artest’s penalty, I guess I was surprised by the severity of it. I had sort of just, you know, predicted out of the air thirty-five or forty. There’s no question that Ron Artest– in fact, David Stern almost conceded it– that his past history contributed to this. I don’t think another player in the same circumstance probably would have gotten the whole season.
And what we’re guaranteed to have now is another month-long public relations disaster for the NBA because the players’ association, which is their right, is going to fight this tooth and nail. The individual agents for Jermaine O’Neal, I know, have already come out strongly against the penalties. So I think David Stern got applauded for taking a strong stance, but don’t think by any means that this is accepted by the players themselves and by the players’ association.
RAY SUAREZ: Greg Anthony, what do you do about the fans in that case? I mean, it’s easy to pick out the players; they’ve got their names on their back. But what about those fans?
GREG ANTHONY: Well, and I think that’s getting at the very essence of this issue here. Again, the players acted irresponsibly. They will be dealt with accordingly, and obviously the union as well as attorneys will make appeals on their behalf. But there also, as I said earlier, there has to be some culpability on the part of the fans in terms of their behavior not being responsible. And I will make this point:
As a professional athlete, I have been subjected to racial slurs out on the court while I’m playing and I ask you, if you think about America, if someone were to call you by racial slurs to your face in the workplace, spit on you or what have you, that person would hopefully be fired. They definitely would be open to civil and criminal charges, yet for some reason, this type of subjectivity towards players is acceptable as commonplace and it shouldn’t surprise people at some point, someone who may be emotionally not being fully in control could, in essence, snap, and I think that’s what you had happen. And I think alcohol played a role in this. There’s no question in my mind that that is also the case.
And for me, at the end of the day, I thank God, again, that we didn’t have someone have a fatality or someone be critically injured in that entire melee because, you know, there was enough anger and venom and physical violence being exhibited to where we could have very well have had that occur. So, I think that we, in a sense, as a league and as a society, have been given a reprieve if you will to maybe try and make something good of this, and put into play some guidelines that will put a buffer and not allow this type of riotous activity to happen in the future.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Jack McCallum, one difference with the National Basketball Association is that — and they even market it this way– is that you’re right up close to the action. There isn’t that buffer, that distance, that might exist between you and a pro baseball player, you the fan and a pro football player. Do the fans have to be kept further away? Do we have to create a buffer where there isn’t one?
JACK McCALLUM: Well, the question of whether they could be kept further away is obviously one that the bean counters are going to have to answer because they were put there in the first place because of the revenue produced by seats close to the arena… close to the floor.
But there is no doubt that NBA arenas have become a potential sort of kindling for this kind of thing that exploded in Detroit. There’s this endless cacophony of sound. There’s this rooting for the home team at the public address announcer. There’s this sort of tacit encouragement to, as Greg said, issue racial epithets, and the selling of alcohol contributes to it.
And I’m not saying in all cases, but there is sometimes a real Roman coliseum mentality in that basketball arena, simply because of the indoor nature of it. I mean, I think the same thing would happen in football stadiums, except they’re outside and the fans drinking alcohol there can’t get on the field. So basketball is really going to have to deal with this because I think the potential for this kind of thing was there.
RAY SUAREZ: Jack McCallum, Greg Anthony, gentlemen thank you both.
GREG ANTHONY: Thank you.
JACK McCALLUM: Thank you.