Pacers/Pistons brawl: now what?
A 97-82 Indiana Pacers win over defending NBA Champion Detroit Pistons was marred by a fight in which Indiana players charged into the stands to fight Pistons fans. Pacers and Pistons players scuffled after a stiff foul by Pacer forward Ron Artest on Piston center Ben Wallace, but it escalated out of control when a fan threw a drink at Artest in protest of the foul. This is not the first time something like this has happened. Vernon Maxwell got into a fight with a Portland Trailblazer fan who was taunting him while Maxwell was with the Houston Rockets.
Mark Stein argues that, ugly as this incident was, it will not be "a permanent black eye on the NBA". While I tend to agree that the fight will not permanently damage the NBA's status, popularity, attendance or revenues, I do think this will be something that will stick in people's minds for years to come. Players charging into the stands to fight with fans is a serious offense, and this will sour some people's attitudes toward professional basketball.
There is plenty of blame to go around here. First, this mess should not have started in the first place. The Indiana Pacers had the game well in hand, so there was no need for a hard foul on Wallace. In a close game, I can understand the strategy of making Wallace, a historically bad free throw shooter, "earn his points" at the line rather than have an easy lay-up. (This is the theory behind "hack-a-Shaq".) But the game was already decided, and the Pistons and Pacers were playing for "garbage points".
Nonetheless, Wallace overreacted to the foul with a two-handed shove to Artest's face. As former NBA player Tim Legler said, Artest reacted to Wallace the way he was supposed to react: he walked away and did not fight Wallace, instead allowing other players to pull Wallace away while Artest relaxed on the scorer's table. Artest exploded only after he was hit in the face with a beverage cup.
Some commentators are overreacting to the incident. CNNSI.com commentator Chris Mannix called for Artest to be thrown out of the league. That is too harsh. Does Artest deserve a hefty fine and suspension? Certainly. A 10-15 game suspension (perhaps part to be served now and part in the playoffs, where it really matters) is not out of the question for Artest. But simply having a "bad reputation" is not enough to get you thrown out of the league.
The fan who threw the beverage cup was completely out of line. This should earn him not only criminal prosecution on assault charges, but a permanent ban from NBA games. The fans who physically assaulted Pacer Fred Jones should also get a lifetime ban from all NBA games. Other fans that threw things at Pacers players should be banned for the rest this season and the next two after that, and the fan who threw a chair should also get a lifetime ban.
Because fans can get closer to NBA players than in other pro sports, the NBA is going to have to take a stand here and make it clear that there is a zero-tolerance policy for throwing things at or otherwise physically provoking players. Sanctions on the Detroit Pistons organization are also in order, because it is the home team's responsibility to keep their fans in line. Aside from the moral imperative to protect your employees from psychotic fans, NBA players are a huge investment and the NBA needs to protect that investment.
Even with physical provocations by fans, Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal had no business going after fans. While Artest's anger was understandable, he should have let security take care of it. Artest would have been completely justified had he decided to file a lawsuit against fans who were throwing beverages. And while the second fan Artest got into a fight with had absolutely no business on the court, O'Neal was completely out of line in punching him. O'Neal is 6'11" and 242 pounds, and could have done serious damage with that punch.
Jackson, O'Neal and Artest are all paid millions of dollars, and they can expect to be treated poorly by fans, They chose a profession where they are likely to be hated by people they perform for. While nothing excuses the fans' actions, part of the deal that goes along with multimillion dollar contracts and worldwide fame is an understanding that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard than people who are not professional athletes.
The NBA should take a look at their alcohol policies. While no one expects NBA games to be alcohol-free, having fans get drunk and lose their inhibitions makes for a powder keg. The league could, for example, limit the number of "adult beverages" and enforce the limitations with a ticket given to fans as they go in. Vendors could be trained to recognize signs of intoxication and be given the power to make judgment calls on whom to deny alcohol.
There will be serious consequences for this melee, as there should be. The most important question the league should be asking itself is this: "How do we make sure this doesn't happen again"?