L. Neil Smith's
Number 299, November 28, 2004

"Just minding your own business"

Basketball: A Blame Game
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

Last Friday night, an NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons turned into a full-scale riot, the likes of which are usually reserved for revolutions and Laker championships. It began in the final minute of the fourth quarter, when Pacer Ron Artest committed a hard foul on Piston Ben Wallace, which led Wallace to push Artest. Both teams cleared the benches and a fan hit Artest with a beverage. Artest rushed—fists first—into the stands. Next thing you knew, the game was called early. Chaos erupted. Someone threw a chair.

Now folks are passing the blame like... well, like a basketball.

But who, pray tell, is at fault here? That's what I'd like to know.

On the one hand, you have the players—that's the obvious answer. You can blame Artest for fouling Wallace, or Wallace for pushing Artest. You can blame both rosters for clearing the benches. You can even blame Artest and teammate Stephen Jackson for taking the bait from that beverage-throwing fan. Whichever way you slice it, the point is that the players could conceivably be blamed. The NBA, for its part, agrees. Two days after the melee, it suspended nine players from both teams for a total of 140 games.

"We have to make the point that there are boundaries," says NBA Commissioner David Stern. "Players cannot lose control and move into the stands."

Of those suspended, Artest was hit hardest (pun intended). He'll be in exile for the rest of the season, and no doubt will use his time off to reflect on his actions and promote his rap album. "I didn't mean for the situation to turn out like it did," he says, upset with the length of the penalty. "It really hurt me to see the children crying on TV."

Whatever that means.

For what it's worth, Artest threw some sweet looking punches. But that aside, his behavior was unprofessional—very unprofessional. And I found it disgusting, etc., and so on. Clearly, the players deserve to be blamed here. They're supposed to be role models. Even if Artest threw some sweet looking punches. Which he did.

But what about the fans, though? Don't the fans deserve some blame, too? It was a fan, after all, who threw a beverage at Artest. If that hadn't happened, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

"If someone is throwing something at you with intent to harm you, you're going to defend yourself," Pacer David Harrison says of the beverage intended to harm Artest.

Former player Tim Legler expands on this point. "A fan made himself part of the altercation and that's when it got ugly," he says. "I'm not defending the players' actions," but: "When fans get involved, they get what they deserve."

He adds: "I feel sorry for the children who were at the game and had to witness this unfortunate situation."

Whatever that means.

Now, I can sympathize with this argument—not from a player's perspective, but a fan's. I remember attending a Yankee game a few years ago, with the best seats I've ever had. Jose Canseco played for the visiting team that day. I'm not sure what team it was. I think this happened in '98, so it was probably the Blue Jays. But whatever. The point is, every time Canseco was up, I shouted something at him. I've never been a fan of telling players they "suck" (they obviously don't, if they're playing), but I've never been a fan of Jose Canseco, either; if evil comprised a parallel universe, he would play for its all-star team. So I got creative. I shouted, "Jose Canseco has a hairy back!" And then, "Jose Canseco doesn't brake for kids!"

It was all in good fun, and I liked the attention I was getting. But then I got carried away. I shouted, "Jose Canseco, I hope you die," then stopped and realized, no, I didn't—I had better knock it off.

So it's easy for fans to get carried away at sports events (some would argue that's the point). And make no mistake: Those who commit arrestable offenses deserve to be arrested; they ruin it for everyone else. The problem with blaming "the fans," though, is that it's too general. How do you blame them last Friday, for instance, when Artest ran into the stands unsure which fan threw the beverage? He apparently hit the wrong guy, but at that point it no longer mattered—now dozens were involved.

Sports crowds are seas of faceless super-consumers—guys like Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson notwithstanding. To blame "the fans" is to blame something larger. It is to blame all of Detroit, fans and non-fans alike. It is to blame pro sports and its sponsors for "an insidious sales strategy" that, according to the New York Post's Phil Mushnick, "target[s] young males... begging them to be wise guys." And, indeed, to blame "the fans" is to blame society, like USA Today's Ian O'Connor, the Boy Who Cried Hyperbole, who says the incident "opened an unforgettably vile window on the human condition."

But that only brings us back to square one: Who, pray tell, is at fault?

You can't blame "the players" or "the fans," or Detroit, or pro sports. You can't blame society. Those are cop-out answers. They're meaningless and empty. And you can't blame individual players and fans, either, because it's tricky to sort them out and determine who provoked whom. None of these answers suffice because none of them actually answer the question. We might as well blame Desperate Housewives. Or hell, how about blaming politics? Indiana's a Red State. Michigan's a Blue State. Maybe that's why the riot occurred?

No, what we need is a single, solitary scapegoat—a person, not a group or a trend or an entity. We must blame last Friday's violence on someone who represents both the best and worst things about athletes, but someone who doesn't represent the Pistons or Pacers, their fans, or the NBA. We must blame this on someone with talent, but someone who wasted their talent, and someone who's therefore one half athlete, one half regular joe. And above all, we must blame this on someone who deserves blame for something, but not for this incident, so that we may shift the blame even while placing it on deserving shoulders. Someone who wasn't there last Friday. Someone who doesn't brake for kids, whatever that means.

I nominate Jose Canseco.

I don't know how, and I don't know why, but I truly believe this is all his fault.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column on politics and personal freedoms for "The Aquarian" and other publications. His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.


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