Okay, since I’m a basketball fan, I gotta weigh in on this. I’m sure by now everyone has seen the footage of what happened after the Pistons/Pacers game on Friday night, as Pacers players went up into the stands after fans who were pelting them with beers and bottles and chairs. The NBA has just announced the punishments for the players involved: Ron Artest suspended for the entire year, Stephen Jackson for 30 games, Jermaine O’Neal for 25 games, Ben Wallace for 6 games, and Anthony Johnson for 5 games. Elden Campbell, Derrick Coleman, Chauncey Billups and Reggie Miller have been suspended for one game each. I think the NBA is making a mistake here, and I’m afraid that these suspensions will only make such incidents more likely in the future.
The NBA is obviously trying to send a very strong message to the players that no matter what happens, you never, ever, go into the stands and attack the fans. And that’s certainly understandable. This is a black eye on the entire league and they don’t want to appear to be unconcerned about its seriousness. But I think they’re making a mistake on two levels. First, it’s just not realistic. I honestly do not blame Artest at all for going after the fan who threw a beer on him. If someone came to your office an threw a beer on you, you’d probably react violently too, and most people would say you are justified in doing so. The blame lies not with the person who reacts, but with the person who committed the initial assault, in this case the fan. Artest was not doing anything to provoke the assault. In fact, he was lying down and not a threat to anyone at all. The Oakland County Prosecutor’s office is determining who will be charged with what, and I certainly hope that any and all fans who can be identified as throwing anything at the players will be prosecuted for assault, disorderly conduct, and any other charge they can legitimately make stick.
Second, I think such severe penalties may actually encourage more of this sort of thing. Why? Because think about what happened here. The Pacers are probably the Pistons’ biggest rivals for the Eastern Conference championship and a berth in the NBA finals. Whether they intended to do so or not, those Detroit fans who threw beer on the Indiana players and provoked their responses managed to pretty much destroy the Pacers’ season. The Pacers lost two all-star players in O’Neal and Artest, one for the entire season and one for almost half of it, and lost another starting player for nearly half the season. Does this not encourage fans to do more of this in the future, especially when rival teams come into hostile arenas? The only hope of stopping that is for the police to come down very, very hard on the fans they can identify. No fan is going to spend 6 months in jail to help their team. But if a few fans end up getting nothing but probation or a small fine, there will almost certainly be more of this.
Having said that, I think there also needs to be criminal penalties filed at least against Artest and O’Neal because they each assaulted fans who had not assaulted them first in the middle of the melee. While I don’t blame them for going after someone who throws a beer, there was one fan who came out on the court, having not done anything wrong at all, and Artest punched him and knocked him down, unprovoked, in the heat of the situation. To make things even worse, Jermaine O’Neal ran over from 15 feet away and hit the same guy on a dead run when he was trying to get up. For that, they deserve to be charged with assault as well.
But I still maintain that the real blame for this has to go to those fans who crossed the line. And the fact is that if you decide to throw a beer on a 6’7″, 245# guy that you know has a bad temper, you fully deserve to have your ass beaten, if for no other reason than for being an unbelievable moron.