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In hockey, brawling has become so essential to the sport that it spawned the joke of a thousand lounge acts: "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out."
In football, Tennessee Titan Albert Haynesworth stomped his cleat on the head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode last October, and the condemnation in the court of public opinion fell solely on Haynesworth's sorry shoulders.
In baseball, when Chicago Cubs catcher Michael Barrett punched A.J. Pierzynski in the mouth this summer, the benches cleared, but it merited barely a mention in the media, more punch line than punch-out.
But in basketball, a fight gets decidedly different treatment. It's debated and discussed like the 1992 Los Angeles riots--with an overcaffeinated mix of condemnation and concern. The NBA has become the spittoon for every racial anxiety aslosh in Sportsworld.
For those who have been living in Dick Cheney's bunker, the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks engaged in a Saturday night scuffle at Madison Square Garden. The Nuggets were pounding the Knicks, up nineteen points with a minute left, and rubbing the Knicks' noses in it. As Nuggets guard J.R. Smith went up for another highlight dunk, little-used Knick Mardy Collins yanked him down by the neck. This led to a scuffle between Smith and the five-foot-six Nate Robinson that spilled into the first row behind the basket. Just when things were starting to calm down, Nuggets superstar Carmelo Anthony sucker-punched Collins in the face and then back-pedaled across the floor quicker than Ginger Rogers. That was followed by several minutes of macho posturing as players preened for the cameras in bogus displays of bravado.
On Monday, NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Anthony for fifteen games--most observers expected five to ten. Robinson and Smith have been banished for ten games each.
The brawl in the Garden was ugly, but this is a case of punishment far exceeding the crime. The blame primarily lies with the coaches: Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for ordering the hard foul (He was captured on camera mouthing to Anthony, "It wouldn't be a good idea for you to go to the basket") and Nuggets coach George Karl, for running up the score. ESPN's Stephen Smith contends that Karl wanted to humiliate Thomas--who is also the Knicks' general manager--for firing his good friend former coach Larry Brown. On these two men the blame should fall, and in any other sport, that is exactly what would occur. But not when it involves the NBA.
Instead, we are deluged with articles about how, as a Yahoo Sports headline described it, this is really "a black eye" for the entire league. The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker wrote that the brawl should spark a discussion "about the sociology of the NBA."
MSNBC's Michael Ventre opined that "the terms 'NBA' and 'thuggery' have become inextricably linked in the minds of basketball fans the world over." The piece also calls the incident another example of "The NBA Vs. Idiots."
Young black men scuffling, even scuffling in a way that would make foxy boxing seem threatening, seem to be a catalyst for an astounding amount of public hand-wringing. Fights in the NBA happen with far less frequency than one would think. The previous one that drew a suspension occurred last season, when Keyon Dooling and Ray Allen scuffled with no punches even connecting.
Stern is responsible for this holier-than-thou atmosphere. It was Stern who last year issued the infamous dress code, banning ostentatious gold chains and medallions and mandating business casual attire off the court. It was Stern who instigated the "tough on whining" rules this season--if a player so much as sneezes in a referee's direction, he gets tagged with a technical foul. It was Stern who last year hired Karl Rove's public relations operative Matthew Dowd to give the league "red-state appeal."
This approach, in my mind, is rooted in generational and racial anxiety, and efforts to assuage that anxiety among the folks who can afford the pricey tickets at Madison Square Garden. When Stern feeds the myth that players somehow are out of control and undercivilized, it gives confidence to the apostles of fear--like New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick, who wrote, "NBAers are showing up to speak at schools and in airports and for TV interviews looking like recruitment officers for the Bloods and Crips."
While Mushnick and his ilk are shocked, shocked by the brawl at the Garden, they conveniently ignore the stories that place these young men in a very different light. With next to no media coverage, Anthony last week gave $1.5 million to start the Carmelo Anthony Youth Development Center in his home town of Baltimore. The center will offer after-school education and recreation programs to about 200 school-age children.
But today's Baltimore Sun has a piece titled "Anthony's Star Takes a Hit." Another report on the Sports Illustrated website contends "Melo's Image Irreparably Damaged." The brawl, in the eyes of these observers, far outweighs this altogether more significant act. And in Stern's world of paternalistic damage control, it surely does.
Dave Zirin, Press Action 's 2005 and 2006 Sportswriter of the Year, has been called "an icon in the world of progressive sports ". Robert Lipsyte says he is "the best young sportswriter in the United States. "
Dave writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love