- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2004

NBA fans long have spewed vulgarities and hurled other things at players, but they crossed the line on Friday in Detroit. The ensuing melee, with players throwing haymakers at fans and fans throwing beer and a chair at players, was the most despicable show of “sportsmanship” most of us have witnessed in a pro setting. NBA Commissioner David Stern definitively raised the bar when he levied considerable fines and suspensions on Sunday. But as Stern said, his decisions dealt with but one aspect of the so-called “basket brawl” that occurred at a home game of the defending NBA champions.

The fight started after Indiana Pacer Ron Artest committed a hard foul against Detroit Piston Ben Wallace. No foul was called on the court, but Wallace reacted with a two-handed assault on Artest. The nasty altercation left Artest in a prone posture on the scorers’ table, where his antics were met with a cup of beer being tossed on him from the stands. From there, the violent lunacy overwhelmed.

The commissioner had no choice but to take a hard stand, and we can only imagine what the criminal consequences will be after prosecutors take their turn. There was plenty of criminal wrongdoing on the part of fans and players alike.

But there are two other aspects to the Friday night fight that remain unaddressed by the NBA. The first is security, which apparently was preoccupied with ensuring the safe departure of fans as the clock ticked down to within the final minute. Security must be tightened. The fans, players complain, sit too close for comfort. In fact, players are warned throughout the season against reacting to fan antagonists. While we urge against any effort by the NBA to stifle free speech, owners should deliberate on widening the shouting distance between players and fans. Hurling insults is par for the course in sports. But hurling chairs, cans and bottles is, at the least, attempted assault.

The other issue that the NBA should address is the beer factor. Some sports pundits are already crying out for cutting off the spigots at halftime. That doesn’t make must sense, since doing so would severely hamper TV marketing and concession revenues. Indeed, would Artest have reacted differently if the beverage tossed his way had been Diet Pepsi? Stern found the most fitting way to handle the violence perpetrating by his players. Now he has to take a tough stand against the fans. The overwhelming majority of fans never cross distinct criminal or social lines in sports venues. What happened in Detroit was a true aberration. But it did happen, and the NBA must reckon with the consequences. The message must be as clear to fans as it is to players: There is no place in the NBA for what happened Friday night in Detroit.

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