- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2004

I keep hearing that Ron Artest “crossed the line” or “went over the line” when he climbed into the stands Friday night and began making like Lennox Lewis. That’s a hoot. For the Ron Artests of the sports world — a growing number, it would seem — there are no lines, no boundaries of behavior, only ego and id.

They’re individual principalities, these athletes, governed — or not governed, as the case may be — only by themselves. They’re of our world, in other words, but not of our world. And never is this plainer than when Artest and his fellow vigilantes, Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, start clearing out a section of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

The whole culture of sports is to blame for what happened at the end of the Pacers-Pistons game. It’s a culture that worships talent, begins coddling it at an early age and creates these monsters, these Jockensteins, who have little regard for anyone but themselves.

If your child happens to play on a select team, you’ve probably witnessed this first hand. There’s one set of rules for the rank and file members of the squad (pertaining to attendance, behavior, what have you) and another set for the stars — or, perhaps, no rules at all. If a star blows off practice, gets tossed from a game, treats a teammate cruelly, the coach usually looks the other way because, well, “the kid is so darn good.” (And besides, if he cracks down on him at all, the kid might — horrors! — quit and go to another team.)

And so the cycle begins. By the time many of these athletes graduate from high school, their world-view has been permanently skewed. Why should Willie Williams, one of the top schoolboy linebackers last year, think any rules apply to him when colleges are falling all over themselves to recruit him — despite his felony conviction and 11 arrests?

The sad thing is, you could see Ron Artest’s meltdown coming from a mile away. That’s how it almost always is with these guys — a series of questionable acts (a fine here, a suspension there) followed by a Big Messy Explosion. Teams delude themselves into thinking the player will grow up, but he rarely does. In fact, he often gets worse. Remember Redskins problem child Michael Westbrook? He sucker-punched Stephen Davis during practice one day and, incredibly, wound up spending five more sourpussed seasons with the club. But, hey, he could run a 4.5 40, you know?

The Redskins’ new Westbrook is Sean Taylor (or, as the media like to call him, Sean “Get Outta My Face” Taylor). It’s always something with him — a problem with an agent, a problem with attending a rookie seminar, a DUI. Lately he has been developing a reputation for rattling opponents’ craniums. The coaches love his aggressiveness, as coaches will, but I’ve got him pegged as the DB Most Likely to Create the Next Darryl Stingley.

There’s a great episode of “The West Wing” in which President Bartlet is thirsty for revenge after the shooting down of an American jet by Mideast terrorists. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs tries to sell him on the idea of a “proportional response,” but Barlett wants to take stronger action — as a warning not to mess with the U.S.

“What’s the virtue of a proportional response?” he asks Admiral Fitzwallace. “Why is it good? They hit an airplane, so we hit a transmitter, right? That’s a proportional response.”

“It isn’t virtuous, Mr. President,” Fitzwallace replies. “It’s all there is, sir.”

But what about “a disproportional response?” Bartlet says. “Let the word ring forth from this time and this place, you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response, we come back with total disaster!”

The president eventually saw the light, the folly of doling out, as Fitzwallace put it, “a $5,000 punishment for a 50-buck crime.” But Ron Artest, being not of our world, gave in to his own worst self. When he got hit by a cup of beer tossed by a fan, he didn’t respond proportionally, didn’t point out the perpetrator to police and see that he was hauled off to the hoosegow. No, he launched an all-out assault — on the wrong fan, it turns out — that caused great damage to the NBA, his own career … heck, to professional athletes everywhere.

All because he had little awareness of lines and limits, little awareness of sport’s commandments, one of the most important of which is: Thou shalt not, under any circumstances, physically attack a spectator.

Not because restraint is virtuous, Ron, but because it’s all there is. Unless you want to court total disaster.

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