- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

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It was the players, not the fans, who were guilty in the Detroit basketball brawl.

In the 1970s, the Detroit Pistons played their games in a drafty old building called Cobo Hall. The team was generally somewhere between mediocre and terrible, so good seats were always available.

One of the charms of Cobo Hall was that when it was half-empty, i.e., most of the time, an energetic heckler could get his catcalls to echo all over the place. The king of the Cobo hecklers was a gentleman known as Leon the Barber, whose leather-lunged abuse rained down on many an NBA player and coach.

Leon’s favorite target was one of the home team’s own players, the star forward Bob McAdoo. McAdoo had been shipped to the Pistons at a time when being traded to Detroit was the NBA’s version of being exiled to Siberia, and he was none too happy about the situation.

McAdoo expressed his displeasure by refusing to play, claiming that his foot hurt. Night after night, McAdoo sat on the bench with a permanent scowl on his face, while Leon the Barber’s voice would boom from one end of Cobo to the other: “McAdoo, McAdon’t; McAwill, McAwon’t!”

The Indiana Pacers who leapt into the crowd at the Pistons’ game last Friday night, in an attempt to silence their tormentors by beating them into submission, are lucky that the Pistons have gone up quite a bit in the world over the past couple of decades.

The franchise has moved to the suburbs, where it charges fans exorbitant prices for seats anywhere near the court. Thus on Friday night, Ron Artest found himself attempting to mug a computer programmer, rather than, as so easily could have been the case in the golden age of Bob McAdoo, an armed member of a street gang.

A disturbing aspect of Friday’s fracas that has yet to get much attention was the tone of the post-game coverage on ESPN. Amazingly, anchorman John Saunders and commentator Tim Legler all but justified the actions of Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, arguing that the players were acting in “self-defense” when they attacked fans at courtside and in the stands.

They made these arguments even as ESPN’s videotape of the event showed Artest trying to incite the crowd by lying on the scorer’s table in an intentionally provoking manner. (He might as well have jumped up on the table and made obscene gestures.) Artest then started a riot by leaping into the crowd after one fan threw a plastic cup at him.

Luckily, NBA commissioner David Stern ignored such absurd rationalizations when he tossed Artest from the league for the rest of the season, and hit Jackson and O’Neal with long suspensions.

It’s worth considering what it tells us that the immediate reaction of some supposedly responsible commentators to Friday’s events was to blame fan “hooliganism” ? as if the fans attacked by the players were in the wrong for attempting to defend themselves.

Of course no one is defending the fan who threw the plastic cup at Artest.. Nor is anyone defending the fans who showered the Pacer players with beer as they left the court in the wake of the fiasco. But the lion’s share of the blame has to go to the multimillionaire athletes who behave as if society’s rules don’t apply to them.

Ron Artest, for example, was supposed to be paid nearly $6 million dollars this year? yet one week into the season he asked for a month off to work on his music career. Apparently he’s never been told that showing up for work is a job requirement.

It’s too bad that, when they attacked the fans who pay their gargantuan salaries, Artest, Jackson and O’Neal didn’t receive the beatings they so richly deserved. They could all use the reality therapy.

Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at [email protected]

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