- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

There’s an old joke about a guy who went to a fight and saw a hockey game break out. Things are not that bad at the NBA yet, though you might think so from coverage of the recent “basketbrawl” at a Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers game.

Having come just in time to give Americans something besides politics to discuss over Thanksgiving dinner, the jaw-dropping footage of the Nov. 19 fracas between players and fans at in Detroit’s Palace of Auburn Hills has aired over and over again.

As a black American who takes pride in the way historical black sports heroes like Jackie Robinson or Michael Jordan helped ease social barriers and racial tensions, I feel not only outraged but downright wounded by the sight of black players who call themselves “professionals” losing their cool in a fracas with a mostly-white crowd of overweight, out-of-shape sports fans, even when the fans’ seats that cost more than I can afford.

Sure, some of those fans clearly deserved a good whupping when their boorish heckling turned violent. But even when responding to thrown objects that included a chair, a large full drinking cup, and showers of beer and popcorn, there’s no way a player will come out ahead in the eyes of most onlookers.

Imagine, for example, the backlash against Larry Bird back in his playing days if he had decided to put the smackdown on black filmmaker Spike Lee’s relentless heckling from courtside. Bird could have squashed the pint-sized filmmaker like a bug, but his good-guy image remains intact because he didn’t.

So, my kudos go out to NBA Commissioner David Stern for imposing tough penalties on Indiana forward Ron Artest and other players involved in the brawl. Banishments from future games would be appropriate minimum punishment for the involved fans, too. The county prosecutor said he would seek felony charges against the chair thrower. Good. Obnoxious shouting is bad enough. Throwing furniture is felonious.

Next, in my view, should be ejection of excessively obnoxious fans, though in some towns that could clear the arena.

And I am not sure what punishment is appropriate other than shame and ridicule for commentators who care to shed more heat than light on the mess in Michigan. Their names are too numerous to list here, but you know them when you read them or hear them.

One in particular is worthy of note. See if you can guess who is talking from the following quotes:

• “This is the hip-hop culture on parade. This is gang behavior on parade minus the guns. That’s the culture that the NBA has become. … ”

• “You look at NBA players and the uniforms, you don’t have to go back very far. The uniforms have changed totally. They’re now in gang colors. They are in gang styles.

• “Just rename the city of Detroit to ‘New Fallujah, Mich.,’ and then what happens at the Palace of Auburn Hills will be understood by everybody who goes there.”

• “By the way, has anybody noticed all these outbreaks, all this violence, all this stuff happens in blue cities, ladies and gentlemen? I mean, you don’t see this happening in Charlotte. You don’t see this sort of stuff happening. But you do see it happening out of Miami; you do see it happening in the blue cities out there. So, you know, call L.A. ‘New Mosul, Calif.’ You could call New York ‘Baghdad, New York,’ and this helps people put this in perspective.”

Yes, those hyperventilated gems, among others, were uttered by Rush Limbaugh, famous conservative radio talk host and recovering drug addict.

Praising his own “courage” for telling it like it is, Mr. Limbaugh noted that his take surely would be “tagged as racist.” Well, not by me. Overblown? Unsupported by facts? Pandering to rap music haters? Oh, yes. But, not racist. After all, a lot of black folks would agree with much of what he says, not because we’re self-hating but because we care.

But, Rush’s slap at blue state America soared at warp speed to some other zone of reality. One only had to look to the very day after the Detroit disaster to see the Clemson vs. South Carolina college football game erupt into an ugly 10-minute, fourth-quarter brawl that looked like a confrontation between two helmeted street gangs.

To their credit, officials at both schools decided to punish their players by not accepting any bowl bids this year. Good. That’s the collegiate equivalent of going nuclear, as sports punishments go, but it sends an important signal to athletes and others about the value of discipline, keeping your cool and keeping your ego in check.

If only our pro athletics could learn the same lesson. Then, who knows? It might even spread to commentators.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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