Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Anti-heroes in the NBA

The footage of the Indiana Pacers goon squad wading into the stands in Detroit and throwing punches has received almost as much air time as Howard Dean’s primal scream.

Meanwhile, after the initial shock of watching multi-million dollar athletes behaving like a street gang subsided, an amazing number of former NBA players and other commentators have opined that a disproportionate amount of the blame had been placed on the players, and not enough on the unruly fans. After all, head Pacer Punk Ron Artest only started pounding bystanders after a fan tossed a cup full of drinking material right in his kisser.

Sure, the fans behaved like drunken barbarians, which is exactly the kind of fans the NBA has been cultivating, and therefore richly deserves. Long gone is the image of the NBA as a monument to team play and sportsmanship. Now the league markets “attitude”, trash talk and such selfish play that our Olympic team of young NBA millionaires got trashed in the early rounds by countries that learned the basketball from us. 40% of the NBA’s players have criminal records. The number of illegitimate children the league has fathered would fill an arena. Artest, supposedly on NBC’s “Today Show” to apologize for his actions showed his distain by using his airtime to plug his new CD. So the fans who regard such characters as heroes behave badly, do they? Gee. What a surprise.

Here is the point that the commentators miss: fans aren’t paid huge sums to be heroes and role models. The players are. Few athletes comprehend that, and fewer like it, but the public’s passion for professional sports is fueled by loyalty and affection and admiration directed at teams and players, and this confers on elite athletes the power to affect the behavior and the attitudes of others. That is why it is especially unacceptable for players to start clubbing spectators in the stands. Their conduct is magnified, and it has disproportionate influence on society and its culture. If we accept conduct like this from our heroes, we’ll see more of it on the streets, and in the schools. Were the Piston fans at fault? Absolutely! There’s no argument about that. But few people set out, consciously or unconsciously, to emulate drunken beer-throwing fans who look like Michael Moore. The fans can be properly punished by the law, by public embarrassment, and by having their tickets revoked. The drink-thrower who set Artest off has been banned from Pistons games for life. The conduct of the Pacer players, however, has more far-reaching effects, and calls for a stronger response.

Admittedly, the NBA has a difficult job ahead of it in civilizing a group of players who include too many thugs, boors, over-grown juveniles and misanthropes, but that’s the hand it dealt itself; it will find no sympathy here. Still, NBA Commissioner Stern’s suspensions were absolutely correct, and he ought to commit himself of more of the same until the NBA’s paid heroes start earning their salaries, not by sinking three-pointers from mid-court, but by giving fans someone to admire.

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