|Thursday, January 30
Crackdown on court crimes comes late
By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com
So who knew NBA players cared about the regular season?
That could be the feel-good message from the latest suspensions, to Indiana's Ron Artest for a month's worth of Dennis Rodman activity in one game, and to Utah coach Jerry Sloan for bumping a referee.
It's all in the heat of the moment -- boys will be boys -- and the players just care so much about winning. There's that, but the real message should be, "What took so long? And why were these suspensions so short?" To say nothing of the ridiculously mild penalty Rasheed Wallace got for the menacing and assault of a referee ... an hour after he had time to calm down.
What, you don't think a guy on the assembly line is under stress? Or a kindergarten teacher? An airport check-in clerk on a snowy or rainy day? A cab driver? A waitress? A telemarketer? OK, forget that last one. They should be strangled. Which is why they do their work by telephone.
So you're having a bad day and everything is just mounting up and there's demand to get everything done on time and this guy is yelling and the kid's at home waiting and ...
No, you don't bump a police officer. Or throw the guy in the next cubicle into the water fountain. Or threaten to knock out your supervisor. Yet, these have been, in effect, the actions of late of Wallace, Artest and Sloan. However, they are hardly exceptions. I saw Dennis Rodman head-butt a referee, and then Bulls' management was furious when he got a three-game suspension, which only gave him enough time to shop for a new wedding dress.
It's often mentioned that if a person would take any of these actions outside the sports arena, they'd lose their job or be jailed. So why is sports different?
Physical contact in regular activity is permitted, for one thing. Try that in the office and you have a harassment suit. It's part of the games -- checking in hockey, taking that hard foul in basketball or sliding spikes up in baseball.
But these also are businesses. It's entertainment, sure, but a certain civility is expected. For instance, it's frowned upon to throw objects at the participants. The players' response would be that their profession is unusual, that where else are viewers permitted, almost encouraged at times, to heckle them while they are doing their jobs and condemn them loudly.
It can be unsettling, I'll admit, to be typing a story and have 20,000 people screaming, "Verb, verb you idiot, verb. Boooooooooooo!"
We ask our athletes to perform at a high emotional level in front of thousands of immediate critics. So is it fair for them to then employ reason and caution and actually think about consequences before they act?
For many years, violent acts were accepted in sport. Baseball brawls actually involved punches being thrown instead of angry glares. Football players, of course, are among the stupidest people on earth, so they punch one another while wearing veritable suits of armor. (Good idea). The least protected are basketball players, especially years ago when they really wore shorts. I remember John Starks taking Scottie Pippen out of the air and spinning him around like a helicopter blade. That was a shooting foul. Or Rodman running Pippen into the stands so hard he came out with a huge gash. (Foul! No shots.) There was the time in the playoffs when Robert Parish punched out Bill Laimbeer. Parish eventually was suspended for one game, but there was no foul called on the play. To watch Paul Silas or Maurice Lucas, at times, was like watching Fred "The Hammer" Williamson in football clothes-lining guys, though my personal favorite was when Willis Reed took out Rudy LaRusso and then took on the entire Lakers' team. I don't remember any punishment.
Sure, it's not like that anymore, what with flagrant fouls and accumulated points and meaningful suspensions, like Artest's and Sloan's. But the NBA was too lenient with Artest. Artest has problems. If he took drugs, he'd get three chances and be thrown out of the league. But like much of society, if it can't be tested for, there must not be anything wrong. Artest apparently has mental problems. Both NBA teams he's been with have suggested medication. He's like an addict, equally out of control and unable to differentiate right from wrong. But as society begins to accept and understand mental illness, the NBA looks the other way as our country did a century ago.
There also has been much debate over the years about whether sports figures are role models. They don't sign up for the job, and many, like Charles Barkley, eschew it. They rightly say your family should be your role model and your parents should guide you. Except when they want you to buy sneakers and beverages and Be Like Mike.
Yes, our athletes are role models, just as our teachers are, our sanitation workers, our waiters and grocery clerks. Citizens have a responsibility because someone is always watching. It's not acceptable to attack someone because you are frustrated or working as hard and fast as you can. It's anti-social behavior, even when it happens on the field of sports battle. No, this isn't a war. That may be coming. This is entertainment. This is sport. These are games.
It's inappropriate to attack an official placed on the field or court to make sure the game is played fairly. It's wrong to assault a fellow competitor. Making lewd gestures and remarks is unacceptable. It's unacceptable in the classroom and the workplace, and it should be on the basketball court.
Part of the job as an athlete is to think clearly and control your temper. It should make you a better performer. But even if it doesn't, it's your job. And people are watching. Kids, particularly. Don't do as I do, do as I say? It doesn't work that way anymore.
Is it unfair to the team and its fans to lose a vital player like Artest for a long period of time? Yes, but players must understand their responsibilities -- to their teammates, their organization and the community. It starts with performance but includes civil behavior. The NBA should be ashamed of itself the way they allowed Rodman to degrade the game with lewd behavior for years without taking any significant action. Perhaps that conscience spurred some of the recent actions. But it hasn't often gone far enough. Why can't athletes be asked to be as responsible as you'd want your neighbors to be, as responsible as you teach your kids to be?
Attack a referee and you're gone for the rest of the season. The NBA owes it to its officials as well as itself. Assault another player and we'll see you in a month, maybe two. Throw a punch and you're gone for 30 games. There's only one way to stop this escalating cycle of NBA violence, and only NBA commissioner David Stern can do it. If it continues, the blame should fall with him.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.