Guest Column: Here come the lawyers

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Violence in the NBA

By Burton S. Katz/Retired L.A. Superior Court Judge

He-rrrre we go again. Just narrowly escaping teams of lawyers poised to challenge the electoral process in the recent presidential election, we are now faced with a pending onslaught of lawyers representing the disparate claims of the NBA players, their agents, union player representatives, team owners, the NBA, referees, the basketball arena security and the lawyers representing various members of the public who will charge or be charged with criminal and civil assault; and the prosecutors who will decide what criminal charges, if any, will be filed. All in all, it is a good day for lawyers.

Of course, I am referring to last Friday’s mayhem that occurred at the Palace Arena, just outside of Detroit, Michigan between the world-champion Detroit Pistons, their fans and their arch rivals, the Indiana Pacers. It started when Ron Artest, the Pacer’s multimillionaire bad-boy and last year’s NBA defensive player of the year, deliberately and unnecessarily fouled Piston great, Ben Wallace, with less than a minute in the game; this, when the Pacers were comfortably ahead and the game in the proverbial “refrigerator.” The 6-foot, 9-inch, 240 pound Wallace, another multimillionaire star and NBA defensive player of, year in the 2002-03 season, retaliated by shoving the 6-foot, 7-inch, 245-pound Artest in the throat with both hands; unbelievably, Artest did nothing, retreating to the scorer’s table at the sidelines as members of the Pistons and Pacers poured onto the floor.

Meanwhile, an irate Piston fan allegedly threw a plastic container of beer and ice from the stands, hitting Artest in the face. Artest lost it, exploded into the stands and began pummeling a fan. It is reported that Artest pummeled the wrong fan (think attorneys and lawsuits). Pacers Stephen Jackson followed Artest into the stands where he joined Artest in the riot fest (think attorneys and lawsuits). When Artest and Jackson returned to the floor, some irate fans came onto the floor challenging Artest and Jackson to a fight. They obliged, hitting them in the face in what seemed like knockout punches (more attorneys and lawsuits). Pacers Jermaine O’Neal, another superstar, joined the melee as did other players (more lawsuits).

NBA Commissioner David Stern, a lawyer, to his credit acted promptly by suspending Ron Artest for the remainder of the season without pay ($5.3 million), Pacers teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal for 30 ($1.9 million) and 25 days ($4 million), respectively, without pay. Thus the Pacers, here to fore one of the top six teams in the NBA, have been emasculated and no longer are a title contender. And that, my friends, represents a huge economic loss. Thus we will be hearing appeals from the Pacers’ lawyers, the players’ lawyers and the union representatives. Meanwhile, the Pistons’ Ben Wallace was suspended without pay for six games ($500,000), as were other players for one game. To Wallace’s credit, he was accepting of the fact that “the league is going to do whatever needs to be done, and I don’t have no (sic) problem with that.”

Violence in sports is not a new phenomenon. But today it seems qualitatively different. Maybe it is because with today’s high-paid athletes, the covenant of reciprocity is seriously frayed. Fan adulation and player loyalty to its fan base is nonexistent or grossly out of balance. There is a disconnect between high-paid athletes and their fans who won’t earn in a lifetime what the athletes make in one year, if not several months. But the athletes must not only endure the intense competitiveness amongst peers, but also now have an added element of fan disgruntlement. Fans believe they have certain inalienable rights. These do not, however, confer the right to outrageous behavior.

Fans who force a quarrel with athletes, with a design to provoke a violent response or physical confrontation, should not be allowed to claim self-defense when they subsequently allege that it was necessary to use force to repel the athlete’s aggression. Fans who throw objects at athletes should be charged with criminal offenses and they should be prosecuted.

As basketball great Charles Barclay said, when asked if the security could have done anything to prevent the melee, “There were 20,000 fans.” People could have been killed and trampled as it escalated.

Finally, Stern is right. Athletes cannot go into the stands, as did Artest, Jackson and Dodger Milton Bradley. No matter how egregious the taunts, nor vulgar the behavior of the fans, a player cannot cross the line that divides the players from the fans. They earn enough to stand above the boorish behavior of the fans, to exercise restraint and seek recourse, if any is due, ahem, through their teams of high-priced lawyers.

Editor’s Note: The last sentence in last week’s column, “The Scott Peterson Verdict” was erroneously added.