Tuesday, November 23, 2004

My two cents on the Pistons vs Pacers brawl

- Timeline of Pacers-Pistons brawl (ESPN)
- The Sports Guy - Tale of the Tape (ESPN)

I'll try to keep this short - try, I said - because it seems everyone has already had their say on this incident and I won't be saying much that hasn't be said already.

Click here to continueThe suspensions (rest of the season for Artest, 25 for O'Neal, 30 for Jackson) may have been harsh, but they were necessary if only to send a clear, unmistakable message. There's simply no excuse for going into the stands, end of story. I agree with Bill Simmons' take (see above linked piece) that Jackson's needs to be longer, and O'Neal's shorter.

And if the league had any spine, they will hold the next Pacers vs Pistons in an empty arena as Darren Rovell and Marc Stein suggest. And I wish they'd stop serving alcohol at sporting events - people who want to drink can do it pre-game - but I suppose overpriced macrobrews simply make too much money for the teams. I suppose cutting off beer sales at halftime is a reasonable compromise.

But it's more than just taking preventative and punitive measures. There is the sports spectator culture that led to this incident, and in retrospect, it's not all that surprising. I was listening to NPR this morning and John Feinstein had an interesting take on this.

He talked about how fans are allowed, nay, encouraged to heap abuse on the visiting team. The visiting players are introduced to a round of boos, before the lights are lowered and the home team is introduced rock star style. Feinstein thinks we need to go back to a time when visiting teams, while still not warmly welcomed, were treated with more respect.

He's right, I think. But it's more than that. Today's sports arenas have a cult-like feel. In a sense, sports fandom is a cult. It is an irrational, childish obsession with the sporting conquest of grown men. It's silly, but it is socially acceptable nonetheless.

I thought about what Feinstein said about the lowered house lights, and I thought - that's exactly what cults do. They pack a hall with likeminded people, create an atmospheric effect that makes it easier to preach their vision and villify the opponents. The Nazis did it in their rallies to create a cult of personality around Hitler. And today, spiritual healers do it - the packed halls, dimmed lights, music and all - to get poor people to give up money for fake miracles.

It's a disturbing comparison, but that's exactly what happens. The methods used by arenas to "pump up" the fans are essentially creating a cult, a mob to rally their team. And in a mob environment, irrational, even violent acts, are near inevitability. It becomes okay to taunt opponents. It becomes okay to say things you would never otherwise say in front of your kids. It becomes okay to throw beer onto players and rush the court. The mob/cult mentality + alcohol is nothing but trouble.

Now, I don't expect the culture to change overnight. But I hope, in light of this incident, fans and teams at least look at what they get into every game.

Okay, that wasn't short at all. But that's my 2 cents and that's all I will say about it in this forum.

Should mention The Sports Guy's second entry on the Brawl of the Millenium. It's a throwaway paragraph, but it deserves repeating:

Look, I'm not comfortable with what happened, but I'm a realist. The NBA has been straddling this line for years: crazy players, boozed-up crowds, everyone on top of one another. Throw in a sense of entitlement for some fans -- they take escalating ticket prices and mind-boggling salaries as a free pass to belittle players -- and this was inevitable. If the league truly wants to prevent riots, why does it sell beer after halftime? Why let drunken troublemakers sneak down into premium seats? Why aren't policemen protecting the visitors bench? If they don't change the rules after this, forget $5 lottery tickets; you're better off buying $125 tickets to an NBA game, getting bombed and baiting opposing players into a lawsuit

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