Aren’t sports supposed to be fun?
As a lifelong sports fan, I was pleased last Wednesday when a Michigan prosecutor filed assault and battery charges against five professional basketball players and seven fans in connection with last month’s ugly “basketbrawl” incident in Detroit. At the same time, Major League Baseball players agreed to negotiate new and tougher drug testing standards with team owners.
Taken together, these wise decisions should help to restore some degree of integrity to professional sports. The violent “basketbrawl” erupted when several members of the Indiana Pacers charged into the stands to attack fans who had “disrespected” them. The ugly incident was triggered when the National Basketball Association’s reigning hothead, the Pacers’ Ron Artest, went after a fan who threw a drink at him following a shoving incident with Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons; a couple of Artest’s teammates followed him into the stands, where they threw haymakers at anyone within reach. Unfortunately, Artest punched the wrong guy.
During his seven-year NBA career, Artest has been suspended for a total of 15 games for his out-of-control antics and in 2002 he underwent anger management counseling after a domestic violence conviction. Early this season the superstar, who makes more than $6 million per year, asked for time off because he was “exhausted” from promoting his new rap album.
To his credit, NBA Commissioner David Stern refused to listen to self-serving excuses from the undisciplined player and his friends. Stern suspended Artest for the rest of the season for actions that “wildly exceeded” the league’s professional and self-control standards, and issued lesser suspensions to several other players on both teams. And on Wednesday, the Auburn Hills, Mich., district attorney filed assault and battery charges against Artest, four of his teammates and seven fans, one of whom was indicted on felony assault charges for hurling a folding chair into the crowd.
Shortly after the incident, an unrepentant Artest went on NBC’s “Today” show to downplay the incident and to promote his rap CD. He’s appealing the suspension that will cost him about $5 million – mere chump change in his privileged world. Other NBA players rushed to their buddy’s defense. “If the fans throw something, we’ve got to protect our honor,” said Sam Cassell of the Minnesota Timberwolves. “It’s not Artest’s fault,” added Alonzo Mourning of the New Jersey Nets. “What has this come to, when a fan feels he has the right to throw something at a player on the court?”
Actually, that’s a valid question because some fans apparently believe they can do or say anything if they pay their way into the arena. According to Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated, fans “nurtured at the teat of Jerry Springer begin to believe that they are, in fact, part of the game.” In one recent incident, a fan ridiculed an NBA player for having a mentally handicapped child. “Dude, nothing wrong with that – I paid to get in,” as McCallum wrote.
Other sports aren’t immune from violence either. Last fall, a Texas Rangers relief pitcher pleaded guilty to assault charges after he threw a chair at a heckler during a game at the Oakland Coliseum. By the way, have you taken a look at the “Raider Nation” – a cult that glorifies violence – lately? And on the college level, a University of Oklahoma fan required oral surgery after an angry University of Nebraska football player drove his helmet into the fan’s face. And so it goes in our Jerry Springer sports culture.
On the sordid issue of performance enhancing drugs, the greatest baseball player of the modern era, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, is suspected of using steroids in recent years. Bonds, who had a slim build a few years ago, now looks remarkably like the Incredible Hulk. Although he denies using steroids, his personal trainer has been accused of supplying steroids and human growth hormones to Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees and track star Marion Jones, among others. Earlier this month the owner of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) admitted publicly that he supplied banned drugs to Bonds’ trainer and athletes including Ms. Jones and several members of the Oakland Raiders.
The good news is that Major League Baseball is finally taking the steroids issue seriously. Last Tuesday, the Players Association agreed to negotiate new, tougher drug testing standards with Commissioner Bud Selig and team owners, which constitutes a huge step in the right direction. Earlier, Selig had suggested federal intervention if players rejected meaningful drug testing. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called baseball’s current testing program “a joke” and threatened to introduce legislation to strengthen testing standards when Congress reconvenes in January.
All of this is a sad commentary on professional sports. Sports Illustrated’s McCallum asked the right questions: “Aren’t sports supposed to be something that kids can enjoy? Aren’t they meant to entertain and even inspire us?” Not any more, Jack, and that’s a big problem for anyone who wants to take their children to a ball game.
FOR SHAME! It was cold in Carson City last weekend and state senators wanted to go home. So they administered a mild slap on the wrist to impeached State Controller Kathy Augustine and went home. It was a shameful performance by all concerned.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.