League lays down law

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2004

Turns out Ron Artest, his Pacers posse and those few dozen fools in the stands who wanted a piece of them aren't the only people around the NBA who know how to throw a punch.

On Sunday, commissioner David Stern hit back. And this time he backed up his tough talk with tougher sanctions.

He suspended Artest and Indiana teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal for a total of 128 games and cost them a combined $12 million in salary. Detroit's Ben Wallace, who instigated the on-court portion of the brawl, got six games. Pacers guard Anthony Johnson got five and four others got off with a game each.

But Stern warned that he was just warming up.

''This,'' he said at one point during a news conference, ''is about something more profound.''

That something is about the boundary that separates the court from the stands. And give Stern credit for at least this much: He acknowledged the players who draw paychecks from his league have done more to blur that line than athletes from any other sport, and just as important, that the whole thing took place on his watch.

But be clear about this, too: Friday night's basketbrawl in Detroit was not just about one league. The gulf between the players and the paying customers is growing in every sport.

Too many fans believe too many athletes with too little devotion to their craft are making way too much money.

This mess could have fallen into anybody's lap. But it fell into Stern's because his game is where the gulf is the widest. So give the commissioner credit for this, too: He didn't take a vote or appoint a commission and wait for the findings. He went right after the troublemakers he could identify and vowed that nobody else who was involved was untouchable NBA fans, franchises and even the alcohol companies whose dollars swell every team's coffers.

''Frankly, we've got a lot of work to do in the next several days and coming weeks. It is our practice and has been our practice to deal with discipline itself in a timely fashion, which we have,'' Stern said. ''There may be other wrinkles.''

''Wrinkles'' was an interesting choice of words for someone about to embark on one of the more ambitious sports overhauls in a while. Stern began by making his point about behavior to his own employees about as quickly and as forcefully as good judgment and his powers as commissioner allowed. He was smart enough to know the responsibility for the brawl started there, but that it didn't end there, either.

Stern removed one big obstacle by getting Artest off the floor for the rest of the season, and the other troublemakers out of the way long enough to make at least a small dent in their thick skulls and thicker wallets. In the bargain, he might have cost the Pacers a chance at the Eastern Conference title for what, in NCAA terms, is called a ''lack of institutional control.'' And he hinted that the Pistons could still be held accountable if the league determines security at the Palace was found wanting.

Maybe those were the ''wrinkles'' Stern had in mind.

But he also talked, correctly, about the ''social contracts'' and ''covenants'' that fans make when they buy a ticket to watch a sporting event, and those won't be ironed out easily. Those were crumpled up long ago and thrown on the floors in stadiums and arenas, alongside the spilled beers, and won't be retrieved without some serious effort.

Forget about the fans who willingly and in the case of more than a few, drunkenly took part in the melee. Those who didn't get what they were looking for from Artest & Co., will hear from the Pistons soon enough. But their absence can't be the only change in the makeup of the crowds, not just in Detroit and not just in the NBA.

Those fans had more than a few reasons to taunt players in the league, beginning with Latrell Sprewell's clueless rant a few weeks ago that he couldn't feed his family on $10 million a year, and zeroing in on Artest, whose been a problem child since he came into the league and added new admirers when he went off recently about taking time off to promote his soon-to-be-released CD. Or maybe they just missed hockey.

But none of it justified throwing beers, food, clothing and at least one chair into the middle of what was already a volatile situation. It's happened at football games with fans dissatisfied by a call, at baseball games over slights real and perceived, and at soccer matches all over Europe and South America.

Stern's answer to that problem came down to asking the fans to police themselves. It doesn't sound like much of an answer, but there isn't another choice.

''If 20,000 fans decided to go on a rampage,'' he answered a question about security, ''we'd have a serious problem.''

He already does. And so does every other sports league and anybody else who thinks the only people who've lost their grip on the importance of these games are the ones who play them.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org.

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