Continuous incidents and now infamous flashbacks of foul sports conduct continue to bombard our televisions. Three national sports brawls, the Indiana Pacers vs. Detroit Pistons, the Clemson Tigers vs. South Carolina Gamecocks and the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns dominated our headline news and soiled even further the reputation of professional sports. These three consecutive eruptions cannot be merely coincidental and hold significance for current societal attitude. As NBA director Billy Hunter suggested, the hostility in the sports arena directly reflects political tension over Iraq and has become an embodiment of the battlefield itself.
It all began Nov. 19 at the home of the Detroit Pistons. Television networks dubbed it “Malice at the Palace.” The Indiana Pacers were winning 97-82 and in the final minute of the game, Detroit’s Ben Wallace went in for a lay-up and was fouled aggressively by Ron Artest from behind. Wallace whipped around, pushing Artest in the face. Benches of both teams emptied. Punches were thrown at center court. Ron Artest rested for a small time by lying on the scorer’s table, but then an alcoholic beverage flew at him amidst other debris. Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and another teammate plowed through the crowd like men of war seeking retribution for wrong-doing and justice against utter disrespect.
Clearly, this must be a volatile explosion of a society tense with the heat of war and the disgruntled response of demoralized players. Further supporting this correlation, a similar scenario erupted the next day between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Clemson Tigers. Less than six minutes remained in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers held a solid lead over the Gamecocks 29-7. Then Clemson’s defensive lineman Bobby Williamson pounded South Carolina’s quarterback Syvelle Newton into the ground after an incomplete pass. Chris White intervened on behalf of his quarterback and toughed it out man-to-man with Williamson, helmetless, in the middle of the field.
Another skirmish that preceded these melees proved itself a harbinger of violence to come. On Nov. 14, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns were not even capable of restraining their anger until the game began and bucked heads during pre-game drills.
A Steelers’ linebacker and Browns’ running back swapped spit and vulgar words before concluding with a full-out boxing match at midfield.
The players and fans foresaw the mounting rivalry, as Browns’ Gerard Warren had made a threat earlier in the week to aim for the head of Pittsburgh’s rookie quarterback during the game.
Imagine each of these scenarios: players from both teams flooding in from the sidelines, contrasting uniforms in coordination with conflicting bodies, helmets flying, bleachers and fences standing as the only defense between the fans and the players, and even this fortification breaking down. Bloodied lips. Bruised heads. Professional and collegiate-level sports have captured battlefield fervor in a froth of animalistic tendency and have reflected national frustration at its boiling point.
Matt Lauer asked Ron Artest on the Today Show what words of consolation he wanted to offer to the “12-year-old fans of the sport” after seeing television clips of the brawl. Artest responded somewhat convolutedly, saying “People go to war but we don’t have to go to war. You know, nobody-nobody wants to die, you know. But things happen and you move on.”
Katie Couric followed up this interview with a question to the president of the players union, Billy Hunter. She asked what was to be done in this nasty chapter of NBA history. Hunter’s insightful mind pointed out, “It’s an ugly chapter in general, but I think it’s reflective of-of, you know, basketball and sports are a microcosm of the system and I think there’s a lot of polarization in this country. We’re at war with Iraq and I think people, to a great extent, have been kind of immune to violence until all of a sudden something like this kind of shakes us back into reality.”
This correlation is revolutionary and will have a resounding effect on the sports industry. Professional and collegiate sports have fallen prey to intensified conditions not due to the big money stakes, increased ticket prices, pervasive media coverage, the need to cheat, use of steroids and the daily pressure to win. Also, the unlimited sale of alcoholic beverages to sports aficionados is merely a side note to the fact that, because of a distant war in Iraq, sports arenas have transformed into a “New Fallujah.”
Erin Cusack can be reached at Erin.firstname.lastname@example.org.