November 24, 2004
A wake-up call for the NBABy Mark S. Malaszczyk
David Stern's decision to suspend Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest for the remainder of the season in response to his vicious assault on fans in the Friday night contest against the Pistons is a courageous and correct verdict. Commissioner Stern should be commended by all of us who care for the game of professional basketball and would like to expose our children to it in a manner that is a constructive part of their growth and development.
Stern's move should be a message to all professional leagues, major, minor or otherwise: barbarism will not be tolerated. This tragic event should also serve as an epiphany of sorts. Professional athletes should not enjoy any special treatment or dispensation for their transgressions. They are privately employed [like most of us], and they must comply with rules and regulations of their employer, the governing body of their league, and the American Criminal Justice System if necessary. Furthermore, this incident is yet another example of the transformation of the NBA game from arguably the most entertaining professional sport to a product that puts the lyrics of the 'Gangstuh Rap' world into action.
Nine players in total were suspended; the suspensions ranged from five games for Indiana's Anthony Johnson to the entire season without pay for Artest. The commissioners of other major leagues should rally behind Stern. The NBA Player's Association should work with the League Office on a more comprehensive policy regarding such egregious misconduct, not file an appeal against the suspensions. High—profile athletes in all sports should make a point of speaking against this type of behavior, and they should not be afraid of retribution for mentioning Artest by name in their criticisms. There is no room for political correctness on this type of issue.
This dynamic of athletes physically confronting inappropriate fans is becoming all too common. Major League Baseball has had to deal with the problem several times in recent years, and the National Hockey League has also been forced to address player contact with the fans in its recent history. But the NBA has earned a reputation [rightly or wrongly] as being the most relaxed when it comes to the conduct of its players, both on and off the court. This travesty represents an opportunity to establish strict new limits on players in an effort to save the integrity of the game.
Those of us who are gainfully employed in the real world are forced to comply with many policies and procedures passed down from our superiors. If we wish to rebel against them, we do so at the risk of serious retribution if not termination. We have been informed of proper attire, proper language, and maintaining a professional approach with clients and co—workers through orientation programs. Many have endured hours of training on issues such as sensitivity management, sexual harassment, and respect for cultural diversity in the workplace. As such, it is very frustrating to watch these professional athletes, earning far more money than us for far less vital services, behave with such utter disregard for civility.
As a devoted fan of professional basketball, I wish to return to the days where the game was the news; not someone's rap music tour, or their substance problem, or their run—in with the law at a local night club....the list of personal issues could go on and on. We are reaching a point where the sports section of the newspaper is becoming another thing to screen before letting our youth read it. The issue is greater than the riot in Auburn Hills Friday night. It is an indication that the Association should focus on making some adjustments within the culture of their sport. The NBA should consider a few of these ideas:
1. Return to the days where team uniforms were team uniforms and not metaphors of the 'gangstuh culture.' There is no serious evidence to prove that baggier attire enhances agility or performance. Many fans, including myself, wear the hats, tee shirts and jerseys of our favorite players. But is it really just a coincidence that many street gangs and self—proclaimed 'gangstuh rappers' incorporate certain NBA jerseys, hats, and other related apparel into their group culture?
2. Put restrictions on 'body art.' As a private league, the NBA can easily argue that the nature of the uniform makes the torso and upper extremities highly visible. Tattoos should be limited to a minimum or banned altogether. Many organizations have already established policies regarding this issue. Premier players should look like the professional athletes that they are, not the misanthrope that was featured on America's Most Wanted last night.
3. Regulate style of hair/facial hair. Players should be forced to look cosmetically appropriate on the court if they are going to wear the colors of a professional organization in a televised broadcast. Some of the hairdos on the court are ridiculous, impractical and might even be considered obstructions to fair play.
4. Do not permit athletes to perform in TV/movie roles or in the music industry during their playing career. Endorsements of NBA—related products or promoting the Association itself is fine, but it should be restricted to these activities until the athlete retires. While this may appear to be a violation of free market principles, let us face reality: Ron Artest's act of contrition on the Today Show with Matt Lauer turned into a promotional opportunity for his new CD. The NBA has to make a concerted effort to divorce itself from what realistic fans see as the 'rap connection.'
5. Modify the pre—game show and presentation of the athletes to be more appropriate. Remember, parents bring their children to these games; it is not an adult experience, and should not be treated as such. Halftime shows and special promotions should also be suitable for viewers of all ages. Select motivating but tasteful music and do not portray the upcoming contest as a battle or a war.
6. Put an official Association notice on the back of each ticket informing each fan that his/her misconduct in the stands will result in immediate expulsion from the arena and potential criminal prosecution. It should be specifically stated that attempting to harm any athlete on the court will be treated as a crime, and the franchise/athlete reserves the right to pursue civil damages as well. The fans are also to blame in this barbaric act, but the responsibility to do the right thing ultimately falls upon the shoulders of the Association Office and the athletes.
The fact that Stern has addressed the behavior of the fans is also commendable. Spectators at any competition, ranging from a Little League game to a World Championship contest should be held fully accountable for their actions. This event probably would not have happened without the depraved conduct of some fans; but Artest's track record of suspensions and fines is clear evidence that the NBA has to look beyond this incident and address the bigger issues.
As for the fans, a no—nonsense approach has to be adopted in arenas across the nation. Security has to be both more visible and proactive. Sales of alcohol have to be curbed further. Tailgating has to be policed in a more effective manner. Fans who enter the arena appearing inebriated should be pulled aside and breathalyzed before being permitted to enter.
The crowd must be held accountable for its conduct, but the burden of change has to be put on the Association. The National Basketball Association has a moral obligation to put a family—friendly product 'on the floor' every night if they wish to overcome the stigma of being a league chock full of thugs and reprobates. The reputation of this great sport is at stake.
As someone who loves the game and admires many of the athletes for their prowess and good works off the court, I believe Stern has sent a firm message to those players in need of serious introspection. There is much work left to be done, and it must be done swiftly. Vince Carter wearing his i—Pod during the pre—game shoot— around does not really bother me, but being afraid to bring my young children to a game does.
Dr. Mark S. Malaszczyk is a veteran Social Studies Teacher in the Babylon Union Free School District [Babylon, NY]. He is also a Part—Time Associate Professor of Social Science at Saint John's University [Jamaica, NY]. Dr. Malaszczyk has taught coursework on the Sociology of Sport at various times in his career.