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It's not about Ron Artest

Much has been written about the donnybrook in Detroit, most of it not worth reading. This blow by blow account from Skip Bayless is an exception. If Bayless' description is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it), a greater share of the blame rests on the fans - and by extension, on Pistons management - than is generally accepted.

For some time now, a "heckler culture" has been accepted by the NBA and at least some major league baseball teams. I think this is a mistake. Clearly, a line must be drawn, as UEFA is trying to do with the racist chanting in Europe, most recently at Real Madrid (more here and here).

Two examples illustrate the nature of the problem. In Atlanta a few years' back, some humorous cads behind the Mets' dugout were removed for asking questions about Mike Piazza's hairdresser. Harsh treatment, perhaps, but it sends the signal about the limits of what will be tolerated.

The chair-throwing incident in Oakland illustrates a failure to manage this problem. Media commentary heaped scorn on Rangers' reliever Frank Francisco. But the fact that the chair hit the wife of a heckler, one with season tickets beside the opposing team's bullpen, should give one pause. Unlike the cup that landed on Artest, it missed the target, but not by much. In my view, the culpability of the A's organization was inadequately reviewed in the aftermath. Listen to these quotes from USA Today:

"Tonight, it went over the line," Texas manager Buck Showalter said after the Rangers lost 7-6 in 10 innings. "It was a real break from the normal trash you hear from fans. We've had problems about every time we've come here." ....

"From what I understand, there was some calls made to security early during the game but I have no idea what started it out there," crew chief Joe Brinkman said.

In contrast to Atlanta, the calls to security in Oakland appear to have been ignored (the chair-throwing took place in the 9th inning).

Afterwards, I read of Oakland officials defending the fans involved, and commentators saying that fans can say whatever they want, since freedom of speech is protected by the constitution. Hogwash. The constitution protects our right to make political speech in public. But when you are in my classroom, at a restaurant, or in a theater, you give up those rights in exchange for goods that you value more highly than the opportunity to heckle. The "freedom of speech" defense of Oakland's heckler was absurd.

The Pacers' brawl is not the first instance of a fan being leveled by a player-thrown haymaker. In one memorable incident in 1999, a fan raced onto the field at Milwaukee County Stadium and jumped on Billy Spiers in right field. Spiers' Astros teammates were quick on the scene to defend him. I recall Mike Hampton landing a series of blows to the head of that bozo. Billy Spiers (a former Tiger in addition to being an Astro) was one of my favorite players. Put me in Hampton's shoes and I'd have done the same thing, though not so effectively. Thanks for that, Mike.

Now, how different is Hampton's defense of his teammate from Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson's defense of Ron Artest? While there are differences, they are mostly a matter of degree. The common thread between the two incidents is the out of control fan.

Many issues are highlighted by the fight in Detroit. The NBA paid service to the media with swift and draconian punishment for the players involved. But to me, fan control is a more serious and more difficult problem than player control. Each time fans rush the court or the playing field after a game, they illustrate the raw power inherent in a crowd that no level of security short of an armored division can manage. The trick for sports management is to short-circuit the potential for a crowd to turn into a mob. Civil behavior must be expected, and to some extent policed by those in charge of sports facilities. The importance of doing this job well (Atlanta) versus poorly (Oakland, Detroit) is now on full display.

Update: Tom Kirkendall's post describes an episode from an earlier era in which the Celtics and Rockets exchanged some vicious blows among themselves, and with a fan or two as well. No ejections or suspensions, although Sidney Wicks "was carted off to the dressing room" for stitches.