Why You Shouldn't Go To ESPN for Legal Advice
Like a moron I turned off the last few minutes of the Pacers-Pistons game and therefore missed seeing the brawl live. I did, however, catch much of the immediate post-riot commentary from the ESPN crew, and I was amazed to hear the normally sober and sensible John Saunders blaming the whole mess on Piston fans, who he said were the rudest and most abusive in the league. Be that as it may, and accepting the fact that there are a large number of Detroit fans who should be arrested and prosecuted and an even larger group who should have their season tickets revoked and/or be given lifetime bans from attending NBA games, the Pacer players who ran into the stands were completely in the wrong, there's no excuse for what they did, and whatever sanctions the NBA hands down will pale in comparison to the criminal and, more likely, civil actions that will be taken against them.
If you haven't seen the fight, it started when notorious hothead and would-be rapper Ron Artest fouled Ben Wallace from behind with only 45 seconds to go in a Pacer rout. A hard foul, and a pretty cheap one considering the circumstances, but hardly an outrage. Wallace turned around and gave Artest a two-handed shove to the face. Tempers flared, Wallace went after Artest some more, but the usually volatile Artest merely laid down on the scorer's table, hands folded behind his head, showing that he was unpeturbed by all the shouting and shoving going on around him. No doubt his insoucience enraged the Pistons and their fans, and no doubt that's exactly what Artest wanted to do. But, tough cookies, at that point all you can do is boo and yell and go home a loser for the night.
Then some fan threw a plastic glass full of Coke or something and hit Artest in the chest, and we were off and running. Artest jumped up, ran into the crowd, and started pummling this guy who was wearing a black shirt. One problem--the guy in the black shirt didn't throw the glass. And this is where I found what John Saunders said totally outrageous. He said something like, "If you're walking through Times Square, and someone throws a Coke at you and hits you, that's assault, and you have the right to defend yourself". OK...but it doesn't give you the right to run around Times Square whomping on people at random. You don't get a free pass to sucker punch an innocent bystander just because someone threw a pop at you. The guy in the black shirt? I bet his answering machine is full of messages from lawyers angling to file the papers in his lawsuit against Artest.
The guy ESPN said DID throw the glass grabbed Artest from behind and gave him a few uppercuts to the jaw, without much effect. A big, rotund dude punched Pacer guard Freddie Jones from behind, Pacer Stephen Jackson ran into the melee throwing punches, and Jermaine O'Neal got involved as well. Rasheed Wallace should get an Oscar nomination for playing the role of peacemaker, as he waded into the crowd trying to separate the players from the fans.
After Artest was dragged back to the court some complete moron ran onto the court and started waggling his shoulders like he was ready to rumble. Artest clipped him with a punch and then started duking it out with another idiot as a security guard grabbed the first dude--just as Jermaine O'Neal clocked the guy with a right across the jaw. By then most of the Pacer players started heading for the tunnel and their locker room, where they were doused with beer, Coke, popcorn, and anything else at hand. Someone chucked a chair into a mass of people including O'Neal, but it looked like it didn't connect with anyone directly. A ref got hit in the face with a plastic bottle full of beer, and I saw at least one other person who looked like he got hit in the face with a thrown object. Jamaal Tinsley tried to run back through the tunnel and hit the fans about with what looked like a broom or dustbin, but he was pushed back inside.
The NBA has suspended Artest, Jackson, O'Neal, and Ben Wallace indefinitely. This is a major black eye for the league, and especially for the teams involved. The three Pacer players deserve long suspensions, but will David Stern have the guts to sit them for 30 games, especially since O'Neal is one of the best players in the league and Artest, for all his past lunacy, is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year?
I don't think so. I hope that the league doesn't put its tail between its legs and excuse their actions, as the ESPN crew did, by blaming the fans for what happened. Look, Artest had every right to be livid after getting hit by that cup. He did NOT, repeat, DID NOT have the right to rush into the stands and start throwing punches. There was security there, there were cops there, they could have handled it. The only time players have the right to run into the crowd is when the ball heads out of bounds. They never, EVER, have the right to run into the stands and start throwing punches. And what happened last night illustrates why. The innocent get hurt as well as the guilty, and that's not acceptable. And do I even need to bring up the fact that when Artest, Jackson and O'Neal were making like Mike Tyson they were outnumbered like 5000-1? What if the guy Artest had taken a swing at was there with 15 buddies? Who had been drinking all night? And didn't like Artest much in the first place? How long would it have taken someone to land a punch that really hurt, or stomp on an arm or a knee and end his career. The three Pacers should be hit with huge suspensions just to nip that macho garbage in the bud forever.
Conversely, the fans who ran onto the court were fair game and deserved everything they got. I have no problem with Artest belting the guy who ran toward him, and if the second punch he took from O'Neal happened after security grabbed him, that's tough. If players can't go into the stands, spectators can't go onto the court. I see a fan on the field of an NFL game running toward the players, I think it's totally within the player's rights to hit the fan as hard as they want, helmet to head if need be. You don't know if they guy has a gun, or a knife, or is on drugs, and on the field players have the right to defend themselves.
The Detroit cops are gonna have a fun time sorting out who in the stands did what to whom and what charges should be filed. Likewise the Pistons will have to go through the video and their seating charts and strip those people of their tickets. I'm sure you'll see other security measures taken, especially moving fans away from the tunnels leading to the locker rooms. I'm sure a lot of people will criticize the security people at the game, and to be sure they didn't distinguish themselves, but those folks aren't dressed in riot gear. They aren't a SWAT team. They're there to make sure individual drunks don't get out of hand, step in if two people start pushing and shoving. They aren't equipped to handle a brawl involving 200 people. They probably should have done a better job securing the area around the tunnel to the Pacers' locker room, but the whole incident took only 3 minutes, and that's not a lot of time to coordinate things.
Without a doubt, the next time Indiana plays in Detroit the game should be played in an empty arena. They've done that after soccer riots in Europe, and this was a bad as any Roma-Lazio derby. The Pistons should also be forced to lock their fans out until they have time to identify and eliminate as many of the morons who took part in the melee as possible.
Will any of these steps be taken? Probably not. Ray Ratto at ESPN has a pretty good column
about this, and he's spot-on about one thing--someday, someone is going to be maimed, crippled, or killed in a brawl like this. Maybe that's what it'll take for the powers that be to get serious. Or, if David Stern acts now rather than later, maybe not.