In hockey, brawling has become so essential to the sport that it spawned the joke of a thousand lounge acts: “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.”
In football, Tennessee Titan Albert Haynesworth stomped his cleat on the head of Cowboys center Andre Gurode last October, and the condemnation in the court of public opinion fell solely on Haynesworth’s sorry shoulders.
In baseball, when Chicago Cubs catcher Michael Barrett punched A.J. Pierzynski in the mouth this summer, the benches cleared, but it merited barely a mention in the media, more punch line than punch-out.
But in basketball, a fight gets decidedly different treatment. It’s debated and discussed like the 1992 Los Angeles riots–with an overcaffeinated mix of condemnation and concern. The NBA has become the spittoon for every racial anxiety aslosh in Sportsworld.
For those who have been living in Dick Cheney’s bunker, the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks engaged in a Saturday night scuffle at Madison Square Garden. The Nuggets were pounding the Knicks, up nineteen points with a minute left, and rubbing the Knicks’ noses in it. As Nuggets guard J.R. Smith went up for another highlight dunk, little-used Knick Mardy Collins yanked him down by the neck. This led to a scuffle between Smith and the five-foot-six Nate Robinson that spilled into the first row behind the basket. Just when things were starting to calm down, Nuggets superstar Carmelo Anthony sucker-punched Collins in the face and then back-pedaled across the floor quicker than Ginger Rogers. That was followed by several minutes of macho posturing as players preened for the cameras in bogus displays of bravado.
On Monday, NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Anthony for fifteen games–most observers expected five to ten. Robinson and Smith have been banished for ten games each.
The brawl in the Garden was ugly, but this is a case of punishment far exceeding the crime. The blame primarily lies with the coaches: Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for ordering the hard foul (Caught on camera, he appeared to say to Anthony, “It wouldn’t be a good idea for you to go to the basket”) and Nuggets coach George Karl, for running up the score. ESPN’s Stephen Smith contends that Karl wanted to humiliate Thomas–who is also the Knicks’ general manager–for firing his good friend former coach Larry Brown. On these two men the blame should fall, and in any other sport, that is exactly what would occur. But not when it involves the NBA.
Instead, we are deluged with articles about how, as a Yahoo Sports headline described it, this is really “a black eye” for the entire league. The Baltimore Sun‘s Childs Walker wrote that the brawl should spark a discussion “about the sociology of the NBA.”