When those crazy members of the Indiana Pacers, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, David Harrison and Anthony Johnson jumped up into the stands and started knocking out those crazy fans, I just could not believe it. Sure, an elbow here and there is going to happen between players. And yes, an occasional shove in the lane is bound to occur. Okay, the bench clears every now and again for an Iâ€™m-gonna-get-all-up-in-your-face fracas that amounts to nothing but highlight clips. But all of that is between players.
The interaction between players and fans has always run off of a different set of rules. There is an invisible wall between the court and the stands.
Sure, there are always going to be hecklers in the crowd â€“ itâ€™s part of the game (not a pretty part, but a part nonetheless). In fact, I recall as a teenager heckling Jose Canseco from the left field seats. "My mom could play left field better than you." Iâ€™m sure that one got him a good one. And then when a fly ball came his way, there was, "you couldnâ€™t catch a cold, Canseco." Again, piercing his ego, my words reduced him to a mound of warbling flesh. And then there was the ever popular (when I couldnâ€™t think of anything else to say), "Canseco, you suck." I think it was on the fiftieth repeat of this mantra that I got his nonverbal that I was #1. Not bad on his part, it took seven innings of heckling and three strike-outs to get a rise out of him.
Looking back it is kind of embarrassing, but I figured it like this: He wasnâ€™t a person, he was a baseball player. He wasnâ€™t a human being with feelings, a family, and a life off the field; he was a player on the Oakland Aâ€™s. Truth is, besides his batting average and his ability hit homers, I knew nothing about him. He was a threat to my favorite team, the Minnesota Twins, and that was all the reason I needed to unload all kinds of verbal poison onto him. He was a punching bag, not a person.
On the contrary, he knew that I was all talk. I wasnâ€™t a person to him either, I was a fan. It was an unwritten rule that we were not people to each other. We were the roles we played, not the people we were. Although this kind of relationship was not healthy, with the protection of the invisible wall, it at least had the feel of being harmless.
The boys of the Indiana Pacers changed all of that last week. When they went up into the crowd, the relationship between fan and player went from harmless mutual dislike to criminal behavior. The invisible wall is gone.
I believe this outbreak of violence is the result of the confluence of several things. First, when a fan pays over one hundred dollars for a seat and twenty dollars for two dollars worth of food, he feels entitled to some say so about how to game is going to go. Second, when players "earn" millions of dollars per year to play basketball, it is easy for them to feel entitled to some r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Third, anyone who downs half a dozen beers in a public place is bound to degrade into an idiot. Fourth, professional sports (the NBA being the worst offender) has opted to tap into the hip-hop, gangsta rap, street tough, Snoop Doggy Dog image which promotes idol worship. Fifth, extremely gifted athletes get special treatment at a young age in order to "nurture their gift." Responsibility to help them achieve in their sport trumps responsibility in just about every other area of life. Sixth, culturally we have degraded such that being labeled unsportsmenlike is no big deal. Itâ€™s like being called grumpy â€“ although it is not desired, it is no deterrent either. Seventh, when parents of school age children feel compelled to beat up referees and other parents when the game does not go in favor of their child, the children are taught that violence is the path to success. Eighth, winning is exalted and winners are worshipped.
Although I could go on and on, arenâ€™t you glad Iâ€™m stopping there? What I want is an image of sports which reminds us of good, clean, fun. Where did that go? Competition is fine, a beautiful thing when itâ€™s value is understood. Winning is not the point â€“ itâ€™s just something that happens. It is even acceptable to want to win and celebrate victories, but when winning becomes the point, everyone loses.