Special Report

Felon Ball

Sooner or later, the criminal element in pro basketball and football will drive fans away -- won't it?

By 3.30.07

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Some All Star games are instantly forgettable, while others live on in memory. Where the NBA is concerned, its recent All Star Weekend in Las Vegas is destined to live on in the justice system. And those caught up in the legal web are not even all NBA players or fans.

Las Vegas police said earlier this week that they had recommended charges of felony coercion and misdemeanor counts of battery and threat to life against the NFL's Adam "Pacman" Jones, who in his brief time in the league has become a one-man rap sheet. Jones just naturally showed up at the NBA's All Star Weekend, where he could be in his element. He promptly got into more trouble in Vegas, this time involving a shooting at a nightclub. He has been in frequent trouble with the law since entering the NFL in 2005.

Jones had plenty of competition at All Star Weekend, in which police arrested 362 people, three people were left in critical condition from shootings, and reports circulated of brawls between hooligans and police. As columnist Jason Whitlock summarized, "An event planned to showcase what is right about professional basketball has been turned into a 72-hour display of why commissioner David Stern can't sleep at night and spends his days thinking of rules to mask what the NBA has come to represent."

Credit to Whitlock for naming just what that is: "The NBA," he writes, "is aligned too closely with thugs."

Indeed. And for how much longer can such an obvious truth be obscured by the broadcast networks and merchandisers in bed with the league? The behavior of the goons at All Star Weekend was bad enough, but for years, the NBA has tolerated, if not endorsed, the burgeoning criminal culture within the league.

While All-Star Weekend reminded many of the incident in 2004 involving Ron Artest (who was recently arrested again for domestic violence), the presence of Jones was a useful reminder that the problems are not confined to basketball. Both the NFL and college football have plenty of problems of their own. To take an example at random, I'm reminded of last fall's University of Miami - Florida International game, when an ugly brawl broke out involving what seemed to be every player on both sides. It was an astonishing scene, with players removing their helmets and using them as weapons, and it resembled imagery from an urban riot. Adding to the depravity was the commentary of Lamar Thomas, a Miami alum:

"Now, that's what I'm talking about. You come into our house, you should get your behind kicked. You don't come into the OB [Orange Bowl] playing that stuff. You're across the ocean over there. You're across the city. You can't come over to our place talking noise like that. You'll get your butt beat. I was about to go down the elevator to get in that thing..."

Thomas's comments provoked strong criticism, and he was duly fired. If what he said had passed unnoticed, he would still have his job. The suits in charge of sports leagues and sports broadcasting know very well when they need to cut someone off at the knees to placate a momentarily aroused public. Their skill at doing so is impressive, since it is not always easy to predict what the public will find outrageous.

The NFL is more than giving the NBA a run for its money in the hoodlum department. Reading newspaper stories of another arrest at another nightclub, it becomes difficult to tell the players and the infractions apart without a lineup. Speaking of lineups, the Cincinnati Bengals tallied seven players in legal trouble during the 2006 season, for charges ranging from spousal abuse to drug, gun and burglary charges. Go Cats!

Then there is the Chicago Bears' Tank Johnson, who has been arrested, variously, on gun charges and resisting arrest, on one such occasion reportedly telling a cop, "You ain't the only one with a Glock. If it wasn't for your gun and your badge, I'd kick your ass." Late last year, Johnson's bodyguard, a man named Michael Posey, was gunned down at a bar by a suspect described as a "reputed gang member." Johnson was placed under home confinement by a judge, but hey, the Bears made the Super Bowl, and he was cleared to play. Meanwhile, players like Ricky Williams, a flake with a self-confessed anxiety disorder who likes smoking pot but has not lifted a finger against another person in anger, is banished.

Of course, the NFL and NBA have been overrun with criminal behavior for years. Journalist and author Jeff Benedict has written provocative books about the violence in both leagues. In Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the N.F.L., which came out in the late 1990s, he and his coauthor Don Yaeger claimed that 21 percent of NFL players had been charged with a serious crime. The NFL has instituted programs to help keep players on the straight and narrow, and league officials laud their effectiveness (who counts Cincinnati, anyway?). A revised personal conduct policy is being unveiled at the annual league meeting this week that is said to be much tougher. But then, there is something profoundly self-defeating about a sports league that needs to set up crime prevention programs for its players. It's one of those situations where the promised cure only reminds observers how bad the illness really is.

A few years after Pros and Cons, Benedict wrote Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence, and Crime, in which he claimed that an incredible 40 percent of NBA players had been involved in a serious crime. This was just a few years ago, around the time of the Kobe Bryant rape case.

Benedict's books make clear that the problem of crime in the two leagues has become increasingly difficult to sweep under the rug. And the impact of the criminal element has been felt inside the lines as well as outside. It has changed the very aesthetics of the games themselves.

Both the NBA and NFL are almost unwatchable, at least for me -- though I sometimes wonder if I am alone in this -- with all of the buffoonery and hip-hop posturing and carrying on. It reminds you that you watch sports not just for the excitement of the competition or to learn the outcome, but to be inspired. Sport's once-uplifting imagery is more and more challenged by the crass garbage that surrounds it, whether it is another preening, tattooed, superstar felon or the compulsive noise and flashing lights that seem to accompany every big NFL and NBA game. Underneath it all, the competition is still there, and the irony is that it may be at its highest level ever -- but what a lot of toxic sludge the eye must squint through to enjoy it.

Some years ago, my consumption of sports began to dwindle as it dawned on me that I felt repulsed by so many of the players. My preferred sport remains baseball, which I grew up with and which happens to have much less of a problem with violent crime, though that may be changing (and the crime of pharmaceutical cheating is a different problem, maybe worse, but I'll leave that for another time). Baseball draws from a pool of talent less populated by players with disturbed backgrounds. There are the occasional beanball incidents and bench-clearing brawls, even some ugly ones, but the slow, deliberate pace of the game does not make such explosions seem inevitable. It is a game where progress is made in increments -- the antithesis of the hip-hop code. I might fall asleep watching a game, but I rarely fall into despair.

The interesting question is which will happen first: will the NFL and NBA become so infected with criminality that they cease to be a mainstream taste, or will the mainstream -- which now embraces hip-hop fashion in middle-class suburbs -- continue its downward spiral and meet the leagues halfway? If the latter scenario prevails, it will be time to adapt Richard Nixon's famous utterance about Keynesian economics and concede that we're all hip hoppers now.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.