BOSTON -- I'll admit I've never followed basketball or any other sport with any interest, unless one counts the sleepless nights I spent this fall staring out the window of my Boston apartment waiting for Red Sox fans, deliriously loud in victory, to finally call it a night so I could be lulled off to sleep by the usual ambulance sirens and screeching subway tracks.
But last week, in the wake of Ron Artest slugging some beer-slinging uber-fan, I had no choice but to take up an interest in basketball. The incident dominated the news, and I suddenly found myself aware of the nuances of Artest's life, his quest for "respect," and his intimate feelings about the brawl. A steady stream of ex-players, NBA officials, and pundits weighed in with a solemn fervor on what could be done to make sure this absolutely never happened again. As if this was a real tragedy. As if it was anything more than testosterone-addled men doing what they always do; what they in fact do nightly at just about any bar.
Ukraine in revolt? Sorry, no air time. We have to replay this stupid, belligerent drunk being punched in the face by this thug who happens to be good at a game another 47 more times before the top of the hour. More troops dying in Fallujah? Quit bugging us. We need to know how we're going to secure the front row at NBA games. Palestinian leadership is dismantling Gaza "death squads" in the wake of Yasser Arafat's death, the first piece of good news to come out of the region in more than two years? Not now, we're just getting to the heart of who Ron Artest really is.
Six hunters shot dead in Wisconsin? All right, we can make time for that. That's one story that's crazy enough to compete. I'm waiting to see what Artest's opinion on why Chai Soua Vang did it. You know it's coming.
But for all the airtime and public hand-wringing, here's the truth of the matter: Occasionally bad things will happen, more so when you combine alcohol and machismo. A glance at the history of the NBA suggests that this will not be a regular occurrence, especially now that the players have taken a monetary hit. Legislation and rules will not end all bad things. This has been proven many times, and yet has had almost no effect on our burgeoning nation of do-gooders.
The proof? Scan the international newspapers. Take a look at what the proper Europeans' rules have done for them. Real Madrid fans at the Bernabeu were making Nazi salutes and calling Brazilian players "monkeys." Black English players were subjected to similar abuse a week before. And at Sparta Prague and Seville games before that there were similar racist incidents. Following these events, complaints were forwarded to the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Body, and fans have been ejected, fined, dragged before judges and banned from attending games for years.
"What's interesting is that this would almost never happen at an American football, baseball, or basketball game," political analyst Bob Merrigan said. "In this country, all they could do is eject you from the game. In Europe they actually have laws and fines to prevent this and it still happens."
CLEARLY, THIS IS A problem of culture, not a lack of rules. This sort of racist baiting and Nazi saluting at an American event is absolutely unthinkable. And it is not because we have strict rules against Nazi salutes. It is because our culture is one in which that is unacceptable under any circumstances. An American giving a Nazi salute at an NBA game would probably have been beat within an inch of his life by the time the referees had scanned the rule book to see if that sort of behavior was kosher or not. A general snickering indifference from the crowd, like what happened at these European games, would never have stood here. No doubt, despite this demonstrable fact, Europeans will continue to look out at us derisively as a "racist nation." We may lack the codified rules they have, but we also, for the most part, lack the abhorrent behavior. This must be, no doubt, a strange paradox to those who put all faith in government and none in man.
Yet, we have one aberration in one game and the entire nation goes into a state of soul-searching mourning. We put every other important story and real issue on hold for this show of utter softness and weakness. Political analysis shows abandoned politics for sports over a single brawl at a basketball game. The message this all sends is not a positive one. Have we really become so bored with the considerable problems of the world that this was simply a welcome diversion? Or is our society so effete these days that we can't handle the idea that sometimes a countenance of thuggish bravado will occasionally spill over into the real thing? Rare though it may be on the court, it is not rare in the streets, where even a wayward glance in a decent neighborhood at night can lead to a confrontation.
There is no rule or law that will end this arrogant brutishness. The only thing that will end it is when we stop putting morally defunct tough guys on pedestals because they happen to have a good sense of balance and can throw a ball through a hoop. Right now, Americans are putting their lives on the line overseas. Human beings are fighting for dignity and freedom in dark corners of the world from Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan to the Sudan and Ukraine. Don't we owe them more than this shallow obsession with two minutes of a single basketball game?
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