Where were you when Ron Artest went ballistic? I'd just sat down in the family room to watch some hoops last Friday night, focusing on some fine second-half play from Madison Square Garden by Syracuse and Memphis State on ESPN2. A commercial break took me to ESPN1, where moments before Artest had fouled Ben Wallace hard. A replay showed just how hard Wallace had retaliated. I was surprised Artest's neck hadn't snapped off. Back live now, players were still milling about, and Pacer Stephen Jackson seemed particularly agitated. This state of affairs seemed to last minutes, much longer than such fracases are usually allowed to. It didn't appear that anyone was in charge.
Then in a flash, Artest was in the stands, and you know the rest. Again, an eerie chaos prevailed. Fortunately, the stands had pretty much emptied well beforehand. The dregs that remained showered the various Pacer players, coaches, and other reps with all they possessed, mainly beer, soft drinks, popcorn, and saliva. I especially cringed when I saw Reggie Miller's expensive suit soiled with the sundry excreta. It captured what was occurring: a filthy rich sport reduced to the level of its most subhuman fans.
Of course, they're not all like that, normal sports fans tell themselves. But then such notions as guilt by association or rotten apples kick in, and pretty soon it's clear why the only way to watch sports these days is in the privacy of one's own family room. That method will also prevent the cops from spotting you on their surveillance tapes.
One consolation after last Friday is that this latest scandal could in no way be politicized. Or so I imagined. By Sunday the New York Times' lead sports columnist was recalling the extraordinary measures taken to protect the NBA's U.S. Olympians in Athens last summer, all because NBA players are "the symbol of American strength and arrogance." Yet "where did the violence [actually] break out?" In "Title Town, USA," naturally, home of the NBA's defending champions. "The NBA can no longer assume that violence is a foreign affair," the columnist concluded. I knew it. We really are a rotten country.
American arrogance remains in play, some of it genuine. A common defense of Artest is that he was merely responding to an act of "disrespect." Infantile Republican Charles Barkley, for instance, was delighted to say that "any time a fan touches you, you have the right to beat the hell out of him." Why? "I'm not going to let anybody disrespect me." The NBA's acrobatic dunker Vince Carter said of Artest, "He was protecting himself. Nobody wants to be disrespected like that." Even NBA coach Mike Dunleavy joined in, noting that the cup of liquid thrown at Artest "could have knocked his eye out, caused brain damage…"
Now we're getting somewhere. In a completely unrelated matter, much of the coverage of President Bush's weekend in Santiago, Chile, has echoed reactions to the Artest riot. The point of contention is the president's brave intervention to rescue his detained Secret Serviceman and the host Chileans' subsequent cancellation of a major dinner with Bush in protest of Secret Service requirements that guests be screened beforehand. Predictably, Bush and his security people are being depicted as the arrogant ones and the Chileans as victims of their disrespect.
"All of us journalists agree that President Bush looked like a cowboy," a Santiago reporter said. "It was a total breach of protocol."
"Can you imagine someone like the Chief Justice having to submit to an inspection by gringo security...?" a disinvited Chilean asked. "That's an affront no Chilean was going to tolerate..."
And here you thought NBA players were the only ones who strut. Listen to how the Washington Post's Mike Allen described Bush after the president rescued his protection: "Trotta walked in behind Bush, who looked enormously pleased with himself. He was wearing the expression that some critics call a smirk..."
Our is indeed a nasty age, and the nastier the nasty ones get, the greater their sense of grievance. There's plenty of blame to throw around, so why not stick Bill Clinton with some of it. His remarks to Peter Jennings last week were particularly vile. Not just his threatening "you don't want to go here" to Jennings, but the criminally minded claim that Ken Starr had tried to force witnesses to lie about Clinton. It wasn't very smart of Clinton to let on who orchestrated Susan McDougal's defenses.
As it happens Detroit and Chile have something else in common. The latter, as host of the leader of the free world, should have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide for his personal security. Even Old Europe has done so. Chile failed, for reasons of pique. Not its finest hour. As for Detroit, via its lax Auburn Hills outpost, it also failed in its role of host. It's forgotten that the Pacers were the visiting team last Friday night and as such received next to no protection from savage local fans. Artest & Co. earned their suspensions, but it's the Detroit operation that took the biggest hit. Anyone for moving the Pistons to Santiago?