Ron Artest Ain’t the Problem

A Revolutionary Take on "Fight Night in the NBA"

by Carl Dix

Revolutionary Worker #1261, December 12, 2004, posted at

The replays have been run so many times the scene has become etched in my brain. The Indiana Pacers’ Ron Artest laying a hard foul on Ben Wallace of the Detroit Pistons near the end of the game. Wallace coming back at him with two hands to the throat, and Artest walking away from this potentially explosive situation and laying down on the scorers’ table. (I’m told this is an anger management tactic.) Then a cup full of some liquid comes flying out of the stands onto Artest and the brawl is on. Players going into the stands, fans running onto the court. Beer, chairs and punches being thrown. Endless video replays accompanied by seemingly endless articles and panels of talking heads supporting the suspensions NBA Commissioner David Stern hit Artest and several other Pacers with and talking about Artest as a troubled young man who needs to deal with his problems.

And I’m thinking what problems are they referring to—fans who douse you with beer? NBA big wigs who, with their eyes focused on their bottom line, make an example out of you?

The talk about Artest’s problems or his previous run-ins with basketball’s authorities is a lot of crap. Bush took the U.S. to war in Iraq based on lies about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s ties to al-Qaida. Before that as Texas governor he presided over a record number of executions, including some where the person put to death was innocent. But news reporters don’t link this to his past problems with alcohol or to his current addiction to Pat Robertson-style Christian Fascism.

In announcing Artest’s suspension for the rest of the season (and Pacer players Jermaine O’Neal for 25 games and Stephen Jackson for 30 games) NBA Commissioner David Stern said that Artest had broken the social contract between players and fans. What is this social contract he’s talking about here? It doesn’t include a clause saying fans shouldn’t abuse players. Some NBA teams institutionalize such practices. The Washington Wizards (formerly the Bullets) had a designated heckler who was seated behind the visiting team’s bench. This guy would do research to determine the best way to get inside the heads of visiting players and coaches. He’d recite rewritten versions of Shaq’s rap lyrics, read sections of Phil Jackson’s autobiography and run down any run-ins players had with the law among other things. In places like Boston, instead of having a designated heckler, the whole crowd is encouraged to get into the act.

This social contract rests on the way the NBA has approached dealing with a problem central to its marketing strategy. The NBA is serving up a sport dominated by Black athletes and featuring the edge and attitude that Black youth bring to the game, and to life. But they are marketing that sport to a fan base that is largely white.

The league knows the game minus the power, speed, aggression and agility these players bring to it would be a pale imitation of what draws the fans out to the arenas and into the stores to buy jerseys and other paraphernalia with players’ names and numbers on it. To deal with this contradiction, players are allowed, even encouraged, to show that spirit in competition, and even somewhat in combat, among each other. (Think of how much less a story this would’ve been if Artest had responded to Wallace’s blow by throwing punches at HIM. Both of them would’ve gotten suspended for one or a couple of games at most.) But never, ever, should a player even think about responding to anything done to him or his team by a fan. Think of the gladiators in the Roman Coliseum, cheered or jeered for what they did against each other, but never allowed to respond directly to the crowd for anything it said or did.

The racism embedded in this approach rests on a lot of history. I’m not mainly talking here about how this country dragged Africans to these shores in chains and stole the land from the native inhabitants. Although I could talk about that because it’s still very relevant today. I’m more speaking about basketball history. Blacks were barred from the NBA till the ’50s. The best Black ballplayers in the country were limited to playing for the Harlem Globetrotters if they wanted to play ball for a living. Most NBA teams refused to even play the Globetrotters. (The Minneapolis Lakers, who dominated the NBA in the late ’40s and early ’50s, did agree to play the Globetrotters. They ended up splitting several games with them.)

Coming closer to today, the NBA publicly agonized in the 1980s over the growing numbers of Black players in the league and wondered whether and how it could sell a Black-dominated game to white fans. Out of this agonizing came two things: (1) A search for and promotion of "white hopes"—white players talented enough to stand out in a game dominated by Black players. (Sometimes this worked, e.g., Larry Bird, and sometimes it flopped, like with Danny Ferry.) And (2) Attempts to moderate the edge and attitude of the Black players.

I’m not exaggerating when I speak of them trying to moderate players’ attitude. During the 1984 NBA Finals, the L.A. Lakers began one game by giving each other low fives instead of high fives. League officials were horrified and quickly told them not to do that again. Laker Michael Cooper said the word to not do another low five came from someone "higher than the team and lower than God." All this forms the backdrop for the widespread condemnation of Ron Artest for his role in this incident.

Let me be real clear. This incident didn’t happen because of Artest’s problems. Nor did it become a major story for that reason. Brawls at hockey games involving one or several of its mostly white players fighting with some of its mostly white fans occur so often they’re treated as normal occurrences. Something for some sportscaster’s plays-of-the- week list. There have even been incidents where fans who ran onto baseball or football fields, interrupting games, were beaten by players, and it didn’t get treated as major stories like this did. But this was basketball, with its mostly Black players fighting with its largely white fans.

Artest walked away from a punch to his face and ignored a towel thrown at him. But this largely gets left out of the talk about this incident. Instead the discussion begins with Artest’s "hard" foul on Wallace and skips to him going into the stands after the fan who hit him with the cup. As for the foul, the game was all but over, but Indiana’s coach still had his starting line-up on the floor. So he seemed to want his players to keep playing intensely. And in going into the stands after whoever threw beer on him and punching a fan who ran onto the court and got in his face, Artest was responding to what people did to him. This is what gets talked about and analyzed, or mis-analyzed, in commentary on this incident. He was defending himself, and for that he becomes the NBA’s public enemy #1.

When David Stern and others say that no matter what was done to him, Artest never, ever should have gone into the stands, they are applying to him a standard that doesn’t get applied much in U.S. society—turn the other cheek. Artest grew up in the Queensbridge projects in New York City. You don’t turn the other cheek there unless you want to get hit again. Artest’s shot to get out of the projects was through basketball, and he succeeded at it by turning himself into one of the best players in pro-ball at his position. The heart of his game is giving his all every minute he’s on the floor, on offense and defense. His competitive style has led to clashes with the NBA’s hierarchy and to a number of suspensions. This itself got turned into more reason to punish him harshly. David Stern noted that his previous suspensions by the NBA were taken into account in determining what punishment to give him in this case. This comes down to a retroactive repeat offender policy that has only been applied to Ron Artest.

In commenting on all this, Charles Barkley said, "These guys (referring to NBA players) have to understand the racial undercurrent in the NBA. The fans look at this stuff as Black millionaires acting stupid." This was a theme that came up often in discussion of the brawl—fan resentment of wealthy Black athletes who lack the proper gratitude or humility for their situation. A number of newspaper articles even noted the growing number of NBA stars who wear their hair in cornrows as something that contributes to this resentment! (The authors of the articles bringing up cornrows could add that they are adding to and whipping up such resentment.) There is a large gap in income between the fans and NBA players. But there’s an even larger gap between the economic status of the fans and that of the almost all white NBA owners. Yet the media, sports or otherwise, doesn’t work to whip up the kind of resentment against them that it’s pumping up in relation to Black players.

This theme of resentment and hostility to Black people who don’t know their place fits right in with what’s being brought forward in society overall. Black youth are treated like criminals in U.S. society, guilty until proven innocent. This has gone so far that recent studies report that 1 in 10 Black men in the U.S. are in jail! Widespread resentment among whites towards uppity Black people helps justify outrages like this.

And we’ve just been through a presidential election where the party in power tried to keep as many Black people from voting as they could. I know the Republicans are denying this, but the stuff is pretty much out in the open. Florida’s Attorney General drew up a list of "felons" who would be denied the right to vote. This list consisted overwhelmingly of Black people, and it was full of people who had never even been charged with a crime. Again in Florida, Black people were visited by armed police investigating their involvement in registering people to vote. Flyers were circulated in Black communities in Maryland and Michigan telling people they should vote the day after election day. And I could go on and on.

The NBA suspended Ron Artest for the rest of the season with an eye toward shoring up the league’s bottom line through reinforcing a "social contract" that rests on keeping the Black athletes that give their sport its heart and soul in their places. The intense debate this incident has generated throughout society is having the effect of giving added weight to the justifications used for all the ways this society acts to keep Black people in their place overall. Some reality needs to be injected into the discussion around this, and the terms of the debate around it need to be changed.

Carl Dix, National Spokesperson, Revolutionary Communist Party
P.O. Box 380548
Brooklyn, New York 11238
866-841-9139 x2670