Entry from November 30, 2004

Not that I would like for a single moment to be thought an apologist for poor sportsmanship, let alone for what by all accounts would seem to be the appallingly unsportsmanlike Ron Artest, but isn’t the outpouring of criticism that has lately greeted this Indiana Pacer’s attack on a basketball fan in Detroit — as it happens, not the one who had hurled the cup of beer that struck him on the ear — just a little overblown? I am especially struck by the obloquy which the critics reserve for the “being-down-for-your-boy mentality” that led a couple of Artest’s teammates to join him in wading into the crowd and that Mike Wise of the Washington Post called “the most warped sense of loyalty to a teammate imaginable.”

Really? I can imagine, if I try real hard, a few more warped senses of loyalty than that. In fact, I’m not at all sure it is warped, now that I think about it. What is the effectiveness of any sports team based on if not mutual loyalty? And what does loyalty mean if it precludes coming to the defense of a teammate when he is attacked? Sure, players shouldn’t fight with fans, but they shouldn’t fight with each other either. And in either case when they do it anyway isn’t it proper loyalty for teammates to come to each other’s defense? Old-fashioned honor would have thought so, but I suspect that “honor” is not a common word in the Wise vocabulary — which is why he has to find another to express his own warped sense that this kind of loyalty, somehow, just couldn’t be real loyalty. Would it, I wonder, have been real loyalty if the teammates, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O’Neal, had helped Artest out in a fight with the opposing team on the floor?

Why this sacrosanct barrier between players and spectators anyway? It hasn’t always been thus. When modern sport began, there were few hard and fast distinctions between players and spectators. In an English football match in 1581, it is reported that a spectator called out about a player he didn’t like on the opposing team, “Cast him over the hedge” — which must have been the 16th century equivalent of “Kill the bastard.” But, not yet having been taught to take such treatment from the fans as being all part of the give-and-take, the cut-and-thrust of the game, the player in question called out to the heckler: “Come thou and do yt”. When the fan foolishly took up the challenge, the player proceeded to beat him to death, or so says David Hawkes in his review of Gregory M. Colón Semenza’s Sport, Politics, and Literature in the English Renaissance (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press) in a recent number of the Times Literary Supplement. They didn’t mess around in those days, I guess. And such a salutary lesson to the fans and players alike to behave themselves must have contributed something to our modern notions of sportsmanship.

What lies behind the media outrage today, I fear, is anxiety on behalf of the business of sport, on which depend the livelihoods both of the sportsmen themselves and of those, like Mike Wise, who are paid to comment on their doings. One can easily understand the harshness of the punishment meted out to Artest and his teammates by the NBA Commissioner, David Stern. Something similar happened in the English soccer league in 1995, when Eric Cantona, the French star of Manchester United, delivered a Kung-fu style kick to the chest of a fan, Matthew Simmons, who had shouted what Cantona called “racial abuse” at him and hurled a missile. For this he was fined £20,000, banned from playing for nine months and sentenced to two weeks in jail, later commuted to 120 hours of community service. A teammate who came to his assistance was also punished.

Cantona, who had left the French league to join the British after a similar incident in his native land, came back for another season with Man U after his suspension was up, but he retired the following year. He could not but have recognized, as we should in the Artest case, that when the authorities, either of the English Football or the National Basketball Associations, punish those involved in such incidents, they do it to protect their own financial interests and not out of a disinterested concern for sportsmanship. They recognize that fans will presumably not pay for admission to events where there is a chance of their being beaten up by players. When, on the other hand the players are only whaling on each other nobody minds very much, as that’s all part of the show. Perhaps the outrage of the rest of us should be reserved for bad manners and poor sportsmanship in general, on the court or the pitch as well as off it.

As it happens, James Bartholomew, author of The Welfare State We’re In, has recently written in The Spectator of London about a study he has undertaken of the number of players sent off in English football matches since the Second World War. From 1946/47 until 1961-62 somewhere between seven and 15 were sent off every year. This number was in line with what had also been the case going back to the season of 1891-92. But from 1962 onwards the number increased until by 1979-80 it reached 115. Ten years later it stood at 200 and it only took another five years for it to reach 300. In 2003-04, the number was 511. Who is outraged about this? Bartholomew quotes a player from the early post-war era who says that “standards of conduct were much higher” in those days, and the number sent off so much lower because “to be sent off was a cause for shame” Now it’s no more of a shameful matter than throwing something from the stands at a player. The only thing anyone has to be ashamed of is doing something, as Ron Artest did, that’s bad for business. It’s time to bring back shame for all sorts of bad sportsmanship.

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