He Got Shame

During Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 confirmation hearings, he charged that he was the victim of what he called a "high-tech lynching." Most African Americans at the time thought the complaint was absurd – an abomination – a tossing off of the suffering of thousands of our ancestors, hung from trees. How can depriving a man a seat on the Supreme Court compare with depriving someone of their life?

Now, with the Ron Artest Affair, we are still searching for a more appropriate term.

Indiana Pacers basketball forward Ron Artest was not lynched last week. He was not even injured. He was suspended for 73 games for his part in last week's widely publicized, out-of-control brawl between players and fans in a basketball game between the Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. Eight other players were suspended for up to 30 games for their roles in the altercation but Artest's punishment – banishment for the rest of the season – indicates NBA Commissioner David Stern's belief that Artest was the instigator of the events. It is the longest non-drug-related suspension in NBA history.

"What [Artest] did was unforgivable," Stern said in announcing the punishment. "It was a horrible scene and it is up to us to see it is not repeated."

For those who watched the endless news broadcasts or read newspaper accounts of the fight, it was hard to disagree. Larry Lage of the Associated Press started off his account – which was the basis of stories printed all over the country – by calling it "one of the ugliest NBA brawls ever – and Indiana's Ron Artest was right in the middle of it. Artest and [Pacers teammate] Stephen Jackson charged into the stands and fought with fans in the final minute of their game against the Detroit Pistons."

More details were given in a story posted the night of the fight on the ESPN.com Web site, which described events following initial pushing and shoving among the players on the floor. "Just when it appeared tempers had died down, Artest was struck by a full cup thrown from the stands. He jumped up and charged into the stands, throwing punches as he climbed over seats. ... After Artest charged into the stands, Jackson joined him in the melee and threw punches at fans, who punched back at them."

The written accounts were verified by identical video clips shown over and over by local news broadcasts around the country – the most memorable shots being Artest leaping over seats to get to a fan, later he and Jackson in a wild fistfight with Detroit fans in the stands, and then both Artest and teammate Jermaine O'Neal back on the floor of the arena, alternately punching another Detroit fan, knocking him down twice. The broadcasts ended with the wild aftermath: Detroit fans – apparently in retaliation for the actions by Artest, Jackson, and O'Neal – pummeling Piston players with food and liquid as the players ran through a gauntlet to the dressing room.

It was virtually impossible to turn on a television in the days following the Basketbrawl, as it was dubbed. They are burned into our national brains as our collective memory of those events. And they are absolutely wrong.

I was watching the Detroit-Indiana game on ESPN, live, and watched the entire fight as it unfolded. Since then I've watched the fight portion of the video – the entire fight – several times over. Watching it in its entire sequence leaves a cause-and-effect version of the events that is very different from the national impression.

The ESPN.com account starts out correctly. After being shoved on the floor by the Piston's Ben Wallace, and while other players were milling around, shoving and pointing and arguing, Artest retreated to the scorer's table and laid down on his back, away from the scuffling. It is true that a cup of liquid, striking him full in the face, caused him to "jump up and charge into the stands." It is not true that he was "throwing punches as he climbed over seats." In fact, Artest throws no punches at all in that initial charge. He appears to be taking aim at a particular fan, passing others unmolested as they jump out of his way. When he reaches the fan – who, we can assume, Artest believes threw the cup – Artest does not hit him, or even tackle him, two actions we might expect the player to take immediately after being struck in the face with the cup and liquid, when he would have been at his angriest, and when he would have been at his most out of control – if he were out of control. Instead, Artest grabs the fan by the shoulder, and drags him down into the seats.

Was Ron Artest wrong for taking that action? I don't think so, but that's a judgment call upon which we can reasonably disagree. The point is, he never threw a punch at the fan he was initially the most angry with. Don't take my word. Watch the fight video – the whole video – yourself.

The punching was initiated by the fans – initially a man in a baseball cap who grabs Artest from behind around the neck, drags him back, and cold-cocks him several times in the head. After that it's pretty much a bar fight.

Was there a conspiracy by the media to alter accounts of the events to "get" Ron Artest? I don't think so. ESPN, which broadcast the game, afterwards rebroadcast the entire fight sequence several times over, letting people make up their own minds. But ESPN is a sports network, and the fight sequence took several minutes. Local television stations don't have that kind of air time to devote to one story. So in the moments immediately following the game, someone packaged the fight into a convenient feed for local news and sports broadcasts, leaving in the most spectacular events such as the punches, leaving out the intervening actions that might have explained them. In a world where news outlets are racing to beat each other on the air, that's how it works.

However, moody and intense Ron Artest was an easy target. This week Sports Illustrated's Web site posted a story by regular contributor Lang Whitaker titled "Ticking Time Bomb: Artest's Earlier Off-Court Antics Foreshadowed His Epic Meltdown." The problem is, in six items listed to show Artest's tendencies, Whitaker only cites one involving violence, and that one not against an individual, but an inanimate object: "Two years ago, he flipped out and broke a television camera at Madison Square Garden." As an NBA Defensive Player of the Year who must gear himself up to guard some of the world's most talented athletes – night after night – that's hardly remarkable. Still, SI's Whitaker concludes that "We had to know something was going to happen, right? You could practically hear the ticking. Surely the Pacers had an inkling. After all, Artest has spent the last few years as a loner, watching "Ultimate Fighting Championship" DVDs on the team plane on a laptop that is missing half its keys."

A ticking time bomb? Eccentric seems more like it.

But fans pay the bills for sports franchises – and all the salaries of players, coaches, and commissioners alike – and so as much as fans might be culpable in the Basketbrawl in Detroit, the NBA cannot afford to go there. Somebody must be sacrificed, and this time it was Ron Artest. Was he lynched? That is far too harsh a word for those of us old enough to remember was lynching was really about. Will he suffer greatly, or at all? Perhaps, but that is not the point. What has happened is that in the Ron Artest Affair we have watched history altered before our eyes, shaping public opinion, and then affecting the conclusion. Of all the things about this event, that should worry us most of all.

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