Since Friday night’s debacle in Detroit, players and fans have been expressing their opinions on, among other things, the length of NBA Commissioner David Stern’s suspensions, the security issues presented by the makeup of professional basketball arenas and the mental instability of a certain Pacer guard/rapper/lunatic named Ron Artest.
Generally left on the back burner during many of these discussions, however, has been the effect the ‘Palace pummeling’ is going to have on the millions of kids who idolize and emulate the players involved in the brawl.
Like it or not, professional athletes are role models. Thinking Friday night’s melee isn’t going to have at least some impact on America’s youth would be naive at best.
Now, I realize at this point you’re probably telling yourself, all right already, we all saw the Detroit kid bawling his eyes out on ESPN and John Saunders talking about it being the “one image” he’s always going to remember from the incident.
But the fact remains, unless you were in a cave this weekend, you probably either saw or heard about what happened, and that includes children.
They saw Ron Artest pounding the snot out of some little shaver in the crowd. They saw an unprovoked Stephen Jackson swinging at a guy half his size. And they saw Jermaine O’Neil landing a haymaker to the jaw of a Pistons fan, staggering to collect himself from a punch already delivered by Artest.
Now that we know kids have seen it, what impact is this whole unforgettable scene actually going to have on them?
Are the countless numbers of kids with O’Neil jerseys going to start throwing blows whenever someone pushes their buttons? Will the little tikes who love the Pacers commence in a mass crayon breaking and temper tantrum session? Really, what impact will this event actually have on kids’ general temperament?
After all, these are the heroes they emulate and idolize.
Well, in discussions I had with my mom, a middle-school principal, the effect has actually been quite the opposite, at least at one particular school.
According to a number of her fourth and fifth grade teachers Monday — the day of their weekly “current events” discussion — emulation and esteem had seemingly transformed into disappointment and disgust.
The kids weren’t talking about how cool Ron Artest’s game-high 24 points or game-ending brawl were.
Instead, like the dozens of adult conversations taking place on ESPN’s “Sportcenter”, “The Sports Reporters” and “Outside the Lines” programs, many of these 10- and 11-year-olds were talking about the higher standards professional athletes are expected to live up to.
Without using the flowery language of a Bob Ley or Jeremy Schaap, they were talking about how these guys make millions of dollars and should consequently have to pay a small price in terms of their code of conduct.
Yes, if some random guy threw a drink at Artest on the street, he would be well within in his rights to “defend himself,” as so many people have liked to put it, but once he’s between those lines, professionalism and self-control need to win out over anger and retaliation.
Analyst Tim Legler and the NBA Players Union may disagree with a blanket statement like this, saying fans should be held as accountable for their actions as the players. But when looking at the power each has in terms of creating a sea of violence, like the one Artest created Friday, this argument just doesn’t hold water.
By jumping into the crowd — an opposing team’s crowd at that — Artest set off a firestorm nobody other than a player could have possibly started.
His teammates, if not throwing punches, were put at risk when they jumped in to get him out of there. The security guards, not equipped to handle such an abrupt and widespread riot, were expected to control a mob of angry fans. Moreover, a countless number of kids bore witness to, in the words of Pistons head coach Larry Brown, “the ugliest thing” he’d seen in his 40-plus years involved with the game of basketball.
And nobody, other than a player, could have had this kind of effect.
So, where do the league, the parents of NBA fans and teachers go from here?
Well, ideally, the aforementioned fourth and fifth graders represent the norm, and kids are aware of how selfish and ridiculous Artest’s actions were.
But, even if this is the case, I still feel like everyone loses here.
NBA players and professional athletes, in general, are put in a unique position when it comes to kids.
The Dikembe Mutombo’s and David Robinson’s of the league have the power to build up the public’s perception of professional athletes through their reading programs and the like. And if Friday’s incident marred this image in the slightest, which it appears it may have, then one more positive influence may have just slipped out the window.
But, then again, what do kids really have to complain about anyway?
I mean, honestly. They still have Barney.
Brandon Gullicksrud ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism.