Friday, April 11, 2008

MLB's Version of the Pistons-Pacers Brawl

A few weeks ago on Yahoo!'s Ball Don't Lie blog, Kelly Dwyer authored a post called "Whaddayouthink: The NHL's version of the Pistons-Pacers brawl", which looked back at a 1979 NHL fight in which several Boston Bruins ended up going into the crowd in Madison Square Garden, in a scene reminiscent of the ugliness at The Palace in 2004. Kelly wondered why we didn't hear much, if anything, about such a similar incident in the wake of the Artest fight, which was often referred to as an unprecedented event.

I've had this post topic in the back of my head for quite a while. Never seemed like the right time to re-visit The Malice at The Palace, but I do still think this is an important topic - that fight was a bodyblow to the NBA's public perception, the effects of which still linger to this day - so since KD referenced an NHL comparison, let me reference a more recent MLB one.

I must say that I was initially somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the media outrage in the aftermath of the Artest fight. When I first saw the "highlights", my first thought was, "Oh, it's like when the Dodgers went into the stands at Wrigley Field," and I thought the media/public response would be similar.

Do you remember that one? On May 16, 2000, a fan at Wrigley Field hit Chad Kreuter of the L.A. Dodgers on the head as he stole Kreuter's hat. From there, Kreuter and many other Dodgers players and coaches went into the stands and a full-scale brawl ensued:

It was an ugly incident, blame was laid on a combination of the players, the fans and Wrigley Field security - though it seemed like the primary focus was on unruly fan behavior. After The Palace fight, the primary focus was on out-of-control NBA players.

The original MLB discipline meted out called for 16 players to be suspended for a total of 60 games, and three coaches suspended for 24 total games. Upon appeal, 12 of the 19 suspensions were overturned. Four players ended up serving suspensions totaling 24 games, and two coaches served suspensions totaling 16 games. Kreuter's eight-game suspension was the longest of any player.

In The Palace fight, the original discipline called for nine players to be suspended for a total of 143 games. Jermaine O'Neal's suspension was cut from 25 games to 15 upon appeal, while Artest's season-long suspension was extended by 13 playoff games, so nine players ended up serving 146 total games of suspensions. Artest's 86-game suspension was the longest of any player.

Here are the comparisons of the suspensions handed out:
Chad Kreuter - 8
Rick Dempsey (coach) - 8
John Shelby (coach) - 8
Carlos Perez - 5
Gary Sheffield - 5
F.P. Santangelo - 5
Mike Fetters - 1

Ron Artest - 86
Stephen Jackson - 30
Jermaine O'Neal - 15
Ben Wallace - 6
Anthony Johnson - 5
Reggie Miller - 1
Chauncey Billups - 1
Elden Campbell - 1
Derrick Coleman - 1

I realize that this is a bit of a race to the gallows - as KD said in his post, "I'm not calling either of these two rather nasty displays passable, acceptable and anything less that disturbing" and the same sentiment applies here.

However, while I would say that, if we're talking about gradations of deplorable, I do think that The Palace fight was an uglier incident, the events were still similar enough that I've never understood the wide disparity in penalties. Jermaine O'Neal was suspended for twice as many games for punching a fan who had come onto the court than Kreuter was for going into the stands. And that's with the NBA season being half as long as MLB's.

Most notably, outrage over the Wrigley fight persisted through a few news cycles and then the incident became largely forgotten over time, as it is today, with essentially zero negative lasting impact on the perception of MLB or its players.

Meanwhile, The Palace fight was and is a landmark NBA event which deeply impacted the public perception of the league and is used as Exhibit A by those who wish to argue that NBA is unworthy of attention because all of its players are thugs.

Recently, we referred to a Harris Interactive survey from February which asked this question to a couple thousand American adults:

"If you had to choose, which ONE of these sports would you say is your favorite?"

19 different sports were offered as choices. This was the 13th time Harris has conducted this survey since 1985.

Unsurprisingly, pro football has been no. 1 every time, and has only gotten stronger over the years. It has led baseball, which has been no. 2 in each survey, by an average of 14 points. The gap between the two has widened from 24-23 in 1985 to 30-15 this year.

Here is where pro basketball has stood in each survey (yr - % - rank):
    1985: 6 (4T)
    1989: 7 (4)
    1992: 8 (3T)
    1994: 11 (3)
    1997: 13 (3)
    1998: 13 (3)
    2002: 11 (3)
    2003: 10 (3)
    2004: 7 (4T)
    2005: 4 (7T)
    2006: 7 (5)
    2008: 4 (6T)
Considering it's such a simple question, this is hardly a definitive anything, though I do think it is roughly indicative of how the American public perception of the NBA has evolved over the last two decades.

Why has the answer "pro basketball" dwindled from its high-water mark in the late 90s to its depths today? I believe there are three overarching reasons which have been most responsible:

1. The end of the Jordan era, which took things to artificially high levels.
2. The switch from NBC to ABC/ESPN in 2002-03, which led to many fewer games shown on network television and made the playoff schedule much more complicated to follow.
3. Perception of player behavior, influenced in most devastating fashion by two incidents - Sprewell v Carlesimo and the Pistons-Pacers brawl.

I'll never understand how two relatively similar events can elicit such widely disparate reactions, but hey, life ain't fair. MLB has certainly taken devastating hits in perception during the steroid era, while the NFL has gotten a free pass for same.


At 5:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're onto something with the switch from NBC to ABC/ESPN. But I think it has a lot to do with contrasting production styles.

I was young enough during the mid-nineties to be easily swayed by these things, but I think the drama and magic that NBC was able to summon with its great broadcasters, colorful graphics, intense and unique music, and mythologizing intros, was a big part of the NBA experience for older fans too, and seems to have been totally lost when the new networks took over.

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