Inconsistent Penalties Send A Dangerously Mixed Message to Fans
[Today's entry comes to us from guest-blogger David Crockett, Ph.D. He is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Like everyone else reading this blog I was very disturbed by the events at Auburn Hills on 19 November 2004 (and at Clemson University the following day). I am in equal measure disappointed, in the aftermath of those events, by what has passed for discourse and analysis among the punditry. Conjecture has been presented as fact. A suitable (and in large part deserving) scapegoat has been offered up in sacrifice to the basketball gods in hopes that this will all soon go away. Subsequent moralizing and grandstanding about the evils of ?hip hop culture? has been both self-serving and cynical. It has not been a good week in the world of sports, nor for the people who make a living writing or talking about them. The commissioner, alas, has spoken leaving little room for doubt about his feelings on these matters. With the authority invested in him by the league he has delivered justice as he has seen fit. With the authority invested in me by the Knickerblogger I offer a few words of commentary on the suspensions (as well as the Stern press conference).
In a sentence, the penalties were generally much harsher than I?d have guessed. Though I cannot say I am stunned by them. (I also suspect that the O?Neal suspension will ultimately be lowered some. I feel much less confident that Artest?s or Jackson?s will be lowered.) What left me scratching my head however was that the commissioner left the Detroit Pistons franchise untouched?no fines, no loss of home games, and no fan ban. Although the suspensions provide precedent-setting (and likely necessary) disincentives for players to overreact, fans have no real disincentives for losing self-control. I applaud the verbal tongue-lashing Stern gave to fans that cross the line but I didn?t hear anything substantive from our beloved commish. Why wouldn?t some fan try even bolder measures than tossing debris to provoke a player into a suspension next time? If I seem overly cynical about fan behavior check the current bid on the cup that allegedly hit Ron Artest in the face over at ebay (search on ?pacers pistons cup?).
Certainly the penalties against the players involved needed to be punitive in nature. That is, they needed to constitute a serious deterrent to similar future behavior, even beyond the specifics or the players themselves. Of course, one could make the case that such deterrents don?t matter in the heat of the moment, but Knicks fans know better. We have lived with the horror of seeing perhaps our best chance for a ring turned into a cautionary tale about the consequences of leaving the bench. These kinds of deterrents may not keep two hot heads from overreacting in the heat of the moment but they can keep a simple flare-up from escalating into all-out catastrophe. As Stern alludes to in his press conference, his nightmare scenario of players rushing into the stands and permanently injuring someone, or causing them to be injured, almost came true. As was so vividly demonstrated in this summer?s incident involving Texas Rangers pitcher Frank Francisco, who threw a chair at one fan and broke another woman?s nose, in a moment of justifiable (or at least understandable) rage it is the innocent who are most likely to be hurt. Although wise policy can never ensure this does not happen it can at least lower the odds.
The player suspensions, frankly, were the easy part for the commissioner. Given his swift and sure sense of justice concerning the players his reaction to the fan behavior exhibited in Detroit (to this point) is unsatisfying and quite puzzling. It seems to me that he intentionally turned his back on a profound opportunity to actually redraw the symbolic line between players and fans that he claims has faded. On the one hand he rightly admonished fans for escalating a bad situation into a horrible one. However, he goes on to moralize, calling for a fuzzy ?new covenant? between players and fans, rather than holding the Pistons directly accountable for fan behavior, something that is well within his power and long recognized as acceptable practice in sports management. More to the point, at a time when deterrents to ill behavior are generally acknowledged to be needed on both sides he came down like Lord Darth Vader on out-of-control players but more like Deepak Chopra on equally out-of-control fans. He failed to use tactics that are well within his purview to deter widespread disruptive fan behavior. This is bizarre, as both player and fan deterrents derive from the same source?The Office of The Commissioner. Players play and fans watch at the discretion of the league. If overly disruptive fan behavior can cost the home team technical free throws in the context of a game, it should ultimately cost home games or ?fan bans? (where home games are played in an empty arena) if escalated to what we all witnessed last week. This is not particularly radical nor was it likely to alienate real fans. I find it unlikely that anyone other than Pistons CEO Tom Wilson would have even suggested that the loss of 1-2 home games or a 1-2 game fan ban was unwarranted in Detroit. Yet Stern essentially ruled out this possibility when asked directly about playing games in an empty stadium by a European journalist. Now if the fan behavior is as deplorable as the commissioner claims don?t they deserve a 1 or 2 game suspension? His basic response was to say that he ?hoped it wouldn?t come to that.? I would submit to you Mr. Commissioner, and to you gentle reader, that it already has.