As far as the law is concerned, what Ron Artest and his teammates did in Detroit was no different — and no worse — than a couple of drunks getting into an argument in a bar and trying to settle it with their fists.
Misdemeanor assault and battery — that’s the charge against Pacers Artest, Stephen Jackson, David Harrison, Anthony Johnson and Jermaine O’Neal. Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca levied one count against everyone but O’Neal, who faces two counts.
The charges carry a maximum three-month jail term, but it’s unlikely any of the players will have to do a Martha Stewart over this. As first-time offenders, fines and probation are far more likely. It’s what you or I would get for that bar fight.
In the eyes of the law, one swing thrown in sudden anger without catastrophic results is the same as any other. Nobody was seriously injured in the near-riot in the Palace in Auburn Hills. It goes down as just another case of people turning into idiots and behaving badly. There wasn’t anything else the prosecutor could do.
And there’s something very wrong with that. This isn’t the same as your brother-in-law and your slightly goofy uncle getting into a scuffle at the family reunion. These are athletes in an arena crossing a very clear line of demarcation, entering the stands and swinging not at someone who directly attacked them, but at anyone who happens to be in their way. From the other end, it’s fans assaulting players who aren’t allowed to strike back. Together, it is a recipe for riot and tragedy, and the law should treat it as such.
Given that it’s a national issue, it needs to be covered by a national law. Make it a felony to cross the lines in either direction with the intent of doing harm to someone. A player who throws a punch in the stands stands trial as a felon. A fan who runs on the field and takes a poke at a player does the same, and that means the Little League dad who jumps the umpire who called his kid out the same as it means Artest and company.
The object is to do everything we can to keep this from happening again; to keep players from starting brawls with the paying customers, to keep players from chucking chairs at hecklers, to keep fans from jumping players on the field.
There can be no excuses, no extenuating circumstances. You cross the line in either direction, you pay — dearly. You spend time in jail, even if it’s only a couple of weeks or a month. You get a criminal record. You do serious damage to your life.
Back when that that idiot in Chicago led his son in an assault on the Royals first-base coach I said that we need to establish a separate category of offense for people who invade the playing field. Thanks to Artest, I see that the same standard has to apply to the players.
Artest and his teammates have been punished far more harshly by the NBA than they will be by the laws of the State of Michigan. They’ll suffer even more financial damage when the fans they assaulted get done filing lawsuits. With any luck, players will file civil suits against fans, too. This one should work both ways.
But the charges handed down show that there is no legal disincentive to cross the line between spectator and performer. There’s no permanent record of a felony, no jail time, probably not any sort of fine that any of these supremely well-paid individuals will even notice.
The problem isn’t a prosecutor who’s going easy on famous people. It’s a law that doesn’t recognize that sports arenas are very different places than bars or private residences, that players and fans aren’t acquaintances, casual or otherwise, getting into a heated argument in a pub or the family rec room. It’s a law that doesn’t recognize what should be a sacrosanct boundary between the people who play, coach and officiate the games and the people who watch the games.
It’s a national problem and needs a national solution. I know Congress is busy right now making sure that baseball implements a meaningful drug policy, but it should find a place on the agenda for this issue. Build a legal fence to go with the implied one that’s been there forever. Make sure that the next time someone tries this, they don’t lose just money, they lose time and freedom, and they gain a record that sticks with them for life.
PBT: Lance Stephenson led Indiana with 25 points in a win that eliminated his hometown team. Stephenson and the Pacers will face the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
Grizzlies ready for 'running' Spurs
DPS: Lionel Hollins tells us how he plans to play against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
Latest from ProBasketballTalk
Nate Robinson unlikely to return to Bulls next season7 hr 50 min ago
Get your NBA cheer on
Check out some of the dancers from the NBA.