TCS Daily

Punch Drunk

By Dan Lewis - January 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Ben Wallace throws an elbow.

Ron Artest throws a punch.

A fan throws a cup.

The rest? International news.

After the dust settled, NBA commissioner David Stern handed down the most sweeping suspensions in league history. Ron Artest was on a year-long vacation. Stephen Jackson found himself sitting for thirty games -- over a third of the NBA season. Jermaine O'Neal was to miss twenty-five games. A plurality of respondents to a highly-unscientific ESPN SportsNation poll supported Stern's decisions, although O'Neal's suspension received less support than the others.

O'Neal and the other Pacers appealed their suspensions to an arbitrator. But the NBA did not appear in the hearing, claiming that the collective bargaining agreement gave the commissioner full reign over on-court violence. Sounds like an open-and-shut case? Not so. When the arbitrator found for O'Neal, reducing his suspension to fifteen games (in effect, time served), the NBA had to go to federal court to protect its interest.

Just to recap the situation in question, during the fight, a fan came on to the court and picked a fight with O'Neal -- who, in turn, punched the guy.

The union's argument was simple: The fight, including O'Neal's punch of a fan, was "one massive riot incident that was not part of the game." The court, buying the argument, allowed O'Neal to play until arguments could be fleshed out further. And on Thursday, that is exactly what happened. The players' association and NBA went back in front of the judge, made their arguments, and waited, for this:

"Fighting with or striking a fan has never been characterized as conduct on the playing court," [U.S. District Court Judge George B.] Daniels said, reading from a written ruling. "Striking a fan is inexcusable, and appropriately considered something different and much more serious."

This is entirely illogical. Hit a fellow basketballer (or coach) and Stern can do whatever he wants -- it is entirely in his purview. Striking a fan is "inexcusable. "Much more serious." And . . .

Appealable to a third party.


That's right -- just ask union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler. He told the AP that "[a]nything with a fan is going to be arbitratable" and that this decision sets "a very clear precedent." Yes, like Judge Daniels stated, the reason for the long, serious, and different suspension is because O'Neal pummeled a fan. But because he hit a fan -- as opposed to another player or a coach -- suddenly, he's not really on the court.

Even if he is, physically, standing on the court.

Confused? So is the NBA: "We are puzzled with Judge Daniels' ruling because the Collective Bargaining Agreement states that an appeal of a suspension for 'conduct on the playing court' may be made only to the Commissioner, not to an arbitrator, and Jermaine O'Neal's actions took place entirely on the playing court."

The ramifications for this are potentially disastrous. Next time an Artest goes into the crowd, starting an all-out melee, the players are no longer to be judged simply by the commissioner. Sure, it is a more serious problem during an inexcusable event, but we will give you a shot at making light of it while offering excuses anyway.

Dan Lewis ( is a Manhattan-based sportswriter.



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