Saturday, November 20, 2004
Updated: November 22, 6:12 PM ET
Brawlers' punishment should be modeled on soccer
By Marc Stein
As commissioner of the world's second most popular team sport, David Stern makes frequent references to No. 1.
"Which is soccer," Stern says.
Which is why you can safely assume that Le Commish, as part of his punishment deliberations this weekend, has studied and considered how player-fan unrest has been handled in world football.
Which is why Indiana and Detroit should be worried. Very worried.
Later Sunday, or at the latest Monday, official word is expected from the league office to confirm how severely Ron Artest and Pacers teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal have been punished for going into the stands to clash with Pistons fans Friday night. If Artest's penalty is a suspension for the rest of the season -- a sanction that more than one rival club official has privately called for in the past 24 hours -- soccer's most powerful governing bodies overseas should get the assist.
The NBA precedent was established in 1995, when Houston's Vernon Maxwell received a 10-game suspension for running into the stands and punching a fan.
Chances are, though, that the Mad Max precedent will be applied only to the cases of Jackson and O'Neal, who followed Artest into the crowd and neither of whom has a past to rival Artest's. It will be hard for the league to justify suspensions of longer than 10 games for those two, even though the furor of this incident far outstrips what Maxwell generated.
Given Artest's history of chaos-making, by contrast, it's far more likely that his sentence will be closer in length to another unsavory episode from '95. We're referring, of course, to the sight of Manchester United's Eric Cantona -- perhaps the most famous face in the most watched sports league on the planet -- leaping over an advertising board to launch a kung fu kick at a Crystal Palace supporter.
It was the first time in the history of English football that a player had attacked a spectator.
And Cantona, in spite of his fame and his club's stature, was banned for eight months.
If you haven't seen the Cantona clip, hopefully you were watching Saturday night's NBA Fastbreak. If you have, you know that Cantona's actions amount to a handshake compared to the chaos seen at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The cynic might suggest that the Pacers wouldn't be terribly disappointed to see Stern come down that hard. After all the hubbub surrounding Artest's recent time-off request -- and growing suspicions that Pacers management, and O'Neal more than anyone, has reached its limit with Artest distractions -- a lengthy ban could be seen as addition by subtraction.
Except for two critical points.
1. No one in the league besides Artest is capable of winning defensive player of the year honors and ranking among the league's top 10 scorers. The Pacers would miss him greatly, even if they think they won't.
And 2. Indiana might have wrecked its season by protecting a guy who, as recently as a week ago, infuriated and perplexed thousands by requesting time off and admitting that he had thoughts about retirement.
The Pistons, mind you, would be wise not to gloat too much, even though three long-term Indiana suspensions would naturally give their chances of winning the Central Division a serious boost.
Reason being -- Detroit could likewise learn how it feels for Stern to ding them with soccer logic.
In soccer-playing countries, the natural response to the deplorable behavior of Detroit's unruliest fans would be to lock out every single fan on March 25, when the Pacers make their next visit to the Palace.
Just last week, selected members of England's national soccer team were racially abused by Spanish fans in what amounted to an exhibition game. FIFA, the sport's international ruling body, is threatening to force Spain to play its next home international match -- a real World Cup qualifier -- behind closed doors, with only members of the media allowed in as witnesses.
It has already happened in this season's Champions League. The opening group match for Italy's AS Roma, against the Ukraine's Dynamo Kiev in September, was abandoned early after Swedish referee Anders Frisk was injured by a coin thrown from the stands. AS Roma's next home match, against Germany's Bayer Leverkusen, was played without fans in the stands.
Such measures have never been taken Stateside, but the Pistons would never forget the message. Not only would its home-court advantage be wiped out in a late-season matchup with its fiercest rivals, but Detroit would also lose the six to seven figures of revenue it generates from every home game.
"All along the way, we have tried to learn whatever we could from the rest of the world," Stern said last February at his annual All-Star Game address, referring to international basketball but also international football. " ... We don't think there's anything that we can't learn about."
That sound you hear, in the wake of the ugliest scuffling the league has ever seen, is two teams gulping.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.