The dominant story in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been the level of violence.
During the first week of the playoffs, as Tim Cowlishaw observed Friday in the Dallas Morning News, “truly inspired play was marred by an over-the-top outbreak of violence that seemed like simply too much. Even by the NHL’s questionable standards” (4/20/12). The Associated Press noted the “head-hunting hits and suspension-a-day headlines dominating the first round,” accompanied by a headline asking whether it was “Thrilling or thuggery?” (4/20/12). North of the border, the media has taken note of the “noticeably violent” postseason (TSN Radio, 4/19/12), with its “outrageous epidemic of violence” (Vancouver Sun, 4/20/12).
The Globe and Mail noted Thursday that “some sponsors are quietly expressing concern to the league about the possibility of their own image being tarnished” (4/19/12), and Reuters spoke of some fans who had been left “cringing” (4/19/12). Former players have contrasted the brawls of the 70s with the “cheap shots” of today (USA Today, 4/19/12). “This is a roller coaster going downhill, and we are all wondering how much worse can the next hit be,” former NBC analyst Peter McNab told USA Today (4/19/12). “This beautiful game is turning into a bowl of putrescence,” the Chicago Sun-Times’ Rick Telander said in a bit of melodrama, “the way any sport will when it has no borders, no overseer, no conscience” (4/18/12).
It may be tempting to suggest that the NHL is finally receiving the kind of scrutiny for fighting that the NBA – which has significantly fewer fights than either the NHL or Major League Baseball in any given season – has dealt with for years. However, there is one key ingredient missing in the coverage of NHL violence: sweeping generalizations about not only the entire league, but of the culture of its participants.
Fighting in the NBA, especially during the bleak days of the mid-2000s, was always accompanied by handwringing over ‘hip-hop culture’ and the markers of said culture – ways of dress, hairstyles, musical taste, and the like. Coverage of NBA fights rarely had much to do with anything that took place on the court. The 2006 Nuggets/Knicks fight, arguably a garden-variety scrap in either the NHL or MLB, received coverage on ‘NBC Nightly News’ and ABC’s ‘World News Tonight.’ It certainly could not have been due to the level of violence, the extent of which was Carmelo Anthony punching a New York Knick.
For the NBA, the issue was never really the violence as an objective, singular entity. It was the violence combined with the “scary-looking, tattooed, prison inmates,” to quote TV writer Ken Levine’s 2007 screed, who comprise the league’s player base.
That is why Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson going into the stands in November 2004 became one of the most damaging sports stories of the past quarter-century, while Frank Francisco throwing a chair into the stands (and breaking a woman’s nose) at a Major League Baseball game just weeks earlier remains a largely forgotten footnote.
The violence in the NHL has attracted scorn – admittedly some of it from sportswriters who are phoning in outrage in an attempt to appear attuned to a sport to which they pay little attention. But the scorn is missing that edge, that personal touch. In the NHL, the violence is the issue, but there has been little examination of the players. No discussion of the music they listen to, the length of their shorts, how they were raised, their hairstyles. No real fear that they are emblematic of decay and dysfunction in their community.
Contrast that with the NBA, whose players – particularly the young players – have been scrutinized for the better part of the past sixteen years. It started in late 1997, with growing disgust over player salaries (Kevin Garnett) and misdemeanors (Allen Iverson and Isaiah Rider), and then mushroomed thanks to the Latrell Sprewell/P.J. Carlesimo case and the owners’ 1998-99 lockout. Sportswriter Mike Wise – in the staid The New York Times, no less – outwardly referred to the players as “knuckleheads” on multiple occasions. That was quite tame compared to The Washington Post’s Kevin Merida, who in 1998 wrote a scathing article disguised as a tribute to Sam Jones that was so bubbling over with hatred of the players that it approached parody. By the early 2000s, bashing the players had become a pastime in its own right.
“Too many tattooed thugs yelling obscenities for the cameras as they complete the oh-so-difficult art of dunking the ball,” one reader told the Houston Chronicle in a 2003 letter to the editor – well over a year before the Artest fight (Houston Chronicle, 2/16/03). That was in response to an article by current NBA.com writer Fran Blinebury, who argued that the league “cultivates much of the thug image that is making a mockery – if not a dangerous war zone – of its game” (Houston Chronicle, 2/8/03). He cited, among other things, Ron Artest’s suspensions for confronting Pat Riley and for throwing a television set at Madison Square Garden, Rasheed Wallace accosting later-disgraced referee Tim Donaghy, and even Pacers coach Isiah Thomas being ejected for yelling at officials – nothing particularly sterling, but nothing unprecedented in the NBA or any other league.
The association of young NBA players with thuggery was so strong that when the Palm Beach Post wrote about the pre-LeBron James Cavaliers in March 2003, the writer had to clarify that the team was “young, but they’re not thugs” (Palm Beach Post, 3/16/03).
Obviously, the players’ negative image only escalated after the Artest brawl. “No league has as poor a public image as the NBA,” CBS News reported days after the fight, “Many people see it as a collection of hooligans and thugs” (CBS Evening News, 11/21/04). Or, as The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon put it, there was an “increasing perception that the league is full of young, underachieving, unprofessional, richer-than-ever, thug divas unable to maintain the level of play established by the previous generation’s stars … even fans who pay to watch the game are growing sick of today’s players, their arrogance, their sense of entitlement” (11/21/04).
“Believe it, hip-hop culture is at work here,” the Sun-Times’ Telander argued. “Artest, naturally, has a rap CD that has occupied so much of his time. Sorry, folks, but a society can watch only so many thug ‘artists’ and hear only so many lyrics about ‘hos’ and ‘pimps’ and ‘killahs’ and ‘bustin’ a cap’ in somebody’s ass before it loses its moral bearings” (Chicago Sun-Times, 11/21/04). Whether any of those lyrics were actually present in Artest’s CD was immaterial. Telander went on to also blame video games, noting that Artest played them constantly, and then bringing up Grand Theft Auto for no apparent reason. Speaking of video games, Adrian Wojnarowski argued that, “For most of the NBA, free shots at fans rank right up there with pole dancers and PlayStation” (11/21/04).
On MSNBC’s ‘Scarborough Country,’ New York Post writer Phil Mushnick said the teams were “changing colors to gang colors” (11/22/04) – a frankly bizarre argument that no doubt contributed to the NBA’s brief ban on new black uniforms (the league did not introduce a new black jersey from 2002 to 2008). Noting the similar acronyms between the NBA and NRA, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk argued that, “with the number of gun charges that have been slapped on players past and present in the last handful of years, maybe the real wonder was that no one pulled a gun” (11/22/04). An editorial in The Augusta Chronicle called the players “arrogant, spoiled multimillionaires with a hateful, anti-social ‘street’ attitude. Some of these thugs might be in prison today were it not for an extraordinary ability to run, pass, catch and shoot baskets” (11/23/04). “[T]he NBA keeps filling its rosters with players who ought to be filling cell blocks,” argued another editorial (The Detroit News, 11/23/04). Fines, the author wrote, would not alter the way players behaved, “but it may help them sell a few more rap CDs.” The Artest brawl merely confirmed the suspicions about players that already existed. “Everything we thought was wrong with the NBA exploded on TV screens across the nation Friday night” (The Ledger, 11/23/04).
When the Knicks and Nuggets had their frankly mild fight at Madison Square Garden two years later, the familiar refrains returned. “This was criminal behavior perpetuated by both the Nuggets and the Knicks,” the New York Daily News frothed (12/17/06). Referring to David Stern’s 15-game suspension of Carmelo Anthony, Canada’s National Post wondered if “perhaps Stern even believes he can eradicate the players’ dangerous gangsta behaviour, with its accompanying love of guns, in the same way he has tried to regulate their on-court bling and their courtside apparel” (12/19/06). An editorial in The Lowell Sun declared that the NBA “boasts some of the biggest misfits, malcontents and undisciplined players the sporting world has ever seen,” adding that the “street-thug mentality is indicative of the new NBA, where ‘cred’ and ‘respect’ are part of a warped value system totally divorced from that exhibited by the game’s past greats” (12/19/06). The writer went on to say that it was “hard to imagine” players from previous eras acting the same way, as if fighting were somehow new to the league, and concluded by arguing that the “NBA of today is more reminiscent of the gangs of New York than a league of extraordinary and respected athletes” (12/19/06). All for a fight that, in terms of severity, arguably ranks below recent scraps such as the 2010 Reds/Cardinals brawl or anything seen in the NHL – even before this year’s postseason.
From the coverage of these incidents, one thing is clear. The violence was never really the issue. The players were. Every time an NBA player committed some kind of offense – from the serious (the Artest brawl, the Kobe Bryant case) to the utterly benign (the myriad controversies over player marijuana use in a nation that treats the drug like a rite of passage and, alternatively, a topic worthy of joking about on sitcoms) – the issue always boiled down to the out-of-control players, their out-of-control culture, and the fact they were somehow uniquely dangerous. Or, as former NHL play-by-play voice Gary Thorne once called them in a long-since-scrubbed Bangor Daily News article, “the nation’s most expensive gang, if not the most dangerous.” One wonders if Thorne has reserved a similar distinction for the NHL.
The NHL has faced scrutiny for what its players have done. The NBA has faced scrutiny for who its players are, or at least who they are perceived to be. Perhaps it is a fine line, but it is a difference. And so, as the NHL deals with some bad press to start the postseason, they can comfort themselves with the knowledge that their players – the faces of their game – are not viewed as dangerous. Their actions may be frowned upon, but actions can be changed. Or, as Bruce Dowbiggin wrote of the NHL in The Globe and Mail Friday, “Advertisers actually like these guys in spite of the fighting and violence” (4/20/12). Indeed. The same can be said of the fans and, certainly, the media.
For the NBA, it is a bit trickier. The few isolated, violent incidents that have taken place the past decade were less cause for outrage than confirmation of the worst suspicions about the players. So even in a league that has not had a brawl in over five years, the perception of violence and thuggery persists. The danger is always there, in the form of the players and the assumed characteristics of their supposed culture. The only way to avoid bad press is for the players to be on their best behavior at all times, as any slip up makes every player suspect. After all, it was just two years ago when the Gilbert Arenas case prompted Forbes writer Michael Ozanian to say “the league is full of thugs” (1/2/10).