Monday, December 18, 2006

Violence Voyeurism

As sports fans are by now aware, during the waning moments of a Saturday night basketball game between the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks, a melee ensued among several players for each team. The league will shortly announce suspensions and fines for the players involved, including Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony, who connected on a sucker punch to Knicks rookie Mardy Collins (who himself had started the fracas by committing a hard foul). For much of Sunday, the sports tv news shows repeatedly replayed the fight, even as the commentators condemned the behavior.

There is a certain mystery here. Basketball purists say that fighting has no place in the game, but obviously the tv producers think it keeps the fans hooked. In light of that evident fact, why does the league itself strongly disapprove of violence? One reason is obviously to protect the teams’ investments in their players. Unlike fights in hockey, where players are well padded, season-ending or career-ending injuries could result in basketball. But that’s not all of it. Despite the evident fascination of the fans with fighting, the Indiana Pacers dipped in popularity when they were involved in an even worse melee in Detroit two years ago. Perhaps the difference there is simply that the Pacers players attacked fans, which made the gladiatorial aspect less comfortable.

There is also a strange disconnect with reality. Americans and especially Iraqis are dying horrible deaths in substantial numbers in Iraq; yet most such incidents get nothing like the attention that this basketball fight – which resulted in no serious injuries – garnered. Or maybe that’s the answer right there: We like our violence to be extreme but not to hit too close to home.

11 comments:

Marty Lederman said...

Just to add a bit of legal flavor to the post: The NBA obviously sees some potential marketing value in it -- they've begun to ask YouTube to pull the versions of the video that have been posted there because the league has the copyright to the film.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for that note Marty. A nice illustration of the licit/illicit nature of violence in sport.

Madisonian said...

It seems to me far from obvious that the NBA's request to YouTube shows that it sees "potential marketing value" in the brawl. Quite the opposite, in fact; it may suggest merely that the league wishes to dissociate itself from such violence by limiting fans' ability to watch the incident. If Marty's rather cynical theory were correct, we should expect the NBA to begin selling its own video (perhaps packaged with the Ron Artest melee and the Rudy Tomjanovich punch). I suspect that's highly unlikely.

Octopus Grigori said...

I agree with madisonian. That said, the violence on the basketball floor, really, was not that shocking.

I think it's impossible to ignore the race factor here. Fighting is part of the game in hockey, an overwhelmingly white sport, but is taboo in basketball, a predominantly black sport. (Although, I would not take this too far -- there are many non-white players in baseball, and a brawl in that sport would also be seen as a serious violation and breach of the sport's etiquette.)

I agree that Stern and the NBA are concerned about keeping the NBA marketable and palatable to America -- and by America here, I mean (for the NBA's marketing purposes) middle, upper-middle, and upper class white Americans who are the primary purchasers of super-expensive NBA tickets and official gear (although this has become much more global with sales in Asia and Europe). Stern and the NBA fear the return of the bad old image of the NBA: pot-smoking, womanizing, brawling black men. (See also Stern's imposition of a dress code on NBA players, esp. Allan Iverson.)

Look, it's no secret that the NBA presents some troubling racial dynamics: teams of workers -- predominantly black -- whose contracts are owned (overwhelmingly) by rich white men who have the power to trade and swap their workers.

As a related but digressive note, I've always found it fascinating that certain NBA teams (the Jazz, the Mavericks, the Celtics, the Kings, the Timberwolves, etc.), because of their geographic market, feel that they cannot field an all black team and will go out of their way to find a white star to draw in fans. (See, e.g., Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Wally Szerbiak, the Celtics of Bird, McHale, Ainge and Co., etc.) On the other hand, certain teams in the most progressive and densely urban cities appear to be fine fielding all-black squads (the Lakers of the 80's, the Houston Rockets of the 90's, the Knicks, etc. -- I think the distinction in the types of teams Houston and Dallas have put together over the past decade and a half or so is particularly revealing about the racial marketing in those cities.)

It would be fascinating to find out if the marketing people for these teams actually do studies to find out how their attendance or support will suffer or decline based on the racial make-up of their teams. These are big money operations: when the Mavericks or Bobcats or whoever use their lottery pick to snag a Great White Hope (see, e.g., Adam Morrison), they're certainly acting "rationally" in putting together a racial picture that will sell.

See also the intense recruitment of European players by teams that traditionally try to field white players (e.g., the Kings, the Celtics) -- it doesn't matter if the player is from around the world, so long as the average NBA fan can better identify with Igor or Pedja.

Octopus Grigori said...

Also, to Mike's point about our selective attention (viz., Iraq vs. the NBA) we can only hope that the President will make room in his upcoming State of the Union for a timely comment about the need to clean up Professional Basketball.

Maybe after he gives an update on the War on Steroids.

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