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.