Malice in the Palace, revisited

(Output has been light here lately, I know. Some (not-at-all-dire) health issues have been pre-occupying, plus the end of the semester (that darn day job!) have thrown me off.

Today is the anniversary of the “Malice in the Palace,” the 2004 brawl between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers that spilled over into the stands and, in many ways, ushered in a new era in the NBA.

A very talented young legal scholar, Jeffrey Williams (who died tragically young) wrote a compelling law review article about the implications and legacy of the brawl (which resulted in a season-long suspension for Ron Artest). Here’s a post I wrote way back when in 2006, about the NBA’s “new image,”  summarizing Williams’ insights, which remain very much relevant today:

Jeffrey Williams, in a 2005 UCLA Entertainment Law Review article titled, “Flagrant Foul: Racism in the Ron Artest Fight.” (  Williams was a 26-year old attorney and frequent contributor to the excellent Sports Law Blog who died suddenly a few days ago from a subdural hematoma.

Law review articles are long and copiously footnoted, but his is worth a read. A few key points stand out:

1) Commissioner Stern understands the racial nature of the challenge he faces. As quoted in a Washington Post story in November 2005, Stern said: “I think it’s fair to say that the NBA was the first sport that was widely viewed as a black sport and…will always be viewed a certain way because of it. Our players are so visible that if they have Afros or cornrows or tattoos – white or black – our consumers pick it up. So, I think there are always some elements of race involved that affect judgments about the NBA.”

2) The NBA has played a problematic game – profiting commercially by selling a particular image of its players while recoiling at the perceived excesses of that image. Williams writes: “[t]hough its dimensions are complex, the cultural authenticity commercialized by the NBA and industry affiliates represents a racist device because those cultural dimensions are closely associated with race.” Williams continues: “the NBA and its sponsors did not create this problem – but they did regard it as a commercial opportunity. This facet of league business is not overt or intentional racism. Yet only the naïve would believe the cultural overtones of the NBA’s marketed image were unknown or only understood by league management. This device was in effect the knowing exploitation of the respective industry markets. Neither overt nor covert, this form of commercial racism is just as real…”

3) Following the Artest brawl, prosecutors clearly deemed the fans, especially John Green, culpable. In fact, prosecutors thought that Green was “single-handedly” responsible for the brawl (and Green had spent eight years in jail previously). The league’s record suspension and fine of Artest, notwithstanding that he was deemed to have a valid self-defense legal argument for his behavior were a capitulation to a fan base already suspicious of the league’s black players. In other words, the suspensions of Artest and his teammates were a capitulation to commercial realities that reinforced the disturbing racial currents that underlie the league’s understanding of its fan base’s wishes.

4) The new NBA dress codes, instituted in 2005-06, especially in the ban on “unapproved head gear” and “chains, pendants or medallions” had unmistakably racial overtones, targeted as they were at the aspects of dress most obviously associated with hip-hop.

5) Matthew Dowd, a former Karl Rove associate, was brought in specifically to consult on the new dress code, in order to help the NBA better reach the “red states.” This was part and parcel of a strategy that indulged and reinforced the perceived link between certain kinds of appearances on the one hand and “professionalism” and proper conduct on the other. Such a capitulation by the league also indulged the fear of, in Harvey Araton’s words “the imagery of large black men beating on defenseless white fans” while ignoring “the too widely accepted pastime of affluent whites feeling empowered to verbally abuse half-dressed, sweaty black men.”

6) Tellingly, the dress code did not apply to owners, like the t-shirt wearing – and constant league gadfly – Mark Cuban. (though the league is now trying to rein in his courtside antics).  As an aside, on tonight’s PTI, both Kornheiser and Wilbon applauded Cuban’s latest sarcastic stab at the commissioner and his attire this week – a t-shirt with the words “he fine me” on the back. Kornheiser described Cuban as a “burr under Stern’s saddle” and saw that as a positive necessity for the league.

7) Williams concludes by arguing that leaving punishments for incidents like the famous brawl “to the forces of the market serves to entrench the harmful ideologies that riddle American society.”

If the league continues to face –and accede to – a level of scrutiny for its players’ transgressions that is out of proportion to those of players in other sports, it would seem difficult to deny the on-going role that race plays in judgments of the NBA.


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