Foul by David Stern! (and Stu Jackson)
Bill Long 5/16/07
When Legalism Trumps Common Sense
Fundamentalists of all sorts wreck life. You don't have to be religious, however, to be a fundamentalist. All you need to do is to interpret a text in a literal manner or a manner that totally ignores the pulsating dynamic of life that produced the text, and you are a fundamentalist. You not only celebrate the "letter" of the law above the "spirit," but you pursue "correctness" over "justice." But what you ultimately discover is that your interpretation is neither correct nor just. You just end up perpetuating the very thing you meant to curb.
Well, these comments are not just random thoughts uninformed by any issue of our common life. Of course they refer to the NBA's untenable decision yesterday to suspend Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, as well as Robert Horry, from game 5 of the NBA playoff game between the Suns and the Spurs. It isn't just any game 5. Many analysts feel that this game might be the decisive game between two teams, either of which will probably win the NBA championship for the year. Of course, we could all be wrong, but this is how it looks.
Anyone who has the slightest interest in professional basketball knows the event to which I refer--Robert Horry's carefully executed body block of Steve Nash into the scorer's table with fewer than 20 seconds left in the stunning upset of the Spurs by the Suns on Monday night. This shocking event, which would have brought anyone to their feet in defense of their superstar, then eventuated in some pushing and shoving before the officials sorted things out. When the dust had cleared (yesterday), two Phoenix Suns stars who had ventured a few feet from the bench, and didn't enter the on-court altercation, had been ejected from tonight's game, while the Spurs faced the prospect of losing an aging and not-too-effective Robert Horry from tonight's game.
As anyone who is involved in law knows, rules are made and rules are interpreted. Here is the language of the rule interpreted by the NBA's office to apply to this situation:
"NBA rule 12-A-VII-c: During an altercation, all players not participating in the game must remain in the immediate vicinity of their bench. Violators will be suspended, without pay, for a minimum of one game and fined up to $35,000. The suspensions will commence prior to the start of their next game. ..."
This was the rule which Stu Jackson, David Stern's "disciplinarian" used to make his decision. As one columnist has argued, there is some flexibility in the language which could have easily been construed to spare the two Phoenix players from a suspension. But I don't think we even have to "massage" the language to see that Jackson's decision is indefensible. If unjust results come about (that is, you don't punish the non-offending team with greater punishment than the offending team), you know that your mode of interpretation is skewed.
Race and the NBA
You cannot think of the NBA without thinking about race. It just confronts you every game. Powerful Black men dominate it, though the "international" nature of the sport has produced some significant non-USA White or Asian (Yao) talent. But ultimately, just as American is still mired in Viet Nam as it fights in Iraq, so America is still mired in its racial past as it tries to enter the new millennium. The central issue is that people don't like to see Black people fighting on TV, especially when White people might get caught with an uppercut (except in a boxing match), and therefore basketball has been visited with the strictest rules imaginable. The reason we love to watch hockey guys pummel each other (and why it is permitted?) is because we are not threatened with White guys fighting. It is just a brawl. But when Black guys enter and fight, White America becomes petrified. It is as if we can see the end of our civilization. Thus, the NBA has not only adopted the strict rule quoted above (a sort of "anti-Black man" rule, in my interpretation), but has placed in the hands of a Black man (Stu Jackson) the interpretation of the rule. This way the clever Commissioner David Stern can easily brush off charges of racial preference or discrimination.
And race may or may not have been one issue overlaying the facts of this sordid affair. But by deciding not to intervene in Jackson's decision (Stern could definitely have overridden him), we have the result that the hammerer (Horry) and the violent team is punished far less than the "peaceful" team. The rule meant to "control" Black men has now been interpreted to reward the Black men (so to speak) who perpetuated the violence.
So, all is screwed up. The NBA has more than egg on its face now. Maybe it should hire Joey Crawford back. He would certainly clean things up. And Tim Duncan is afraid of him.