For those who didn’t see it, here’s a link to the hit. Watch it, then watch it again. Watch it in slow-mo and in real time. Take it in.
For NBA fans, truly, genuinely physical play is mostly a thing of the past. The 80′s, despite what foggy-minded reminiscers might have you believe, was not a better time for basketball. For every Bird and Magic, there were two Michael Ray Richardson’s ruining their careers with assorted bad decisions. Cocaine was a big thing for athletes and celebrities everywhere in the 1980′s, and one big side effect of that craze was a lot of coked-out brawls on the court. The drugs and the fighting took a huge toll on the league — Think Lenny Bias and Rudy Tomjonovich. Make no mistake — This hit should be held in the same light.
David Stern has dedicated his career to making the NBA a league of professionals. For the most part, he has done an incredible job. The most contentious decisions he’s made have revoloved around dress code and some latent racial issues that are frankly more to do with the NBA, and American, social dynamic than to do with drugs or fighting. Still, everything Stern has implemented has been in the name of professional quality. Dress codes, drug tests, lottery picks, age requirements — agree or not, they all come from the same explicit motive. And in his entire career, Stern has presided over exactly one event that could be said to have pervasively damaged the professional image of the league, from top to bottom — The Malice at the Palace.
Nothing jeopardized Sterns NBA more than the Malice. Outrageous in its own right, the circumstances and characters involved served to hammer home a weak and dying stereotype about black NBA athletes that is just toxic for a professional sports league. So when it comes to fights, and especially fights involving a certain gentleman with the name “Ron Artest” on his birth certificate, it’s safe to say that David Stern has a keen interest.
But what really ties the knot on this whole debacle is how head injuries have been thrust into the national spotlight by other professional sports, namely the NFL. Studies are beginning to confirm what former players have said for years — High impact head trauma can have serious, life-altering affects for athletes. Football players who fought through concussion symptoms are facing serious challenges in their every day lives because of residual side effects. The New Orleans Saints organization was punished severely for implementing a bounty system, where players were encouraged through bets and pride to deliberately injure opposing players. The focus on intentional harm has never been more intense, and the impacts of physical play have never been more clear to athletes, teams, doctors and fans.
So I’m actually appalled to see people defending World Peace. The ONLY qualification for his actions is that they weren’t 100% deliberate. That’s it. Beyond that — there is nothing to be said. And as far as I’m concerned, World Peace knew that he was raising his elbow to neck-level and knew Harden was at arms length.
Some are saying “It’s Metta being Metta”. ”He’s a crazy guy” who “has worked hard to rehabilitate his image”. Okay. Not only is this conjecture, it’s irrelevant. And not only irrelevant, but frankly insulting to Metta World Peace. Certainly unstable but hardly dumb, any semi-lucid adult with Peace’s history would steer far clear of situations like this. There’s just no way.
What I find truly horrendous, though, is the sect of fans defending the actions and even blaming Harden for instigating. This is rooted in some sort of love for the basketball of yesteryear, the physical rivalries between Ewing’s Knicks and Mourning’s Heat. Not only have we rationally, actively moved away from that league for an endless amount of reasons, but even if you disregard that past there is a lack of human decency that internet users are just all-too-happy to embrace.
This could have been a lot more serious. Harden was diagnosed with a concussion, and most likely will recover fully. But he might not. Concussions are tricky, and it could have been much more than a concussion. Temple-shots are not to be trifled with, not to be ignored and not to be understated. It’s not unrealistic to say that had the blow landed somewhere else, Harden could have been killed. It’s just that simple.
So why are folks missing this? Is it the desensitized nature of TV-sports-viewing? I think that’s part of it. Unless a guy is violently torn in half, the constant and graphic nature of media content has definitely made something like an elbow to the head seem slightly less serious.
But isn’t part of what makes sports so great the fact that it translates this primal competitive spirit into something that we can watch without feeling guilty? It’s like ancient Roman Gladiators versus American Gladiators. The essence of human competition is enshrined in sports, without also involving other natural factors like survival of the fittest or competition for limited natural resources.
Besides hockey, fighting isn’t enhancing the sport but making a mockery of it. It damages every aspect of what fans are drawn to – talent and professionalism. It skews casual opinions in a negative direction — “this is the kind of league the NBA is?”. And yet “fans” on Twitter, Facebook, and assorted sports chat forums are applauding World Peace for checking Harden, who was apparently guilty of some smack talk over the course of the game. This response from World Peace was somehow justified because Harden was talking trash. For real?
It’s also an internet thing. Never in history has the fake tough guy had so much protection from reality as during the internet age. People who get off on instigating and getting attention of any kind can mouth of, make chippy remarks and get attention without facing real-world consequences. This is certainly the only way to explain the George Zimmerman lynch mob on Twitter … the lack of accountability empowers people, mostly dumb ones, to say things that they normally never would. Well, internet tough guys of the world, there is at least one place online where your digital chest-puffing will not be tolerated or ignored.
So if we were serious about protecting the NBA, it’s players and it’s fans back in the 80′s, if we were serious about how disgusted we were by the Malice at the Palace, if we are serious now about the drama surrounding head injuries in the NFL — we sure as hell better be serious about this hit. I think Stern gets it, and will act accordingly. I’d be shocked if MWP got a suspension for less than 10 games, and frankly am expecting him to be jettisoned for the playoffs. Stern saw the effect Goodell had by showing an iron fist with his punishment of Sean Payton and I don’t think the lesson was lost on him. He will ensure that no player, no matter how bright or daft, will ever consider pulling a hit like this to send a message. And it’s the right choice, for the league and for fans who respect a quality product.