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Will Isiah Get Off Easy?

Today the National Basketball Association handed out substantial suspensions to the players involved in Saturday's brawl during the Denver Nuggets-New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. NBA Commissioner David Stern issued 47 days worth of suspensions in total, and fined each organization $500,000. NBA scoring leader Carmelo Anthony got the biggest penalty. His 15 game suspension is the sixth-longest in league history.

Whether or not the league was too hard on Anthony, as Marc Stein argues (I'm inclined to disagree), the big question is whether the league will sanction Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for encouraging (if not directing) Knicks' rookie Mardy Collins to commit the flagrant foul that sparked the fight. According to several reports (and, apparently, the game tape) Thomas warned Anthony before the foul: "Hey, don't go to the basket right now. It wouldn't be a good idea. I'm just letting you know."

Thomas' explanation, that he was encouraging Anthony to show more class than his coach and not run up the score, doesn't pass the laugh test (especially given Thomas' own history of sharp play). It seems it was enough for David Stern, however. The New York Times is reporting that Isiah has been "effectively cleared" for his role in instigating the melee.

"My finding was that there was not adequate evidence upon which to make a determination," Commissioner David Stern said in a conference call. "You have to find something in order to suspend someone. Even in the N.B.A., there's a presumption of innocence."
Speaking of class, Anthony issued a gracious apology for his role in the altercation.Yet as of this morning, Thomas remained unrepentant, claiming that Nuggets coach George Karl "put his players in a very bad position" by not removing his starters at the end of the game.

[For those interested, my comments on the last major "basketbrawl" can be found here.]

UPDATE: Apparently I am not the only one who thinks Isiah Thomas got off easy. When I last checked, the respondents to this ESPN poll thought most of the suspensions were about right, but that Isiah Thomas deserved a suspension too.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Melo Won't Appeal Suspension:
  2. Will Isiah Get Off Easy?
HLSbertarian (mail):
Contrast former Temple Coach John Chaney, who suspended himself for the rest of the season in 2005 after he sent in an end-of-the-bench goon to commit some hard fouls, one of which ended up injuring an opposing player.
12.18.2006 5:32pm
nunzio:
Zeke is on his way out anyway. No sense suspending someone that's surely going to be fired soon.

He's always been a sore loser.
12.18.2006 5:35pm
Houston Lawyer:
Maybe they should just put them in something close to football pads before they send them out. My nephew may lose 6 teeth because of an elbow he took in a high school basketball game last week.

I did like the way the guys in suits got into the middle of the players during the brawl.
12.18.2006 5:45pm
William Dalasio (mail):
It's time to get rid of Thomas. You can get away with being a first class jerk when you win games. But Thomas hasn't even done that.
12.18.2006 5:51pm
theBman:
Any player that raises a fist and hits another player needs to be fired and contract terminated (i.e. he doesn't get paid) until the next season.

no second chances.

Why are "proffesional"(/sarcasm) "Sportsman" (more /sarcasm) treated any different than 99.9% of working Americans that would be fired for punching a co-worker?

...and don't get me started on how these are the role-models our youth look up to.
12.18.2006 5:51pm
Shangui (mail):
Any player that raises a fist and hits another player needs to be fired and contract terminated (i.e. he doesn't get paid) until the next season.

no second chances.


Should we apply this to hockey too?
12.18.2006 5:56pm
theBman:
Should we apply this to hockey too?

sure...

I personally think poor sportsmanship should be treated as a capital offense in sports.

... and yes, boxing and the like should still allow fighting; just in case anyone decides to get cute with the comments.
12.18.2006 6:01pm
Steve:
It's probably true that there wasn't enough evidence for a suspension, but I would have at least liked to see a serious investigation. Isiah deserved to have some people breathing down his neck over this one.
12.18.2006 6:03pm
anonVCfan:
A team that is upset with another team running up the score should respond by playing defense, not by starting a fight.

Complaints about other teams running up the score are legitmate in youth sports, and in some college games, where teams with huge talent disparities can find themselves playing against each other.

The guy who should get the longest suspension is the one who committed the foul that set off the whole incident.

In the NBA, though, they're all professionals and are supposed to represent the best of the best. To say that another team deserves anything more than a scowl for running up the score is just whining.

If it's true that Isiah "warned" Carmelo, he should be suspended, and no one should sympathize.

As for Carmelo, he threw a punch just as the conflict was diffusing. He complained during the draft about the media putting him in the shadow of LeBron James. While he's cooling his heels, he should ask himself what LeBron would have done in similar circumstances.
12.18.2006 6:06pm
Steven:
Given that Anthony's "gracious apology" was written by the Nugget's publicist, do you think he could tell you tomorrow what he actually said?
12.18.2006 6:11pm
Tennessean (mail):
What a bunch of ninnies. You put a bunch of very strong men in a zero-sum competition where they are, even within the "proper" bounds of the game, constantly grappling and beating on each other physicially, you make the stakes incredibly high (salaries in the 10s of millions), and then you get upset with some pushing and shoving? Please. Everyone here is acting out the role demanded of them by the market (including the league itself, which is sounding the "You're scaring the weenies" horn that may keep some of the boy-scouters in the fold and will surely do nothing to dissuade those who are less squeamish).

We want to see all-out competition (claims to the contrary are wholly belied by market forces), and you can't get that without passions periodically flowing over.

Besides, it is out and out false that 99.9% of Americans would get fired for punching a co-worker. That might be true in the world of attorneys, accountants, and computer programmers (who, I might add, have reason to denigrate physical aggression given how much they've feared it in their collective histories, as a broad generality), but it isn't true for great swaths of America. Do you think that punching someone in the heat of the moment in military
training gets you fired?
12.18.2006 6:18pm
Tennessean (mail):
theBman: Do you apply that standard (sportsmanship as a prime value) in your own choices? Surely there are ample examples of competitions where sportsmanship is one of the highest values -- am I safe in presuming that is where you spend your attention and dollars?
12.18.2006 6:19pm
anonVCfan:

Besides, it is out and out false that 99.9% of Americans would get fired for punching a co-worker. That might be true in the world of attorneys, accountants, and computer programmers (who, I might add, have reason to denigrate physical aggression given how much they've feared it in their collective histories, as a broad generality), but it isn't true for great swaths of America. Do you think that punching someone in the heat of the moment in military training gets you fired?


My sentiments as well.
12.18.2006 7:28pm
QuintCarte (mail):
Not to side-track too much, but Tennessean and anonVCfan, I'm really surprised.

Yes, at absolutely every job I've ever had (and I'm near 50), you would absolutely, unquestionably, be fired for throwing a punch at someone. I don't think it's a crazy standard for professional athletes.

What kind of work do you guys do? ;-)
12.18.2006 7:40pm
Hei Lun Chan (mail) (www):
Obviously, David Stern is punishing the Knicks by keeping Isiah at his job.
12.18.2006 7:45pm
Ty_Webb:
I do find it interesting that the coverage of fights in the (mostly African-American) NBA portrays the players as out-of-control, unprofessional, hotheaded, violent, etc. Yet when a fight breaks out in the middle of a (mostly white) hockey game (Todd Bertuzzi notwithstanding) it is simply part of the game, in the MLB, it's a cute, Bull-Durham-esque reminder of baseball's nostalgic, childlike demeanor. While I think theBMan's point is largely correct, it should only be so where we can apply our disdain for the conduct uniformly.

That said, on the subject of the original post, I have heard it said that a suspension would make it more difficult for James Dolan to fire Isiah, and speculation is that David Stern has inside information that he's on the chopping block. Given that Stern would like to see his league's premier franchise exorcise itself from the Isiah Thomas era, this seems probably.
12.18.2006 8:06pm
Ty_Webb:
sp-probable.
12.18.2006 8:12pm
WJ (mail):
Well, I doubt Thomas told Mardy Collins to commit the foul that is why Stern could not find evidence of it. Of course, Collins knew it was his job to commit the foul. This is just like the baseball manager not having to tell his pitcher he needs to retaliate against the other team.

As for terminating the player's contract, there is a collective bargaining agreement. This is completely different from the Sprewell incident where choking a coach has never been tolerated. Terminating a contract over a fight would never hold up when the union files for arbitration.
12.18.2006 8:13pm
Jeff_M (mail):
Tennessean and anonVCfan:

You can't get "fired" from your "job" in the military. It's not a job. And yes, there is no question there would be a serious penalty if you punched a fellow service member in public. Except in the military, that penalty would likely involve loss of rank, pay, and maybe some confinement, all of which would be doled out by your "boss".

I work in the real world (not an office), and my sense is that theBman is generally correct when he says "99.9% of working Americans that would be fired for punching a co-worker." You might quibble and say it's really 98%, but his point is a good one: our society gives sports-entertainers too much slack.
12.18.2006 9:29pm
Steven Vickers:

I work in the real world (not an office), and my sense is that theBman is generally correct when he says "99.9% of working Americans that would be fired for punching a co-worker." You might quibble and say it's really 98%, but his point is a good one: our society gives sports-entertainers too much slack.


I don't really have a strong opinion on the suspensions (although I think Anthony's was a bit harsh), but the reason society cuts "sports-entertainers" slack compared to most jobs is that most jobs are radically different from sports. It doesn't really matter whether you or I would be fired for punching a co-worker, because the standards for businesses are different from athletics, and for good reason--there's a pretty clear trade-off involved with physical aggression (which we want) and fighting (which we don't).

I also note that it's not really a good argument to say that "there is no question there would be a serious penalty if you punched a fellow service member." I think the Nuggets might well fire Carmelo Anthony if he slugged a teammate, but this is an opponent we're talking about. For your analogy to really work, it would be the Nuggets directly punishing Anthony (and the others) that would be the point of discussion, not the NBA assuming that role.
12.18.2006 10:04pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Ty_Webb: Hockey's a bad comparison. Fighting is built into the rules of hockey. Also, the fans have some rather thick glass keeping them out of the fray (Tie Domi incident notwithstanding).
12.18.2006 10:30pm
Ilya Somin:
Maybe the NBA figured (correctly, in my view) that Isiah is such a bad coach that the Knicks would actually be better off if he were suspended. Even Isiah himself might be better off, as he would have fewer opportunities to make a fool out of himself through incompetent coaching. Therefore, the league might have concluded that the best punishment for Isiah and the Knicks is to leave him right where he is:).
12.18.2006 10:56pm
Ty_Webb:
HLSbertarian: I'm not sure I follow. NBA Rulebook, comments to the rules, section K states:

"Violent acts of any nature on the court will not be tolerated. Players involved in altercations will be ejected, fined, and/or suspended."

Now, here is a portion of NHL Rule 56, on "fisticuffs":

"A major penalty shall be imposed on any player who fights.

A player who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation shall be assessed an instigating minor penalty, a major for fighting and a ten minute misconduct..."

The rule goes on to define other penalties and fines to be levied against players who fight.

If, in a hockey match, you cannot score any points by fighting effectively, nor similarly prevent any points from being scored--indeed, if all it can get you is time in the box, a fine, and a possible suspension--how is that built into the rules, any more than the NBA's statement on fighting? Fighting is not a part of the game--it is prohibited and rules levy punishment just like other things that aren't part of the game. It's simply that this rule is ridiculously lax (the NHL's rationale for this is rather apparent) compared to the NBA's rule.

Another example: Shawn Merriman played football after having taken a banned substance. He was caught, and in accordance with NFL regulations, after an opportunity to appeal, he was suspended. We cannot truly say that steroid abuse is "built into the rules" because the NFL has both substantive and procedural regulations regarding steroid abuse.

Rather, fighting is a part of the culture of hockey--that's my entire point. The Rules Committee gives it lax treatment, as does the media. My point is: why? Why does the Rules Committee, the media, the fans, give it such lax treatment when it happens in hockey or baseball, and feign opprobrium for basketball players who react in a similarly violent, unprofessional, and (as seen in the incidents involving Bertuzzi, Kermit Washington, Lenny Randle, etc.) dangerous manner?

You can have your theories (relative safety of the fans being one I hadn't heard before) but I'm fairly certain that the media spin has at least a little to do with race.
12.18.2006 11:07pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Ty_Webb:

Yes, if you insist, the whole thing can be viewed as a matter of degree without any hard distinctions.

On this view, your standard, as best as I can tell is "it is prohibited and rules levy punishment just like other things that aren't part of the game" or "you cannot score any points...nor similarly prevent any points from being scored."

This applies to everything. Personal fouls. Traveling. Etc.

In basketball, it's accepted that in some situations a foul is the right way to go. You might break a hot shooter's momentum or make him think twice before flinging himself into the lane. The punishment, unless you do something egregious, is at most a couple of free throws.

Fighting in hockey, when viewed in the context of the sport, is much more like a personal foul in basketball than like a brawl. Hockey players fight to correct perceived dirty play, protect star players, to shift momentum, etc. There are many rules (most unwritten) to a hockey fight and the refs almost always keep control.

In hockey, as long as the fight is within the scope of the game, the punishment is as well: time in the box. If the fight steps outside the scope of the game (if a guys sucker punches an unwilling opponent, if a guy uses his stick, if a goon goes after a star in the waning seconds of a loss, etc.) the punishment might as well: a fine or a suspension.

Basketball has decided to have NO fighting within the normal scope of its game. For this reason, its not helpful to compare the punishment for the same conduct (throwing a punch) out of the sport's context. Hockey is different from basketball for an enormous amount of reasons that have nothing to do with race.

Outcry about these incidents usually just tracks the sport's own decisions about what is and what is not within the scope of fairly normal on-field/court/ice behavior. It is wrong to implicate racism without considering these inter-sport differences.

PS: Bertuzzi was banned from NHL and European hockey for over a year after the Moore incident. What exactly are you proving by bringing him up as a supposed example of how hockey's "lax" culture treats violence differently?
12.19.2006 2:03am
Reinhold (mail):
Why doesn't that "pass the laugh test"? It sounds like a good explanation to me. Besides, when I played basketball, I often intentionally fouled players with an open layup. It's a common practice. Of course, I never fouled anyone hard enough to get an intentional foul called, but it was obviously an intentional foul every time. So, why would Thomas get suspended even if he did tell his team to intentionally foul someone who had a fast-break layup? I mean, they don't kick people out of games every time they intentionally foul someone for a reason. It's a strategy. And an intentional, hard foul is not a license to tackle anyone in response. So, I don't see how Thomas could possibly be fined. It probably wouldn't "pass the laugh test" if her were.
12.19.2006 8:47am
Tom952 (mail):
"... and yes, boxing and the like should still allow fighting; just in case anyone decides to get cute with the comments."

Boxing didn't hesitate to suspend Tyson for biting, even though it was his first offense and he was sorry.

NBA - Nation Basket-Brawl Association.
12.19.2006 9:06am
Krisitan (mail):

What exactly are you proving by bringing him up as a supposed example of how hockey's "lax" culture treats violence differently?

Well, due to the lockout, the NHL suspension was very short, on the order of 20 games, which is silly since he seriously injured (ended his career) another player. At least Rudy T. played again (and was even an All-Star I think) after the Kermit Washington hit.
12.19.2006 9:16am
HLSbertarian (mail):
Krisitan: Bertuzzi lost at least $500K in NHL salary, and was also banned from European hockey during the lockout season (when most NHLers played there or in the AHL). Kermit got 2 months (26 games). Of course you're free to argue that Bertuzzi still got off easy, but comparing his punishment to Kermit's is not a good way to show how "lax" hockey is about violence.
12.19.2006 9:31am
theBman:
Tennessean and anonVCfan,

As someone that plays rugby, basketball, and golf on occasion; and also is a programmer, I'll see your broad generalization and raise you a civil discussion...

By no means do I cry foul when a charge comes my way. That's for the ref to decide.

Can you honestly say that, because when someone out performs you it is A.O.K. to cock your arm back closed fisted and hit the person that out-performs you unexpectedly; then continue to punch them while they are laying across the laps of women that either they or someone they know paid upwards of $4000 to see you do just about anything else except lay across their lap and beat someone up?

Do you apply that standard (sportsmanship as a prime value) in your own choices?

I most certainly do. In more things in my life than the sports that I play. There's this crazy thing in the world called wanting to be a good role model for your kids. Rare, I know, but some of us have it.

Whether these players like it or not, they are role models. These punk kids make my job as a father much harder when the athletes that they look up to; through their actions and the league's inaction, that it is O.K. to beat someone up because they are playing better than them.
12.19.2006 10:42am
WJ (mail):
The NHL took action against Bertuzzi because it did not want criminal charges filed against him. The NHL's argument was we do not need law enforcement to police us because we can police ourselves. A ridiculous argument, but one that appealed to many fans. To use the earlier analogy posted, its like your employer saying you cannot bring criminal charges against a co-worker for punching you because the employer has already disciplined the co-worker.

The recent reactions to fighting by hockey and basketball is due to negative public images. Baseball has had worse instances recently, but the public was not upset. I remember two years ago when a player hit a fan with a folding chair. I do not recall what the suspension was, but it was not significant. Football has significantly worse problems with off-field player conduct and fan behavoir, but no one seems to care.
12.19.2006 10:44am
Serenity Now (mail) (www):
Houston Lawyer: Maybe they should just put them in something close to football pads before they send them out.

"[Washington Wizards] Guard DeShawn Stevenson looks a little bit like an NFL running back when he suits up. Stevenson wears a girdle with thigh and hip pads underneath his basketball shorts. Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, Antonio Daniels and Caron Butler are among the Wizards who have followed Stevenson's lead so far this season."

- link
12.19.2006 12:12pm
Philistine (mail):

I remember two years ago when a player hit a fan with a folding chair. I do not recall what the suspension was, but it was not significant.


It was the remainder of the season. 16 games.

Also, he pled no contest to misdemeanor assault and was sentenced to 30 dyas (of which, he served 19 and the rest on furlough).
12.19.2006 12:21pm
Serenity Now (mail) (www):
WJ: Baseball has had worse instances recently, but the public was not upset. I remember two years ago when a player hit a fan with a folding chair. I do not recall what the suspension was, but it was not significant.

Frank Francisco was suspended for the rest of the 2004 season and convicted of misdemeanor assault.
12.19.2006 12:22pm
Jay Myers:
The NBA is getting what it has been asking for for the last quarter century. Basketball is supposed to be, and used to be, a non-contact game but the NBA has been lax in enforcing that and as a result the game has become increasingly physical and the number of intentional attacks on the floor has skyrocketed. By attacks I mean what Robinson was referring to when he said he had committed "a good clean hard foul." There is no such thing in basketball and the fact that a professional player could say such a thing indicates just how badly the NBA has allowed the culture of the game to deteriorate. What is called a "hard foul" in pro basketball would be called battery in the real world. When you allow players to get away with a criminal assault as a routine part of a game that isn't supposed to have any contact at all between players, then it is any wonder that those players are going to think nothing of engaging in fisticuffs?

As for Thomas, if thought that the game a foregone conclusion and his team would only be "humiliated" by his opponents continuing to play competitively, then he should have taken his players off the court and conceded the game. Slamming an opposing player's head and shoulders into the hardwood floor from six feet in the air should never have entered his or his players' minds.
12.19.2006 1:29pm
Jay Myers:
Steven:

Given that Anthony's "gracious apology" was written by the Nugget's publicist, do you think he could tell you tomorrow what he actually said?

If the apology had been written by a publicist rather than a semi-literate pro athlete then I suspect it wouldn't have said, "we opened the Youth Center in Baltimore that bares my name."
12.19.2006 1:33pm
Max:
In the "real world" you'd get fired for all kinds of conduct that happens in NBA, let alone NFL, games and that are the natural elements of the game. The comparisons made by Bman and other posters are ridiculous. Try sacking your boss. Yes, you'd probably get fired. Who cares? When a sport requires aggressive physical contact which inevitably leads to heightened emotions and thus fights, obviously a different standard should be applied to the fights. To think otherwise is foolish.

I also think Ty Webb has hit the nail on the head about the racial angle. I don't think that the media members who comment on this are "racist" but that there is a racial aspect to the commentary, most likely subconscious, that influences it. When a fight breaks out in the NBA people start bemoaning the "thug life"; the flamboyant individualism, etc. You don't have to try very hard to read between the lines to see what they're referring to.
12.19.2006 1:42pm
WJ (mail):
Thanks for the information Serenity Now. Articles on the incident said it occurred on September 13, 2004 so the suspension was probably about 15 games which appears to be light. The no contest plea resulted in anger management courses. The civil suit would appear to be his real punishment for his actions.
12.19.2006 1:48pm
Steven Vickers:

When you allow players to get away with a criminal assault as a routine part of a game that isn't supposed to have any contact at all between players...


That's incorrect. Here is a section on personal fouls from the NBA rulebook (http://www.nba.com/analysis/rules_12.html?nav=ArticleList):



(1) A defender may apply contact with a forearm to an offensive player with the ball who has his back to the basket below the free throw line extend-ed outside the Lower Defensive Box.
(2) A defender may apply contact with a forearm and/or one hand with a bent elbow to an offensive player in a post-up position with the ball in the Lower Defensive Box.
(3) A defender may apply contact with a forearm to an offensive player with the ball at any time in the Lower Defensive Box. The forearm in the above exceptions is solely for the purpose of main-taining a defensive position.
(4) A defender may position his leg between the legs of an offensive player in a post-up position in the Lower Defensive Box for the purpose of main-taining defensive position. If his foot leaves the floor in an attempt to dis-lodge his opponent, it is a foul immediately.
(5) Incidental contact with the hand against an offensive player shall be ignored if it does not affect the player's speed, quickness, balance and/or rhythm.



Sure seems like lots of contact to me, and this ignores other parts where contact is not only allowed, it's basically expected (setting screens, for one). Unless you believe the NBA isn't an authority on its own rules...

I also find it extremely unlikely that there has ever been a criminal prosecution based on a foul like the one that instigated the brawl, but I don't have any direct evidence on that point.
12.19.2006 6:02pm
Aaron:
Max has a great point. Very few (read "none") people in the real world have a job that requires young people to create constant,aggressive, physical contact with their co-workers. Competition, adrenaline, and high rewards for aggressive play lead to these kinds of situations. Making the comparison to everyday job situations is therefore inapposite.

Compare this latest brouhaha with some of the great fights of the 80's; Bird, Dr. J, McHale, Kareem, ALL of the Bad Boys got into it (not to mention the undisputed champion, Xavier McDaniel). What has changed? Well, first, there is a media culture that thrives on controversy, and is far more prevalent that in times past. The 24 new cycle demands constant fodder and outrage = ratings. There is a cultural disconnect between the (mostly) white, middle-aged sportswriter and the young black athletes that he covers. These combine to create much more of a disparaging tone in the coverage of basketball fights.

Contrast the dissapproving tone of fights in the NBA with the ho-hum stories surrounding baseball fights--fights, which are much more driven by ego and posturing than by actual physical contact (compare the number of fights that start because some pitcher threw at a batter who "showed him up" by admiring a homerun to the very rare times that a collision at a base starts a fracas). Or the almost festive glee which follows NASCAR fights in the pits (or, god forbid, intentionallly crashing into an opponent).

Also people, let's keep this in perspective. Look at European soccer matches, or that Serbian basketball riot for real athletic disfunction. This was a fight (and not a very good one). There will be others. Life (and the league) will go on.
12.19.2006 8:03pm