As brawls goes, it was hardly the worst that sport has to offer. Europeans accustomed to soccer's bloodbaths must have been chuckling: You call that a riot? In five minutes of mayhem that was repeated thousands of times on TV, Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest was seen leading a fast break into the stands at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. Artest was charging down a local lout, John Green, who hit him with a full beverage cup after Artest got into an on-court scuffle with the Detroit Pistons' Ben Wallace. Several teammates joined Artest, punching anyone they could reach. The referees ended the game with 45.9 sec. left, and the Pacers were forced to exit through a shower of popcorn, beer and venom from Detroit fans. Nine fans were hurt, none seriously. But the rumble in Detroit quickly turned into another spectacularly American experience--bad sports behavior morphing into trash television. Booyah! Artest, apologetic but clueless, was soon appearing on the Today show promoting the rap album he had just produced, looking as though he had scheduled everything on his Palm Pilot: Friday, beat the poms-poms out of a fan; Monday, work on that p.r. campaign! Green, who has had three DUI arrests, may not be able to dribble in a straight line, but he found himself on Larry King Live arguing the cause of those who feel that buying an overpriced ticket for a sporting event is a license to spew nastiness at people guilty of possessing far more athletic talent than they do.
The riot in Detroit also set off a second battle across the country, as everyone from sports-radio yakkers to families gathered for Thanksgiving dinner tried to assign blame for the rise of incivility in spectator sports--the athletes or the fans? Call it a jump ball. It's easy to view Artest and Wallace as typical modern athletes: too wealthy and too self-involved. Traveling in chartered jets, surrounded by hangers- on, coddled by agents, they have more in common with CEOs than ordinary Joes. But the distance between athletes and the people who pay to see them may be increasing out of necessity. Some fans who were once happy to cheer for the home team have now turned every contest into a hatefest. Opposing players must be verbally eviscerated, their personal problems made fodder for derision. Home-team players who don't measure up aren't spared either. And the fans are hardly discouraged by arena managers happy to sell them overpriced booze and pump up the atmosphere with lasers and loud music. So does the fault lie in our stars or in ourselves?