David Stern had the best line in what has been a miserable week for the National Basketball Association. In announcing the season-long suspension of Indiana's Ron Artest, who went flailing after almost everyone in the arena in Detroit, Stern announced that the vote for the heavy penalty was unanimous: one to zero.
Perhaps the biggest news was that the now aptly named Commissioner Stern, previously thought to be an invertebrate, had suddenly developed sufficient backbone to take a one-man stand against player-instigated mayhem. But that story was drowned out by the almost comical chorus of claims that Stern had overreacted, which is a little like saying that John Wayne overreacted to Liberty Valance.
The video footage of the Motown Smackdown was pretty funny, too, especially if you're a fan of The Jerry Springer Show. But it had nothing on the deadpan comedy of Ron's defenders, who maintained that the Artest formerly known as the Pacers' leading scorer was more misunderstood than misguided.
Predictably, the players' union and Pacers' front office planned to appeal on the grounds that an unpaid leave of 70-plus games was much further out of boundsI ain't making this upthan the action that produced it. Meanwhile, his friends rushed to point out that the thrice-suspended Artestwhose name is becoming synonymous with flagrant foulsis no head case; actually, they said, he's laid-back and happy when he's not trying to hammer people.
Then, to "provide perspective," some of the Media Geniuses chimed in. They noted that Vernon Maxwell, the last offender suspended for going into the stands, received a punishment that by comparison was downright lenient. They recalled that in the formative years of the NBA, when the league had outposts in places like Fort Wayne and Syracuse, brawls weren't uncommon, and sometimes the fans were part of it.
In fact, there's a reason why your grandfather's high school yearbook referred to the basketball team as "cagers." For everyone's protection, they used to enclose the court in a cage.
By the time all the carping and perspective-providing were over, you could almost believe that Artest, who stands to lose north of $5 million in salary, was the aggrieved party.
Certainly there is some truth to the claim that Artest is being crucified for the sins of an entire league full of spoiled rich kids, who have been encouraged in the belief that their outrageous talent immunizes them from the consequences of their sometimes outrageous actions. And, actually, it's about damn time somebody got crucified for those sins. (Plus, you'd be hard pressed to find a more worthy scapegoat than Artest in the post-Rodman NBA.)
Perhaps the owners, coaches and fans who have tolerated it all for too long are heavily to blame, but Stern's league is chock-full of mollycoddled millionaires whose sense of entitlement would make members of the English gentry break out in hives. The only way to stop it is to stop it.
Stern's crackdown shouldn't be a culture-war issue. Yet it is beginning to feel like one. And the Artest case illuminates how "liberals" and "conservatives" (convenient terms that no longer really mean anything) often can't agree not because they truly disagree, but because they don't speak the same language.
Social conservatives, applauding Stern's decision, speak of standards, accountability and consequences. Social liberals tend to disagree, not because they don't believe in those values but because they don't trust conservatives to apply them. But if you put it to them in their own language"failing to crack down on players like Artest makes you an enabler"you're more likely to reach a consensus.
This same strange divide appears in the sports world's other recent cause célèbre: ABC's now infamous lead-in to Monday Night Football with Terrell Owens and a towel-dropping Nicolette Sheridan.
Even more than Stern's treatment of Artest and friends, ABC's stupid, seamy promo for its stupid, steamy show produced another red-state, blue-state divide.
Never mind for a moment that it was imbecilic for the NFL, so soon after Janet Jackson's embarrassing wardrobe malfunction, to furnish no oversight of the content for the telecast of one of its games. Even though it has no official approval privileges, don't think the league office couldn't have prevented the spot from airing had anyone been awake at the switch.
In the aftermath, a jungle-drum network of callers, e-mailers and letter-writers mobilized about the airing of such a steamy scene, without advance warning, during a prime-time family program.
With equal vehemence, free-speech "liberals" retorted that the complainers were hypocritical. They had a point. Shots of jiggling cheerleaders, after all, have been a staple of "family" football telecasts for years. Sometimes, those shots are scarcely less revealing than Sheridan's obvious but unshown nudity. Nor, when compared to other network programming, did the ABC promo exactly extend the frontiers of TV prurience.
But they also missed the pointlargely because they don't speak the same language as their conservative opponents. To liberals, "decency" is a code word that reveals its user as a religious zealot bent on imposing a narrow, puritanical moral code. Yet liberals have been equally critical of the kinds of words and images that ABC aired on the grounds that they promote "objectification" of women. It's a measure of the divide we face that, in cases such as this one, liberals and conservatives find it difficult to agree even when they reach the same basic conclusion.
Yes, singling out the Sheridan spot for criticism is selective in a TV culture where taboos are disappearing faster than the polar icecap. And, no, the selectivity doesn't invalidate the criticism.
I tried to explain this to an ultraliberal friend when he called the other day to complain about the complainers. As a parent, I told him, though I try to be careful about what my kids watch on-screen, I don't want to shut them off from the worldbut I would also like to be able to watch an otherwise watchable program without having to field questions about Cialis and Levitra. I want them to use the Internet without an adult peering over their shouldersbut I also want to protect them from pornographic spam and pop-ups. It's becoming increasingly difficult to do that, and ads like ABC's don't help.
But my friend didn't really grasp my point until I put it in his language: "What kind of message do ABC and Nicolette Sheridan send to my daughter? That she is a mere object whose primary worth is in the appeal of her body? How can I teach her that using her body to gain an advantage over a situation ultimately demeans her when precisely the opposite message is being reinforced on TV? How does ABC's spot help parents trying to teach their sons that girls are not trophies that a top athlete can expect and demand?"
I'm not holding my breath that we're going to come to a red-and-blue accord over this. In fact, I'm doing just the opposite: while I'm waiting, I'm cheering that David Stern summoned the nerve to impose a draconian sentence where one was needed, and hoping that others like the NFL's Paul Tagliabue will follow the leader.