"Malice at the Palace" revisited
Thoughts on violence after watching the new Netflix doc
I wrote part of a chapter in a book on the big fight between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit fans that took place in November 2004 more than a decade ago. Some of you know how much basketball mattered to me in my younger days. Eagerly watched the new doc as soon as I saw it advertised somewhere online.
Though there were elements of the film that I liked, especially that it discusses in a critical way how long-lasting the effects of this were on the players involved, it sadly fails at the central task of a serious effort to understand what happened in Detroit back in 2004. This failure was present in commentary on the event already when I wrote on it all those years ago, and I lamented it then. It’s made more grievous by the fact that these folks behind the documentary had all these years to think about what was important and still didn’t get this right.
That central failing is the lack of a historical perspective. In what I wrote in Impure Play, I noted simply that anyone who watched the so-called “Malice at the Palace” unfold as it was happening, on live TV—as I did—and who had been paying close attention to professional sports for at least a few decades—as I had been—would have noted that the event was hardly as uniquely transgressive as it was and has subsequently been portrayed.
In what I wrote previously, I went through a long list of fights in many major sports in which there were much more serious consequences to the combatants (I became a basketball fan right about the time that Kermit Washington almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich with a punch during a 1977 NBA fight), and an almost equally long list of events in which pro players in various sports fought with fans (just two years after the Washington-Tomjanovich fight happened in the NBA, a bunch of the NHL’s Boston Bruins went into the stands in New York City to exchange blows with fans—and for comparative value, listen to the sportscasters talk about that as it happens, and compare to the cataclysmic language announcers used during the Pacers-Pistons fight).
It is not to apologize for such things to say that it is nonetheless not all that hard to understand that during physical contests of athletic ability in which the athletes are coming into hard contact with one another, you might have fights; and that if fans break the line between the stands and the playing field by throwing objects at players who have just been fighting and so who are already charged up, players might have a tendency to react violently to that; and that once such fights start, they might escalate.
I grew up in a culture that understood and accepted all of that. Already by 2004, I think there had accumulated a lot of evidence that many of us no longer understood such things, and tended to react to any physical fighting, no matter how little or non-existent the damage produced, as though it were a much more seriously transgressive act. I am sure we are much farther along this line of cultural development today.
One of the experiences I most remember in the immediate aftermath of the “Malice at the Palace” fight is sitting talking about it with a friend in a local cafe sometime later, after the decisions had been made by the NBA to suspend the players for quite extended periods. (Again, for comparison—Ron Artest, the player who went into the stands in Detroit, was suspended for the entire remainder of the season, which amounted to 73 games and the entirety of the Pacers’ playoff run of 13 additional games; Terry O’Reilly, the Bruins player who first entered the stands to fight fans in that clip to which I linked above, was suspended for 8 games).
The two of us—notably, I think, both having had experience in organized sport as young men—were in agreement that the players had effectively been scapegoated. We acknowledged that, no, players should not go into the stands, but also that, no, no, no, fans should not be throwing things at players to instigate them and then assaulting them when they are confronted for that instigation.
We thought it self-evident that none of the violence would have happened if the criminally reckless fan who threw the drink at Ron Artest had not done that.
We noted, as we both had exhaustively watched the footage, that upon entering the stands and finding the fan he believed (incorrectly) to have thrown the drink, Artest had not struck him. He grabbed this fan and then promptly had another drink thrown directly into his face.
The fan who had thrown the first drink, the one that got Artest into the stands to begin with, then grabbed Artest from behind and punched him twice in the head.
It was only at this point that Artest threw his first punch. When he returned to the floor after this episode, he was confronted by several Pistons fans who had come out on to the playing floor, one of whom squared off with him, and Artest defended himself.
We both of us, fairly reserved male academics but again with some experience in sport, shook our heads and agreed: After all that, to expect a man to throw no punches is effectively expecting him to elevate to sainthood in front of us.
That guy in the Pistons jersey and every other fan who made their way out of the stands on to the court during the melee might as well have been signing up for a fist fight. You cannot do that kind of thing and expect that no one is going to defend themselves from potentially crazy people who may or may not be armed and who have left their seats explicitly to come fight with you.
As we were talking, from a table across the room, all the way on the other side of the seating area, a woman—someone I did not know personally but knew to be employed at the same university that employed me and the guy to whom I was talking—who had apparently been listening to our conversation angrily challenged us. How dare we condone violence? She was clearly outraged at the fact that we were not sufficiently tsk-tsking and tut-tutting the NBA players, in the way that was very generally being done in the American media, but were instead recognizing that it was ultimately the fans who had caused the escalation.
I asked her what she knew about the event, beyond hearing the media chatter about it that was almost unavoidable at that point.
Had she seen the game and the fight, live or in replay? No.
What did she know about the NBA, or sport more generally? Nothing, really.
This did not seem relevant to her, and it certainly did not diminish her outrage about the event and about how we were talking about it. I’m significantly underplaying how livid she was about this. Really, really upset. To the point that she was having a hard time getting sentences out coherently. Very charged up, over something she admitted she had not even seen.
She was convinced that violence, all violence, is equally bad anywhere and everywhere it occurs and that everyone everywhere should always condemn it in every single instance in which it has occurred, ever, in the history of humankind, otherwise we are on the side of moral evil.
That’s perhaps a slight exaggeration of her position, but only very slight.
We talked about violence in media and the question of its effects on viewers in one of my classes the other day. I referenced something I wrote in the same book in which I talked about the Pacers-Pistons fight on research on video game violence.
At bottom, almost all of this research is scientifically next to useless because of its serious methodological flaws. A typical approach in this literature is to experimentally assemble two groups, one that plays a violent video game and the other that does not, then test them afterwards to see if there are differences in violent tendencies. The problem is how to operationalize in the studies the kind of violence that concerns us in the real world. You can’t very well put the subjects into fistfights with one another to see who is more aggressive, etc.
So how do these researchers operationalize it? By doing things like having the groups engage in a contest, after they’ve played or not played the violent video games, in which the object is to see who will first push a button on a computer to send a mild horn sound to the headphones of a competitor and how loud a horn sound they will choose to send. All of this is of course carefully controlled by the experiment to ensure that nobody can actually be harmed, so the volume is well below such levels, and subjects are informed of this, because it is contrary to human subjects research protocols to deliberately expose subjects to potential harm. So, a situation in which no physical action whatever is being performed, and no possible harm can be done to anyone is being used as a measure of the propensity to real world violence.
But this serious limitation of such research is never foregrounded in the advertising of the now widespread cultural message that “playing violent video games necessarily makes you more violent.” My suspicion is that the ‘finding’ is so consistent with the ideologies of the academic psychologists who do this work and the professional associations that they and others who share their ideologies dominate that there is little chance they think much about how flawed their methodology is.
The truth is that we don’t know very much about how such behavior affects propensity to violence, and the number of intervening variables—which are almost never controlled for or studied—is massive. Could it be that experiencing the violence in mediated form is cathartic in some way, as some have argued since Aristotle, and in fact purgative of negative emotion and propensity to behavior? Could it be that the moral tenor of the violence matters in its affect on players? E.g., that it matters if in the game you are a good guy defending the weak from evil or an amoral agent dealing out violence indiscriminately to others in the pursuit of some self-interested goal? Plenty of evidence shows that even young children can easily morally distinguish between e.g., a murderer and a police officer who is forced to kill a suspect to prevent him from harming an innocent bystander.
Ron Artest and the other Pacers players who fought fans that night in 2004 were not heroes, to be sure, but it is not at all clear to me that they were villains either. They found themselves in a situation in which competition was fierce and tempers flared and then a few fans violated the central rule of sport by leaving their seats or throwing objects at players and Artest and his teammates reacted aggressively to those serious violations of the rules of play.
In this kind of threatening environment, yes, it would have been particularly admirable if Artest and the others had been able to remain calm and retreat. But humans, and especially men, are made in such a way that we sometimes respond to threats by efforts to stop those threats through force, as a form of self-defense. Some people, and some men too, are so distant from this behavioral propensity that it is a practical non-possibility. But so long as there are some situations in the world that effectively require a response of force to remove a threat—think of an attacker who will not be deterred by your pacifist standing down, or even your flight, but who is intent on harming you or those around you, and, yes, such creatures do exist in our world—do we really imagine that it would be a good thing to endeavor, however ultimately ineffectually, to completely remove the psychological response to offense and assault that led Ron Artest into the stands, in the interests of some pacifist utopia that we can safely count on some very bad actors (like those in the link just above) to abstain from joining?
The worldview of the woman who was berating my friend and me in the cafe that day has largely won the day, or at least it is winning. I think that’s clear. While I too would like a more peaceful world, I am yet unable to believe the victory of her worldview is an unadulterated good thing.