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C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Monday, November 22, 2004

The NBA, Punishment, and Credible Threats

Last Friday's brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons (and more than a few fans) has led to lengthy suspensions of four of the players involved. There's a very good discussion of the events and the suspensions at Off-Wing Opinion.

Aside from the "hard" foul and the fisticuffs that followed on the court, the reason this brawl has attracted so much attention is that players charged into the audience, pummeling some fans who had been hurling epithets, beer, and dreck at them.

If players want to deter this type of fan behaviour, here are some of their options:

  1. they can rely on (or negotiate with) the league to require home teams to install/hire more security,
  2. they can count on (or negotiate with) the league and the teams to prosecute the offending fans in criminal court,
  3. they can take civil action themselves, suing the fans for some sort of intentional tort, and/or
  4. they can take some sort of retaliatory/deterrence-creating immediate, physical action themselves.

If they think the deterrence value of the first three possibilities is likely to be low, they will have an increased incentive to pursue the fourth option. They can do it themselves, or they can encourage a bench player (or other team employee [e.g. bulky "trainer"]) to act as team enforcer/security guard.

Holding the players liable for charging into the crowd, regardless of the provocation, will certainly deter such behaviour by the players. The suspensions handed out by the NBA will have this effect, in a probability sense; so will the inevitable civil suits by the injured fans against the players, even if the suits are eventually unsuccessful. At the same time, holding the fans liable for the provocations will also lead to less reason for players to charge into the crowd.

My take: Just in case there is any doubt, I approve of the suspensions. What the players did was not self-defence; it was retaliation, pure and simple. Charging into the crowd might, though, help pose a credible threat to unruly behaviour by fans. [No, Jimmy, don't throw your Coke at the visitors or they might come up here and beat the snot out of you].

[Update: I wrote this piece based on early reports of 20 -30 game suspensions. No, I don't support a season-length suspension of Artest. I hope he sues the fans for their actions and the Pistons for not providing adequate security. Sure, he contributed to the problem, but I hope he tries to make others accept and bear some responsibility for his losses.]

From the league's long-run perspective there are probably other, more cost-efficient and profit-enhancing mechanisms to accomplish the twin goals of reducing fan harrassment and reducing the incentive for players to charge into the crowd. To that end, the league should fine the home teams who do not provide adequate security, the players should be encouraged to sue the socks off the offending fans, and the teams should lean on local authorities to proceed with criminal charges against such fans.

However, if the league does not do these things, if the league believes the status quo is profit-maximizing because it increases media and fan interest in the games, then the NBA will slowly devolve into something more akin to professional wrestling.

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