Chiccoa: Rivalry Week Indeed

Our columnist <b>Charles Chiccoa</b> gives us the obligatory paragraph on UCLA football this week, but then strays off topic to the Pistons-Pacers Debacle...

First, the football news. Other than Michigan's collapse in Columbus, and a couple of full-on riots, nothing of note occurred on "rivalry weekend." It was odd, of course, without UCLA/SC, but, considering the game should draw a wider audience on December 4th, I don't think we can reasonably complain. Auburn is still challenging Oklahoma for a spot opposite SC in the FedEx Orange Bowl (nobody, nationally, is considering the possibility of a Bruin upset). No, the pundits are instead worrying about Boise State crashing the BCS party, throwing the networks and bowl traditionalists into a prospective tizzy. Utah, sure, but Boise, too? The… what is their nickname … the team that plays on that repulsive blue rug? Anyway, they're ominously perched at #7 in the BCS standings; one more step up and the big bowl games are going to look like something out of the 22nd century.

No, the story of the weekend, which transcended sports, was the Pistons-Pacers riot at Detroit. It may even become the sports story of the year. Some have even blamed the Clemson - South Carolina football riot on what went down the day before. I don't know about that, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was at least an influence. Violence on the scale of what we saw in Detroit has such emotional resonance as to be comparable, say, to the smell of smoke in the air right after one of those Santa Ana wildfires: in this case the smell of fear, anxiety and adrenalin rush, especially among the young.

On Monday, as we know, the inevitable hammer fell on Ron Artest and his fellow rioters, and they're looking at the loss of millions over their mindlessly macho, self-indulgent actions. What this will do to their team is incalculable. David Stern spoke of affirming that the league "will… not allow our sport to be debased by what seems to be declining expectations for behavior of fans and athletes alike." You noticed that, David (and good luck to you). The players' union, along with Pacers' management, countered by saying they would fight what they apparently see as Draconian suspensions. One of the Pacers' co-owners threw down the "rush to judgment" card and promised to "vigorously support our players in any available appeals process." A union source said, referring to future contract negotiations, "this just became the big blood issue." Does any of this sound familiar? Yes, Virginia, the sports world does reflect the culture at large. In fact it's becoming even uglier.

I've never seen the point of celebrity worship, which, in the sports world, operates under the cliché of "role-models." I can't imagine anything more mundane than a celebrity writing his name on a piece of paper for someone he doesn't know from Adam. If the autograph is worth money, sure, that makes sense, just like an author signing his book. I can also understand kids being thrilled with a sports star's autograph, getting up close and personal, being awestruck, perhaps, by his hero's sheer, unearthly size; kids are natural hero-worshipers. But for adults to regard athletes as anything other than physical prodigies with a very particular physical talent or characteristic is to me strange and a bit sad, particularly when they encourage it in their own children. An athlete may be special in ways other than their physical talent, but how can strangers, with nothing more to go on than the usual media hype, know this. Bill Russell was right (if a little humorless) in refusing to sign autographs, telling kids they should look within their own family, their own world, for role models. Only where there's a sexual attraction does it begin to make sense (this would seem to apply mostly to adolescent, female groupies of all ages). So on top of all the other ways celebrity jocks have been indulged, this hero-worship from their fans is just one more brick in the wall of entitlement these guys have grown up with. Then they go on the road; they're booed; they're heckled; it starts to become a little relentless; the losses put them on edge; someone acts out; finally some moron frat boy throws a drink at the bad actor… and the bad actor rushes the stands like an enraged Rhino and we have the riot at "The Palace at Auburn Hills."

It's too easy saying that Artest is nuts. He's gone the "anger management" route before and it obviously didn't penetrate his knuckleheaded skull. It's far likelier he's just another bully on the block. Either he'll learn some self control on his own, in his own time, or he'll self-destruct professionally. Maybe he needs to spend time on his "music." It might even prove more lucrative. I mean he's now world class "notorious."

And what of the fans? This was Detroit, remember. Is it still the murder capital of America, or has New Jersey finally passed it? In any case, this riot didn't take place at the Westminster Dog Show (or whatever they call that curious, bourgeois, cultural exercise). That this crowd wasn't an arena full of something like soccer thugs probably owes more to American social history than anything else. I mean, Detroit Piston or Red Wing crowds are probably as close to the Manchester United Experience as this culture can provide. And keep in mind this riot was nothing compared to what English soccer hooligans routinely incite (see Bill Buford's wonderful "Among the Thugs"). And, by the way, how would you respond with someone like Artest bearing down on you like a hound of hell? Especially if - like that unlucky chump holding his drink, his eyeballs frozen in fear and amazement - you were not the moron who chucked the fatal cup of beer. Of course the felons and morons and frat boys and bullies and just plain drunks are going to be up for it. They're backing up their homies… just like the Pistons. They've probably been waiting all their lives for a moment like this. This might be the first warning shot in a whole new rivalry: the fans vs. the players. Who cared if they were going to get their asses kicked? They were there and they swung punches that night.

And dudes in Detroit now abed
Shall think themselves accurst they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us on national TV that day.

Hey, man, did you see me? Did you get it on tape? Can you make me a copy?

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