The Return of Ron Artest

The following will be of almost no interest to anybody who isn’t at least conceptually interested in professional basketball. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You can always tell when something has reached “big deal” status within the world of sports by how many non-sports people know about it. Last night’s incident during the Lakers/Thunder game is now officially a big deal; they’re even reporting on it at NPR, a media outlet that couldn’t be more of a polar opposite to ESPN if it tried. But this time, the questions flying aren’t about something as mundane as who Tiger Woods is sleeping with, or whether or not Barry Bonds’ home run record should be considered legitimate. This is, to put it in appropriately melodramatic terms, about life and death, and the Return of Ron.

The man who currently calls himself Metta World Peace used to go by a different name, one that was more or less synonymous with the “bad boy” professional athlete. In 2004, the man who was then known as Ron Artest was involved in the worst brawl in NBA history, now remembered as the “Malice at the Palace”. Several players from both the Indiana Pacers (for whom Artest was playing at the time) and the Detroit Pistons were involved in escalating aggressive play, that eventually erupted into a violent shoving match between Artest and Piston Ben Wallace. As officials struggled to regain control of the game, a fan threw a full beverage that struck Artest, who then dove into the stands and began attacking fans indiscriminately. Others joined the melee, and all hell broke loose. The whole debacle is summed up excellently here.

During Sunday night’s Lakers/Thunder game, Metta World Peace (as he is currently known) completed an impressive dunk, and was moving in a celebratory fashion as he walked back up the court to play defense. James Harden of the Thunder passed by, and World Peace threw an elbow into the side of his head, just behind the ear. Harden went crashing to the ground, and Artest continued without looking back or breaking stride. After the foul was called, Artest pulled the typical “who me?” look that every NBA player pulls when they’ve been caught doing something dirty. Review of the incident upgraded the foul to a flagrant 2 and an ejection. Harden was pulled from the game and did not return, and NBA sources later reported that he had a concussion. It’s unknown at this time whether he will miss any games. The league has yet to announce what penalties will be visited upon Artest, but it’s likely going to be at least a five-digit fine and a multiple-game suspension. Is this enough?

Punishment should not be the only issue being discussed in this case. The league, while determining the appropriate course of action, needs to consider Artest’s history of violence and mental health problems. Artest himself has acknowledged, in the wake of the Palace brawl and other incidents, that he has anger issues, and they have often boiled over into violent, physical confrontations. All questions of integrity and character aside, is it a good decision, from a liability standpoint, to continue employing an extremely large, strong, and mentally unstable person who has a history of attacking people, with and without provocation? The incident at the Staples Center wasn’t just about (or shouldn’t be about) a hard foul: Artest could have seriously injured or even killed Harden. In the ensuing aftermath, analysts and commentators lit up twitter like a Christmas tree, with more than a few pointing out that blows to the head behind the ear are even prohibited in boxing and mixed martial arts due to the high likelihood of permanent brain injury. Harden’s condition doesn’t seem to be too severe in the grand scheme of things, and he will likely return in a game or two, but that’s not really important.

This is also not a matter of intent, beyond a certain point. Artest’s post-game comments indicate that his story is basically “I got too excited and was celebrating”, which somehow led to an elbow being thrown so hard it nearly knocked Harden unconscious. Either Artest is so inept at controlling his emotions and his body that he injures people when he’s happy, or he was out for blood from the get-go. Either way he’s a danger to other players, fans, and quite frankly, if he doesn’t get real and prolonged psychiatric help, a danger to himself.

I’m not going on the record to say that Ron Artest is a menace to society and must be stopped, but the league has never taken much of an active interest in his mental health, other than awarding him with a phony plaque last year to commemorate just how far he’d come since the Palace brawl, right around the same time that he clotheslined J.J. Barea during the playoffs. I understand that the NBA is a business, and Ron Artest is a big draw both for the league and the Lakers franchise, but Stern and the rest of the powers that be need to take a step back and assess what the potential fallout from a full-scale Artest meltdown might be. If history is any indication, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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