Brawl Games

A people's history of athletes and fans getting awful with each other, and a reminder that Metta World Peace did not invent violence.
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The horror. The horror. Is actually fairly well-rendered.

"Aubernica" image via the legendary Wizznutzz.

Whenever there’s mayhem on the playing surface—be it NHL headhunting, NFL bonuses for headhunting, or Metta World Peace's notably more literal assault on James Harden's head—the 24-hour sports-industrial-media-complex and the comments-section commentariat go wild. [Recent event] is a new low; it wasn’t like this in the old days; thugs are destroying the game we love; where have you gone Joe DiMaggio and et cetera.

It's ridiculous, but it's also wrong. This latest round of violence is bad stuff—and the NBA should give the artist formerly known as Ron Artest a long vacation—but it's all far from unprecedented. Sports violence didn’t start with Raffi Torres' sociopathy or Gregg Williams' bonuses or MWP/Ron Artest's elbow. Below is a feature I wrote for the Roanoke Times back in 2004, after MWP's previous episode of in-game ultra-violence. This was a different assault and a different situation, of course. But the puffed-up moralizing and clucking over the new violence in our once-pure sports scene are, perhaps unsurprisingly, something very much like the same old story.

 

Fans howled as he charged into the stands, a mad bull, his eyes burning with mayhem. He was a manchild who'd learned to use his fists on the mean streets of the inner city, and nobody, nobody, was going to disrespect him. He was a big-time athlete, his pockets stuffed with more money than the average fan could imagine. They might've paid for their tickets, but that didn't give them the right to insult his manhood.

So Babe Ruth plunged into the crowd.

Ruth was going after a fan who’d heckled him after Ruth had been thrown out at second and then tossed out of the game for flinging dirt in the umpire's face. "You goddamned big bum, why don't you play ball?" the heckler had yelled.

After Ruth jumped onto the dugout roof and came at him, the loudmouthed fan scurried out of reach. Ruth clambered back onto the dugout, his face red, his hair matted. "Come on down and fight!" The Babe bellowed. "Anyone who wants to fight, come down on the field! Ah, you're all alike, you're all yellow!"

Ruth failed to catch his heckler that muggy, "bad-tempered day" in the spring of 1922. But a decade before, Ty Cobb, the man who'd preceded Ruth as the national pastime's greatest star, had more luck. Cobb vaulted the guardrail protecting the grandstand, stalked up 12 rows and began punching and kicking a heckler, tearing holes with his spikes and opening gashes around the man's ears and face.

Other spectators pleaded with Cobb, yelling that the man—who'd lost eight fingers in an industrial accident—had no hands. "I don't care if he has no feet," Cobb replied.

Flash forward, into another century, and newspapers, magazines and TV screens are filled with images of NBA bad-boy Ron Artest rampaging into the stands of a basketball megaplex in Detroit, swinging at fans. He's enraged over getting hit with a cup hurled by a spectator. Fights swirl between fans and players. A chair sails through the air.

ESPN runs the footage again and again. USA Today calls it the "player-fan brawl that shocked the nation." It was, one fan tells the newspaper, "like the 9/11 of the NBA." Sports Illustrated calls it a "frightening wake-up call." The Chicago Sun-Times calls it an exemplar of an "escalating crisis of violence in sports."

It's as if nothing like this has ever happened before, as if, suddenly, shockingly, the once-glorious game is being trampled upon by a new-sprung wave of pretenders and barbarians. In the mythology of American sports, there was a simpler time, a Golden Era, when ballplayers were humble and worked hard and played for the love of the game. In these innocent times, sports were all but unpolluted by greed, egos, cheating and violence. The flip side of this mythos is the idea that today's athletes are different: arrogant, spoiled, lazy, overpaid, brutish.

This is a conviction built on historical amnesia, on a romanticized view of the past and an alarmist view of the present. It's an outlook that ignores these well-documented facts: Sports have always been violent. And they've always been populated by considerable numbers of players and fans who can't behave themselves.

All the elements of today's crisis in sports are there, in the record of more than a century of American sports: Riots on and off the field . . . greed and commercialism and racism . . . swellheaded, selfish superstars . . . fans attacking players and players attacking fans . . . beanballs and intentional cheap shots . . . off-the-field misconduct by gun-wielding, wife-beating, law-breaking athletes . . . fans hurling beer bottles, chair slats, knives, batteries, billiard balls and other missiles at players.

It's easy to find these facts, if you know where to look. Read Robert Creamer's biography of The Babe (the source of the tale of Ruth's 1922 tantrum), or thumb through Richard Scheinin's meticulous work, Field of Screams: The Dark Underside of America's National Pastime (which documents a long list of misdeeds by Ty Cobb and other baseballers).

Check out Terry Pluto's Tall Tales, about the "glory years" of the National Basketball Association, and hear the memories of George Yardley, a veteran of those bygone days: "I must have had about 80 stitches in my face, all from things that happened on the court. Guys would hit you with a clenched fist, just cutting your skull open. Over the years, I played with at least 40 different guys and I can't name one who had all of his own teeth."

Or open Stuart Leuthner's oral history of the "golden days" of pro football, Iron Men, and listen to Jim Ringo, who grappled in the National Football League's trenches in the 1950s and '60s: "I started to clean up when I retired, but there wasn't a game when we didn't get into a fight… If you took the same mayhem that is created out on that field down to some street corner or in a bar, they'd lock you up for 20 years."

None of this excuses the out-of-control conduct of Artest, his Indiana Pacers teammates, or their Detroit Pistons opponents. And it doesn't excuse the conduct of the Clemson and University of South Carolina football players who brawled the day after the NBA fracas, providing more videotaped evidence for the sports-have-reached-a- low-point argument.

These athletes provided sorry examples for children who look up to them as heroes. Everyone agrees something needs to be done to address violence in sports. Punishments meted out. Rules laid down. But if we want to understand the problem, and figure out what we're going to do about it, we have to understand the nature of violence and sports and their long, intertwined history. That's not easy, because nostalgia, race, selective memory and the changing face of the media all influence how we judge today's concerns—and how we compare them to the problems of the past.

Roland Lazenby, a Virginia Tech communications professor, watched the Nov. 19 Pistons-Pacers melee live on TV with his 15-year-old daughter. He saw it (as he told USA Today) as "a breakdown in the social order." But he also understood he wasn't watching something unprecedented. He's spent two decades writing books about basketball and interviewing its pioneers.

Basketball, Lazenby knows, has been haunted by portents of mayhem, from the time of its invention in 1891 and through the history of the NBA. "Basketball is a very passionate, hot-blooded, fast-paced game," Lazenby says. "The game's always had its potential to boil over." The same can be said, he says, for other sports.

***

Around the time James Naismith was inventing basketball, Clemson and South Carolina universities were in the early stages of a football rivalry that would produce a televised riot more than a century later.

By 1902, emotions had reached a perilous pitch. After a 12-6 Carolina triumph, a series of brutal melees broke out among fans. Finally, Clemson's student cadets marched on South Carolina's campus with bayonets and swords. Thirty South Carolina students arrayed themselves behind a low wall, with clubs and cocked pistols. A South Carolina coach stalled for time, offering to fight, man to man, with any cadet the Clemson corps selected. This gave authorities time to arrive and forge a truce. As John Sayle Watterson writes in his epic history, College Football, the two sides "ended up cheering for each other, evidently oblivious to the bloodshed that had nearly occurred."

Dirty play, on-field deaths and unruly crowds were commonplace in football before and after the turn of the century. The first football contest between black colleges in Tennessee was broken up by drunken whites. A race riot ensued. One black spectator died.

Racism tinged much of the sport-related violence that came in the 20th century. In 1910, Jack Johnson became the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing title, an event so earth-shattering it sparked race riots around the country that produced 19 deaths, 251 injuries and more than 5,000 arrests. Many of Ty Cobb's worst assaults sprung from his race hatred. He kicked a chambermaid in the stomach and pushed her down a flight of stairs after she objected to being called "nigger." He beat a black groundskeeper and choked the man's wife when she tried to intervene.

Whites felt his wrath, too. He pointed a gun at a butcher's head. He kneed hecklers in the groin. "I fight only one way, and that's to kill," he said before slamming an umpire's head again and again into concrete.

The punishments he earned for these acts were minimal. His brutality didn't prevent him from being a golfing partner with President Taft or becoming the first player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Of course, Cobb was far from the only big leaguer with a mean streak. In 1912, the Boston Red Sox beat their own rookie pitcher so mercilessly after he'd lost a World Series game, 2-1, that he never pitched effectively again. In 1929, Art "The Great" Shires punched his manager in the eye during the Chicago White Sox's spring training. He slugged the manager a second time after the season began. He wasn't suspended until his third assault—he punched out his manager and heaved liquor bottles at police when they tried to stop him from trashing a hotel room.

The Chicago Cubs' Billy Jurges spoke of the fights and dirty plays that were routine in the game in the years before World War II: "A lot of guys would hate you. Really hate you… It was part of baseball."

***

Basketball's early years were marked by uneasy relationships between players and fans. Players came to be known as cagers because their courts were encased in mesh. The idea was to keep the ball from going out of bounds—and to keep fans and players apart.

Fans got around the mesh by heating nails and pennies with matches and lighters and then flinging them at players. In the 1940s, Lazenby notes, hockey owners created modern professional basketball out of a desire to fill their arenas on off nights. As in hockey, they encouraged players to fight. That was part of the draw for fans.

The fights didn't stop as the league outgrew its blue-collar roots. In the first game of the 1966-67 NBA season, New York Knicks center Willis Reed punched out one Los Angeles Laker after another. "He just took over. The most unbelievable fight I ever saw in basketball," one sportswriter recalls in Lazenby's oral history of the Lakers, The Show.

Two seasons later, Reed was in the middle of things again as a Knicks game against the Atlanta Hawks game punctuated by four fights that spread over three quarters. In the final period, both teams ended up brawling before order seemed to be restored. Then two players—the Knicks' Nate Bowman and the Hawks' Bill Bridges—resumed combat and spilled into the front row. "Bowman flattened Bridges, a fan grabbed Bowman and Bridges got in an answer-lick," The New York Times reported at the time. One of the brawlers, Paul Silas, recalled recently in the Charlotte Observer that the resulting punishments were modest: No one paid more than $25 in fines.

Things were much the same in the NBA's rival, the now-defunct American Basketball Association. During the 1971-72 season, police charged Virginia Squires coach Al Bianchi and two of his players with assault after a Squires-Pacers brawl in which players, police, coaches and fans wrestled and threw punches. As Bianchi recalled in the Arizona Republic, he pulled a police officer off one of his players and then threw the cop over the scorer's table: "Suddenly the officer disappears. Come to find out, he ended up in the fourth row where two of our guys threw him."

***

The 1970s saw no letup in the violence that stalked big-time sports. "More and more," Scheinin writes in Field of Screams, his unsunny history of baseball, "there were reports of players storming into the stands after hecklers. And more and more, there were reports of players donning batting helmets for protection in the field against beer showers and debris thrown by spectators."

In 1972, an Ohio State-Minnesota basketball game turned into a melee when a Minnesota player offered a hand to an opponent, then kneed him in the groin. Both teams charged onto the floor and a throng of Minnesota fans attacked and bloodied Ohio State's players. Ohio's governor called it "Gang warfare in an athletic arena."

In 1977, an NBA brawl turned scary when the Lakers' Kermit Washington floored the Houston Rockets' Rudy Tomjanovich with a blow to the face. "The Punch," as it's come to be known, put Tomjanovich in the hospital for weeks and ended his playing career. The league suspended Washington for 26 games, the longest penalty for on-court misconduct until this fall, when Artest was suspended for the final 73 games of the season.

The stories of violence have continued over the past two decades. Two years ago a father and son ran onto the diamond in Chicago and slammed a Kansas City Royals first-base coach to the ground, punching and kicking him. In September, Texas Rangers' pitcher Frankie Francisco, incensed by a heckler, threw a chair into the stands and broke a woman's nose.

***

Today's relentless electronic media document and magnify these fits of rage, capturing them on video and replaying them endlessly on 24-hour TV channels, in detail and living color that weren't available in the days of Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb. It's hard not to believe things are getting worse, that players and fans are out of control and traditions of the game are breaking down. Most of us want to believe that, once upon a time, things were better. And we tend to believe that our problems are unique: nothing like this ever happened before.

Journalists angle their stories toward what's new and trend-setting rather than what's commonplace and timeless. They churn out news stories with headlines like this one: "Bad sports take hold where civility once thrived." Few ask: Are these bad behaviors new? Or are they perpetual problems?

Or, simply: are things really worse? Are athletes more arrogant and contemptuous of ticket buyers today than players were in the 1950s, when the Boston Red Sox's icily masterful hitter, Ted Williams, spit at his hometown fans and gave them the finger? (Off-duty Boston cops were said to give boys apples to throw at Williams.)

Are players more pugnacious today than they were in 1957, when the New York Yankees engaged in three bench-clearing brawls in a single week? (That same season, after a Dodgers-Reds brawl, one of the gladiators told the press his plans for his main antagonist: "I'll get him. I'll whip his hide and his wife won't know him when I get through.")

Are fans more unruly today than they were in Cleveland in 1974, when the Indians and Rangers had to unite and use their bats as weapons to fend off a crazed, knife-wielding Ten Cent Beer Night crowd? (Rangers manager Billy Martin said it was "the closest I ever saw to someone getting killed in baseball.")

Glyn Hughes, a sociologist at the University of Richmond, believes much of the concern that today's athletes are spoiled and violent is wrapped up in unspoken, sometimes unconscious racial beliefs. The complaints that athletes don't respect authority or are "too hip-hop," Hughes says, are code words for saying they're "too black." Fans who hark back to the good old days of big-time sports, he says, are harkening back to a time when the games happened to be almost lily white.

Ronald Smith, a retired Penn State historian and former college athlete himself, has studied the annals of sports for decades. The idea of a golden age, he says, is "a bunch of baloney." He's glad Artest was suspended for his part in the Pacers-Pistons rumble. But Smith doesn't see that what Artest did—reacting wildly to getting hit by an object thrown by a fan—is as bad as the premeditated violence that has long been a part of sports: beanballs thrown behind batters' heads or deliberate maimings designed to put star players out of games.

One such episode was an attack on Johnny Bright, one of college football's first great black stars. In 1951, the Drake University running back had established himself as the college game's all-time leading rusher. On the first play from scrimmage in a game with Oklahoma A&M, Bright was away from the action when a defensive lineman sought him out and smashed him in the face with a forearm. Bright tried to play on, but the assault effectively ended his career.

And even though game films clearly showed the lineman had gone out of his way to attack Bright, conference administrators refused to discipline the A&M team.

***

In the aftermath of the Pacers-Pistons brawl, sports commentators tried to dissect the man whose rampage cost him nearly $5 million in lost salary. The Chicago Sun-Times' Rick Telander painted Ron Artest as an "impulsive child." When Artest "feels or sees something, he just reacts to it," his former agent said. "There's not a whole lot of taking a deep breath and thinking about what he's going to do. He just does it."

In another century, a sportswriter would recall Babe Ruth this way: "He was the most uninhibited being I have ever known. He just did things."

Ruth womanized, broke curfew, gorged on hot dogs before games, cursed and punched umpires and once was so drunk at spring training that he ran into a palm tree in the outfield and knocked himself senseless. He was a big enough star, though, that the rules didn't really apply to him. On one occasion he saved himself from getting benched for boozing and carousing by smacking two home runs in a game. "How can I fine and suspend him the way he played today?" his manager asked.

And Ruth's 1922 foray into the stands after a heckler? It cost him a one-game suspension and a $200 fine. He said he didn't deserve any punishment. "I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands," he told reporters. "I'll go into the stands again if I have to." He'd taken as much as he could. "I had to break loose," The Babe said.


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