March 1, 2012

World Peace

Grantland has a great post by Jonathan Abrams about The Malice at the Palace … essentially a collection of thoughts by several of those who were there and (more or less) directly involved with the fracas.
One of the big takeaways is that the Malice was a fairly common NBA scenario that ran totally out of control because of the unusual volatility of one of the main participants (Ron Artest, a.k.a Metta World Peace) as well as the abdication of responsibility by those who are charged with keeping the order in such situations (first and foremost the game officials, who had let the game get totally out of hand even before Artest decided to deliver his “message” to Ben Wallace).  The fact is that crowd violence is never too far out of the equation in these situations - I remember that whenever I went to watch away basketball games in high school I always had my tire iron handy under the front seat of my car - and if even one level of security broke down, then you were right on the edge of something nasty.  Something nasty, like the Malice at the Palace.
At the end of the day, if the officials had started calling technicals and kicking people out as soon as the hard fouls started, none of this would have happened.  If Mike Brown would have gotten World Peace off the court right away, none of this would have happened.  If the Palace had a sufficiently large and competent security force, none of this would have happened.  And if the Pacers would have just headed into the locker room instead of responding to the taunts of the Pistons and the fans, none of this would have happened.  At the very root of the problem is the violence on the court which, if not contained, can ignite a flame that’s not so easy to extinguish.
So here we are, 7+ years later.  Ron Artest has won a championship, publicly apologized for imploding what was clearly a championship-caliber team, gone through years of therapy, become a poster boy for facing emotional issues, and changed his name to Metta World Peace.  Jermaine O’Neal, the leader of the Pacers at the time, not only had to see his most realistic shot at a ring disappear, but had to leave a team and a city that he genuinely loved.  And the Pacers have only this season struggled back to relevance behind a team that Larry Bird had to rebuild not only to win on the court, but to regain respect off court.
It is World Peace specifically that has undergone the biggest transformation: he has gone to being as impulsive and moody as an angry 13-year-old to a man who tries his best to be a good citizen in the world (hence the name change).  Along the way, it’s clear that he lost a lot of the edge that made him perhaps the best defender of his generation, and now his refusal to march to the same drumbeats as everybody has the narrative painting him as a laughable eccentric, whereas before he was a dangerous loose cannon.  But even if he has lost his edge on the court*, it’s not too hard to see that Metta World Peace has a better life off the court.
We continually praise athletes for their ruthlessness and single-minded purpose between the lines, and then criticize them for the very same characteristics off court.  Witness Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech: why was anybody surprised that he is a petty and vindictive little man?  These are exactly the kind of things we praised him for as an athlete.  Why are we surprised that so many athletes, from Kobe to Brett Favre to Ben Roethlisberger and on and on and on, don’t think the rules apply to them when we continually tell them that, indeed, the rules don’t apply?  And here we have Ron Artest, a man clearly on his way to self-destruction: his demons made him a very good, albeit dangerous, basketball player.  So he plays, day in and day out, with the fuse lit on his powder keg, and we expect people like Mike Brown, Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle, Chuck Person, etc., to tamp it out after the whistle blows.  We expect him to be a demon on the court, and with the flip of a switch, be completely normal off it.  When he did blow, we excoriate him, turn him into a pariah, say that he’s exactly what’s wrong with the game. 
So our devil, our scapegoat, begins to take his life seriously.  He wants to change, he wants to be a better person.  And, he is successful, to a very large degree: he becomes less violent on court, less malevolent off court.  He raffles off his hard won championship ring for the benefit of mental health issues.  He becomes a poster boy for dealing with mental health issues.  He changes his name to Metta World Peace.  He becomes a better person.
So how do we celebrate the transformed personhood of Metta World Peace?  By making him a laughingstock.  By pointing to him as an eccentric has-been.  By making him a joke.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot that’s funny about Mr. World Peace.  My wife and I continually post our favorite Ron Artest/Metta World Peace quotes on each other’s facebook walls.  But I laugh because I find him a genuinely funny and interesting guy, not because I consider him a joke**. 
The temple of sports punditry, on the other hand, has different ideas.  Ron Artest was a dangerous, out-of-control thug.  Metta World Peace is a soft-hearted, soft-headed goofball.  Artest/World Peace is not what he is, he is what he is not.
Which brings me all the way around to the source of this post, today’s Asshole of the Day***:
That’s right, Skip Bayless.  I try hard to avoid him, but every so often I get sucked in.  And I always have to pay.
So today, Bayless is discussing the need for the Lakers to retaliate against the Heat for the hard foul that D. Wade hammered Kobe with in the All Star game.  He actually said “Metta World Peace needs to change back to Metta World War” (??!!).
Yes, I know.  He was only trying to be clever (he really needs to stop trying, he never will be anything close to clever).  But essentially, he was saying that World Peace needs to revert back to his old violent self to help teach the Heat a lesson.
Let me restate that.  When Ron Artest was violent on the court back in 2004, he was a despicable human being who should have been kicked out of basketball for life.  He was everything that was wrong with the game, and people were suggesting in all seriousness that Artest and his ilk were bad people destroying sports and, by extension, our culture.  But, just this once, Skip Bayless sees a need for evil to return.  Skip Bayless is asking the very person who started the Malice at the Palace to repeat the specific action that precipitated the brawl to begin with.  And he does so with the implicit backing of the sports media as a whole … or indeed, of sports culture as a whole, since we have made very little effort to repudiate the narratives of assholes like Bayless.
And here is the secret of the Malice at the Palace, among other things: we are the problem. Not Ron Artest, not the Pistons or the Pacers or the crowd at Auburn Hills, not the officials or security or the “thug” culture of the NBA, not even Skip Bayless and the narrative of the Sports Media Empire.  No, we are the problem.
We are the problem because we participate in regressive narratives like the mainstream narratives of sport.  We are an even greater problem, because we allow these regressive narratives to stand in for our larger cultural narratives (i.e., Metta World Peace is a failure in life because his personality change makes him a less effective basketball player than he used to be).  We are the problem because these narratives that we foster poison our culture as a whole (one look at American politics tells you that).  This problem is bigger than just sports; it is a cultural problem.  And we are that problem.
We can change; we have to change.  And we can start by not succumbing to ridiculous narratives, even on things as ostensibly superficial as sports or pop culture.  Just say no to the idiots.
Break the narrative.
*  Until this year, I would not have conceded that: Phil Jackson’s role for World Peace took away much of what made him such a good player.  However, I would have guessed that reuniting with Mike Brown this year would have seen him return to old form, and it hasn’t.  It is starting to become clear that the demonic intensity of the old Ron Artest isn’t part of the new World Peace, and he is only a decent role player without that intensity.
**  If asked which professional athlete I would like to spend a day with, I wouldn’t have to think for a second: Metta World Peace is my man.  Only Rasheed Wallace - a man, incidentally, that faces some of the same public approbation as MWP - and Steve Nash even come close. 
***  Then again, I haven’t heard any Republican presidential candidates speechifyin’ today, so there’s still a chance that any one of a number of lunatics could steal this title.

1 comment:

Bill Zink said...

What I edited out here is the fact that Stephen A. Smith easily earns co-Asshole of the Day honors. Instead of calling out Bayless somewhere along the lines I'm discussing, Smith said it would be a bad idea because the Heat are "hard".

What a bunch of idiots.