Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Other End of the Telescope

I didn't really want to write about the hurly-burly in the Wizards' locker room1. There have already been more than enough words written (in this very blog, even), and if you follow basketball, you likely have an opinion already. But I had been planning to write a post about justice in professional sports, and this is in many ways an ideal test case. Besides, it's topical, so long as you're not counting in blog years.
1: If you don't know the story yet, before you read this you might want to check out this Washington Post article. It is, at least for now, where I'm getting my facts.

Foucault (from, again, The Punitive Society) identifies "In the penal system of the Classical period, ...mixed together, four great forms of punitive tactics-- four forms having different historical origins, each having played if not an exclusive role then a privileged one:
1. exile, cast out, banish, expel beyond the borders, forbid certain places, destroy the home, obliterate the birthplace, confiscate the possessions and properties;
2. arrange a compensation, impose a redemption, convert the damage caused into a debt to repay, turn the offense into a financial obligation;
3. expose, mark, wound, amputate, make a scar, stamp a sign on the face or the shoulder, impose an artificial and visible handicap, torture-- in short, seize hold of the body and inscribe upon it the marks of power;
4. confine."

Now, sports leagues exist within a wider social and governmental milieu, which limits both the mechanisms and the scope of their oversight. No matter how badly you screw up, it is strenglich verboten for the civilian employer to brand, torture, or incarcerate you. But the first two punitive tactics have pretty straightforward manifestations in suspensions and fines, respectively2.
2: Okay, this linking of governmental penality and discipline in professional sports is both the most tenuous bit of my argument and its sine qua non. Professional leagues provide teams, practices, and events of an athlete's vocation; teams provide a paycheck. You could argue that their direct mechanisms of control are, instead of some governmentalistic imposition of power, simply denying what they normally provide. But, while granting that the terms of engagement determine the mechanisms of control to at least as great a degree as governmental prerogative, both are bureaucratic means of social control, which is link enough for me. I find the idea of penal systems nested like matryoshki pretty appealing for lots of reasons.

Modern penal systems of any sort "define the notion of crime, the role of the public party and the necessity of punishment... on the basis of the interest of society or the need to protect it."3 Now, I'm not aware of any not-for-profit professional sports. The working analogue for "the interest of society" is economic viability, which relies on a committed fanbase to prop up television, merchandizing, and ticket revenues. Most penal action is the low-stakes and relatively apolitical maintenance of the rules of the sport. Criticizing referees, disorderly conduct, scuffing baseballs, so on. A sport is defined by its framework of rules, and in the name of competition, sometimes people color outside the lines. But looking at what each sport goes out of its way to penalize is a great way to tell what it sees as the biggest threats to that, and often what ideals it means to hold sacred4, 5.
3: idem.
4: Fuck with the sacred ideals, and you risk the passion of your fanbase, which is, once again, what makes a sport profitable. Steroids threaten the historical continuity of baseball's records; the pure exploration of the limits of human performance in track and field; the plumbing of the ragged depths of human endurance and willpower in cycling. Not so much the skill, grace, and spacial mastery of basketball or the staccato bursts of complex violence of American football.
5: What's even more interesting is when sports change their rules, rather than just enforce them. The various changes in pitching mounds and regulations, the change in hand-check rules, the introduction of the shot clock and three-point shot, even the debate about radio communication in cycling (which I bring up with no small amount of wishful thinking): all serve to make their respective sports more exciting and thus profitable.

So. Guns in a District locker room. That this blog might sound like an intact record, I won't be unpacking the racialized nature of the coverage. The important things here are: there was sensational coverage of an incident involving rich black men with guns; the NBA is terribly threatened by threatened white people. And so the Association is going to some lengths to protect itself. What I find interesting is how explicitly the political concerns trump the juridical ones. Gilbert may have been the instigator, but it was Crittenton who actually chambered a round in the locker room. His was a far more serious transgression of the norms of safety, law, and judgement every press statement is busy citing. And yet Arenas was the only one suspended, and then only after an embarrassing picture.

Arenas is well-known, though. As one of the faces of the NBA, he carries greater name recognition, and thus has greater ability to reflect poorly on the NBA. And as it happens, that is enough for the NBA rules. TrueHoop's Chris Sheridan reports:
From Article 6 of the CBA, which deals with player conduct:
Section 9. Firearms.
(a) Whenever a player is physically present at a facility or venue owned, operated, or being used by a Team, the NBA, or any League-related entity, and whenever a player is traveling on any NBA-related business, whether on behalf of the player’s Team, the NBA, or any League-related entity, such player shall not possess a firearm of any kind. For purposes of the foregoing, “a facility or venue” includes, but is not limited to: an arena; a practice facility; a Team or League office or facility; an All-Star or NBA Playoff venue; and the site of a promotional or charitable appearance.

(b) Any violation of Section 9(a) above shall be considered conduct prejudicial to the NBA under Article 35(d) of the NBA Constitution and By-Laws, and shall therefore subject the player to discipline by the NBA in accordance with such Article.

And what, you ask, does Article 35(d) say?

Here it is, in all its glorious legalese:

"The commissioner shall have the power to suspend for a definite or indefinite period, or impose a fine not exceeding $50,000, or inflict both such suspension and fine upon any player who in his opinion: (i) who shall have made or caused to be made any statement having, or that was designed to have, in effect prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball or the Association, or a member, or (ii) shall have been guilty of conduct that does not conform to standards or morality or fair play, or that does not comply at all times with federal, state and local laws, or that is prejudicial or detrimental to The Association."

Anything David Stern deems "prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball or the Association" is no less punishable than immorality, foul play, and criminal malfeasance. And so, by its own rules, while the finger guns were a physically, morally, and competitively harmless jest, they exacerbated a PR incident that played into stereotypes that are prejudicial to the Association6 and were penalized accordingly. Because Javaris Crittenton is not famous, he has not been the same embarrassment to the Association, and will not be unless he is found guilty of some seriously criminal behavior. But as reported by the Post, that seems unlikely:
"Preston Burton, a defense attorney and former assistant U.S. attorney in the District, said it would be difficult to build a criminal case against Crittenton based on the scenario described by the witnesses. He said prosecutors would look at factors, including whether they could prove Crittenton had a weapon, and whether the gun was real.
'It's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a case without a gun,' Burton said."
6: Typing "the Association" evokes some menacing secret society. Every time, I feel an overwhelming urge to twirl my mustache. The Association. The Association.

But there's more to it than that. Henry Abbott, in a post well worth reading in its entirety, points out that "when you fall from grace in the NBA, you don't just fall into mediocrity. You fall into the place where the NBA must use you to define, to fans, what it is not." But, for all the intent to distance itself from the incident, pillorying Arenas "reinforces the racially-tinged notion that the NBA does have a cultural problem, instead of a few bad actors or bad moments."7 And he's right. It is short-sighted, even condescending. Presenting a nuanced, human view of players comes with its own problems, but if Kobe has taught us anything, it's that sheer on-court brilliance can not just overcome appalling PR hiccups, it can go on to sell literally tons of product.
7: Sadly, I had to return Prisms to the library, so no quotes, but if you can, it's worth your time to look up Adorno's essay on cultural criticism. One of its major theses is the way that critics' responses to culture ultimately reify it in counterproductive ways. It is brilliant and still awfully relevant.

In the meantime, this whole episode has at least inspired me to pick up Paradise Lost again. If y'all need me, I'll be over here, hoping every premature step of the way that "the thunder, / Winged with red lightning and impetuous rage, / Perhaps hath spent his shafts, and ceases now / To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep."

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