Sprewell decision puts squeeze on order in NBA

March 06, 1998|By John Eisenberg

John Feerick, the arbitrator in Latrell Sprewell's hearing, thought Sprewell was punished too harshly for attacking his coach, P. J. Carlesimo of the NBA's Golden State Warriors. OK. Fine. Let's take that and run a hypothetical experiment.

Let's say Sprewell had choked Feerick instead of Carlesimo, threatened to kill the arbitrator and come back a few minutes later for more, all of which Sprewell did when he lost his cool and went after Carlesimo during practice on Dec. 1. How would Feerick feel then about the severity of Sprewell's punishment?

Just a hunch, but Feerick, the dean of the Fordham University Law School, might feel differently after experiencing the wonderful sensation of someone else's hands around his neck. Squeezing hard.

That's never going to happen, of course, as well it shouldn't. Sprewell's hearing is over. Feerick's ruling, announced Wednesday, will stand.

And what a lame ruling it was.

Instead of sitting out the rest of a one-year suspension and having his contract terminated, Sprewell will return to the Warriors after this season with his contract back in effect, meaning he'll get paid $17.3 million over the next two seasons.

He gets his job back at full pay, in other words. The Warriors probably will trade him.

"You can't strangle your boss and still hold your job -- unless you play in the NBA," NBA commissioner David Stern said.

That says it all.

Not that Stern was blameless in the events leading up to the incident; his league's relentless hardball marketing mined the big money that has corrupted a generation of NBA stars, turning many of them into arrogant jerks who earn gazillions before they accomplish anything and think they're owed the world.

There's also no doubt a double-standard was in effect; Michael Jordan or any of the league's more popular, familiar stars never would have faced sanctions as severe as Sprewell, who, as a high-priced player with a bad reputation, was the perfect choice for a player on whom the league could turn.

Still, it was good to see a league take a stand for a change against the boorish and often criminal behavior that has become so prevalent among today's athletes. Coaches are sick of it, fans are sick of it, everyone is sick of it. Bully for the NBA for fighting back. Baseball sure doesn't.

But Feerick's ruling takes a lot of the wallop out of the NBA's attempt to maintain a semblance of order.

In the end, he viewed the pile of evidence in front of him much too coldly and clinically, eliminating the human element that made the act so shocking.

That's what an arbitrator is supposed to do, of course, enter a heated situation and rule dispassionately. But Feerick worried about precedents, messages and the recent history of NBA fines, and forgot all about the reason he was there:

The guy choked his coach!

Choked. His. Coach.

You would think the Warriors had every right to void his contract under the terms of section 16 of the standard player contract, which says players must "conform to standards of good citizenship and good moral character."

If this wasn't a violation of that clause, what is?

"My only concern," said Pat Croce, president of the Philadelphia 76ers, "is I guess you have to kill someone to have your contract voided."

That's a legitimate concern in light of Feerick's ruling.

Yes, the punishment as it stands now -- a 68-game suspension worth $6.4 million -- is still the heaviest non-drug punishment in league history, so it's not as if Sprewell got away free.

But let's face it, $6.4 million is peanuts to one of today's major NBA stars.

Sprewell deserved harsher sanctions than that, especially because he'll probably sign a huge contract with a new team down the line, proving once and for all that crime does pay.

Terminating the rest of his current contract was an injurious punishment that seemed to fit the crime, but Feerick ruled that there was no precedent for a team and a league to punish a player for the same crime. He was right. There was no precedent.

But so what?

If ever there was a time to set a new precedent, this was it.

If Sprewell and Carlesimo were regular guys on the street, Carlesimo could press charges and cause Sprewell all sorts of trouble.

Instead, we have Sprewell announcing through his agent that he was "disappointed" that he doesn't get to come back this season.

Try not to gag.

Has the man ever heard of a thing called accountability?

Obviously not.

And how could he have heard of it? Accountability is a lost art in the NBA, a dysfunctional league in which traded players now simply refuse to report if they don't like where they're sent, as Rony Seikaly and Kenny Anderson did recently.

It's a league in which the players now can do whatever they want, basically.

They can even choke their boss and keep their job, it turns out, thanks to Feerick.

Isn't that swell?

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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