NBA counterpunch: Anthony suspended 15 games

When conflicting sportsmanship codes meet, self-policing by players results


When NBA scoring leader and former Towson Catholic star Carmelo Anthony threw the punch Saturday night that led to a 15-game suspension, he was following an age-old sports code.

If a teammate is physically threatened, you stand beside him.

But Nate Robinson, the New York Knicks guard who helped escalate the fight, believed he was following an equally powerful code.

If an opponent rubs it in during a big victory, let him know you won't take it.

Such deeply engrained codes are among the impediments NBA commissioner David Stern and other officials face as they try to eradicate fighting in sports. All the major leagues have tried to crack down on the sort of unwritten rules and self-policing that lead to brawls. But it's clear they're not succeeding.

"I think these rules are quite powerful, perhaps so powerful that they supersede written rules," said Steve Danish, a sports psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I think what you saw the other night really was a clash between unwritten rules that led to enormous frustration on both sides."

In baseball, pitchers are ostracized if they're unwilling to answer a beanball against a teammate by hitting an opponent with a pitch. In hockey, a defenseman had better not take a shot at the opponent's star forward unless he's ready to be leveled by that team's enforcer. If a boxer is hit with a low blow, he doesn't wait for the referee to step in. He returns fire on his opponent's nether regions.

Anyone who doesn't believe in such codes needs only to look back to June, when Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen demoted rookie Sean Tracey after he failed to unleash a retaliatory pitch.

Blowouts ruffle feathers in any sport. If a baseball player steals a base when his team is up 10-1, he might be brushed back the next time he's up. In football, a rumble might ensue if a team is still passing at the end of a lopsided game. And on Saturday, Denver Nuggets coach George Karl irritated the Knicks by keeping four starters on the court with little more than a minute remaining in a 123-100 win.

"They just wanted to embarrass us," said Robinson, one of the key players in the fight. "It was a slap in the face to us. As a team, as a franchise, we weren't going to let that happen."

That sort of thinking needs to be wiped out, said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "No matter what kind of legacy or expectation exists in a given sport, the bottom line is there's no excuse for physically assaulting someone during a ballgame," he said.

Roby pointed to Zinedine Zidane's head butt in this summer's World Cup final. Zidane might have been provoked by a ghastly comment from an Italian player, Roby said, "but if you're asking me to condone his response, I can't do it. It was a selfish act that cost him, his team and his country."

Roby applauded the NBA's Stern for handing out long suspensions and for telling teams they will be fined when their players can't behave.

Prosecution by local authorities might be the next step if nothing else stops the fighting, Roby said.

"What's the difference between an assault that happens on the [court] and one that happens on the street?" Roby said. "I don't see it."

Facing charges

Todd Bertuzzi of the Vancouver Canucks faced assault charges after he punched the Colorado Avalanche's Steve Moore in the head and slammed his face onto the ice during a 2004 game. Moore suffered a serious concussion and facial cuts and fractured three vertebrae. Bertuzzi eventually pleaded guilty and received a year's probation.

His actions flowed from following an unwritten sports code. Three weeks earlier, a Colorado player had elbowed Vancouver captain Markus Naslund in the head. The Canucks did not feel the game referees dispensed appropriate justice.

The codes of retaliation are so clear in hockey that a whole species of player - goons - evolved from them.

The thinking was simple. When a scrawny virtuoso such as Wayne Gretzky came along, he'd be neutralized by thugs unless he had a tough guy backing him up. In Gretzky's case, that was burly Dave Semenko, who could flatten challengers with two or three punches. Gretzky knew where his bread was buttered. When he won a car as Most Valuable Player of the 1983 NHL All-Star Game, he gave it to Semenko.

In general, sports lovers have romaticized such figures. Pitchers such as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale might not have seemed funny to the batters they brushed back in the 1960s. But in later years, the memory of batters sent sprawling brought a twinkle to the eye of old baseball men.

Gibson said "purpose pitches" had a well-deserved place in baseball. He explained his reasoning in an essay for The New York Times:

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