If you think the brawl between the Pistons, the Pacers and the public started with Ron Artest's hard foul on Friday night, then you just haven't been paying attention. The tensions that led to that melee have been building for years, as the gulf between athletes and fans has widened, standards of civility have declined and the lust for violence has intensified. It's been getting increasingly nasty out there, on the field and in the stands, and the malice at the Palace was just the next step down the ladder to who knows where.
The fight was deplorable, yes, frightening, yes, but shocking? Not really. Not after we've seen Texas Rangers pitcher Frank Francisco angrily toss a chair into the stands, breaking a woman's nose; not after we've seen Tie Domi of the Toronto Maple Leafs wrestle with a fan in the penalty box; not after we've seen spectators rush the field to attack Kansas City Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa; not after we've seen Vernon Maxwell of the Houston Rockets charge into the stands to punch a heckler.
All those incidents happened within the last 10 years, and they, along with many others like them, led to last Friday night. They are all evidence that the player-fan dynamic has changed for the worse. Athletes and spectators don't like each other anymore, generally speaking, and it only takes a few overpriced beers in the hands of the wrong people to make the hostility leak out.
The money is part of the growing disconnect. Fans resent the obscene salaries that the players are making, and players resent the fans' notion that those big paychecks make them fair game for the most vicious heckling. The antagonism between the two sides is like a fuse, and the cup of beer thrown at Artest was just the latest match, causing the biggest explosion we've witnessed. So far.
There was a time when even that pent-up resentment wouldn't have caused the kind of ugliness we saw Friday at the Palace of Auburn Hills, when it wouldn't have occurred to fans to attack players, and players wouldn't have dreamed of charging into the stands. That was before the standards for acceptable behavior changed, before we started serenading opposing players with obscene taunts, before we began chanting "Bull----!" when a referee makes a call we don't like.
It was also before everyone got so angry, and we're not talking about sports. We flip each other off in the car more, and fire off angry e-mails, and it's no surprise that when some of us go to a game, we're not just looking for entertainment, we're looking to let off steam. We want to see Ray Lewis pulverize a ball carrier and dance in celebration. We can't wait to see Shaquille O'Neal flatten Kobe Bryant the first time he comes through the lane. Is it any wonder that some of us want to do more than just watch the mayhem, that we want to be part of it?
Throw alcohol into the mix and the whole thing explodes like a Molotov cocktail. NBA commissioner David Stern sounded sincere when he said that the league would consider restricting alcohol sales in the future, and there's no doubt that turning off the taps at the start of the fourth quarter, for instance, would reduce the likelihood of brawls like the one on Friday night.
But the Pistons-Pacers fight wasn't just the result of a few fans having about a dozen too many, and it wasn't just about Artest looking for trouble and finding it again. The brawl came about because of far deeper, more complicated problems that can't be completely remedied with more security or more sobriety. The tensions that led to the melee won't go away overnight.
Maybe the only positive development in Friday's fight was that no one was seriously injured. We may not be so fortunate next time, and despite everyone's remorse and the stiff penalties that have been handed out, there will almost certainly be a next time.
React: Were the players who were suspended in the Pistons-Pacers fight treated fairly?
Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor writes about a Hot Button topic every Monday on SI.com.