The NBA's Worst Day?

December 17, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston
A long time observer of American society once said, “The other night I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out.”

Last night it was basketball. Knicks vs. Nuggets at the Garden. It was late in the game, and the Knicks had no chance of winning. Mardy Collins of the Knicks committed a flagrant foul, horse-collaring J.R. Smith of the Nuggets, who was about to jump for an otherwise uncontested breakaway jam.

Smith reacted. In-your-face chest bumping, led to pushing. Other players joined in, some pushing and grabbing, some trying to separate the combatants. Others threw punches. Some of the punches may even have landed. The refs ejected all ten players.

The tongue clucking in the media afterwards was so loud it could have been heard above a NASCAR race. “The worst day in NBA history,” said someone on ESPN. “The only ones to benefit from this will be the charities,” said someone else, referring to the ultimate recipients of the heavy fines that the NBA will levy on the players.

Really? I’m sure that the NBA commissioner will, in his media appearance, look as stern as possible. He will deplore the actions of these players and say how terrible it is for the league. Then he’ll go back to his office and watch the TV ratings for the NBA, especially the Knicks and Nuggets, for the next couple of weeks, especially in they have a rematch. We should watch the ratings too, and we shouldn’t be surprised if they rise.

I suspect something similar is true about NASCAR fans. For spectator interest, the best race is not the one that is crash-free. It’s the one with the the spectacular, multi-car crash where all the drivers walk away unhurt.

Regardless of ratings, the NBA may actually want to end these brawls. I am more skeptical about the NHL. I suspect they could greatly reduce the fighting if they wanted to, and if they were willing to impose real penalties. Deterrence works, at least in some circumstances. Sure, fights are crimes of passion, and in the heat of the moment, players are not thinking about all the contingencies. But players are aware of the penalties. I don’t have the data, but I’d bet a lot that if you looked at when flagrant fouls and fights occur in the NBA, there would be a very strong correlation with the point differential. Nobody wants to give up a technical or get thrown out of a game they might win.


Bad Runner said...

In fact, the point differential was a key element in outbreak of this fight. Because Denver was so far ahead, the Knick were angry because Denver still had their starters playing with just over a minute left. That anger produced the foul which produced the fight. So, players don't just hold back when the game is close, they also can be spurred to get in trouble by wide differentials. A violation of social norms under those circumstances, leads to the powerful feelings of embarassment and bad reactions to that embarassment.

Jay Livingston said...

You're right, at least in this case. It would be interesting to see if this norm-violation plays a part in most NBA brawls. There's also much speculation that the foul wasn't all that spontaneous -- that the Knicks coach ordered the hit.

It certainly looks as though the other teams in the Knicks' division are conforming to the norm, not wishing to embarrass another team by such actions as, say, winning.