Jewish World Review Nov. 26, 2004 / 13 Kislev, 5765

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Stretched and torn lines finally broke in Detroit | Fine, suspend Ron Artest.

Anyone who follows pro basketball knows his reputation as an emotionally unstable nitwit is no accident. And yeah, while you're at it, suspend his Indiana Pacers teammates Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson for their part in last Friday's fracas in the suburbs of Detroit. Suspend Ben Wallace, the Detroit Pistons center who triggered the initial altercation with a two-handed shove to Artest's face.

But after you've done all that, can we talk about the fans? Because if there was any single factor that turned a routine confrontation between athletes into an indoor riot, they were it. And to my mind, that speaks volumes about issues much larger than sports.

For the record: The conflict between Wallace and Artest was over pretty quickly. After Wallace expressed his rather emphatic objection to being fouled by Artest, the latter uncharacteristically walked away from conflict and reclined on a scorer's table. The matter was well on the way to being settled.

Then some "fan" threw a cup of liquid that hit Artest in the face. Next thing you know, he's charging into the stands and the throwdown in Motown is under way. Somebody slings a chair, fans are spilling onto the floor, people are hanging off O'Neal like Christmas tree ornaments, beer cups and popcorn and Lord knows what else are flying through the air.

And I'm sorry, but I'm having trouble blaming it all on an excess of beer. Alcohol, by and large, does not create emotion so much as it magnifies and distorts it.

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Alternately, some observers say race contributed to the melee - specifically the jealousy and anger of white sports fans alienated by black basketball players they perceive as too rich, too showy, too corn-rowed and tattooed. And insufficiently humble.

That's a good point, but I'm hesitant to place all the weight there, either.

Something broke loose Friday.

I don't know what to call it. Civility, maybe? Decorum, perhaps? Or maybe what broke is simply that old school belief that there are some lines you don't cross.

As such, this modern Detroit riot offers irresistible symbolism: players going into the stands where they are forbidden; fans going onto the floor from which they are restricted. People crossing lines that were once considered inviolable.

You cannot convince me that's only a sports phenomenon, just a beer and race thing. Listen to the blowhards of talk radio and crossfire politics. Check the empty vulgarism of rap music and fear factor television. Listen to the cynicism and entitlement of our children. And tell me that mentality played no role in some fool's decision to fling his cup.

This coward - a prosecutor has identified him as a self-employed contractor with a record of felony assault and drunk driving - tipped the balance with a single act of abject stupidity.

And once that happened, wasn't the rest preordained? Artest charging in for retribution? The entire stadium erupting in a furor? If your behavior is unchecked, doesn't that give me license, too? And the whole house of cards, the whole veneer of civil society, comes tumbling down.

Some would argue it's not that solid to begin with. We have become a chest-thump nation. An I-don't-take-no-stuff nation. A nation that crosses lines - not because lines need crossing, but because lines are there.

It's a lame and misguided echo of the '60s, when attitude was a political statement and people broke barriers because breaking barriers was necessary to force closed places open. But in the Ohs, attitude is its own reward and we break barriers because.

Friday night was a postcard from across the line. Friday night, something broke loose in Detroit.

But the truth is, it's been tearing for a very long time.

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