Metta World Peace is coming off of suspension. The Los Angeles Lakers forward was suspended seven games for aggressively elbowing another player just before the start of the NBA playoffs. The All Star, formerly known as Ron Artest, started the season with high hopes: he’d come off another successful season with the Lakers and seemed to be shedding a bit of the bad boy image that’s followed him as one of the league’s most talented and impulsive journeymen.
That image was infamously cemented into the annals of the NBA’s historical archive back in 2004, when he was at the center of a bench-clearing, fan-bashing brawl as a member of the Indiana Pacers, now known as the "Palace Brawl." A skirmish with the Detroit Pistons spilled over into the stands of Michigan’s Palace of Auburn Hills, where the then-Artest wound up fighting with rowdy Pistons fans. The melee earned Artest a season-long suspension.
It was a watershed moment for the NBA. The league’s brass had long been at odds with its players. Though they were the most widely marketed and profitable professional athletes in the country, they were also uniquely young and black. Their personal style — baggy jeans, oversized t-shirts, beanies — had been under attack. Some were self-proclaimed rap artists. The league, critics said, was filled with a bunch of thugs.
The league had an image problem: Most of its players were black, many of its fans were white, and the it had bankrolled its popularity on the fact that those white fans could enjoy the game without feeling threatened by its black participants. The Palace Brawl changed all of that.
A partial answer came the following season, when the league implemented a dress code mandating that all players wear business or conservative attire when conducting official NBA business. These days, NBA superstars waver between dapper and deliberately nerdy. But every so often, the league’s discomforting racial politics boil up to the surface. And there’s perhaps no clearer example of this than Metta World Peace. I spoke with David Leonard, a professor of Ethnic Studies at Washington State University. His new book, "After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness" digs into why this issue is about much more than basketball.
Talk a little bit about why he matters. In your book you’re essentially making the argument that the NBA became a different league after the brawl that he was involved in. You talk about this "attack on Blackness." What does that mean?
The Palace Brawl gave the league the leverage, power and the impetus to [institute] an age restriction. It was about control. The logic of juveniles of color being tried as adults and the logic guiding the NBA’s curtailing the straight from high school baller is the same logic. The same logic that youth of color are disruptive, pathological, and need discipline and punishment. To me, you see the same ideas in both places.
And another issue that you touched on in the book was the NBA’s use of a dress code. A lot of that argument that you pointed out was that the NBA is such a big industry that it’s shaping the culture. I’m interested in the ways that the dress code has led to this new "nerd-chic." Talk a bit about why the league felt the need to "professionalize" its workforce, so to speak.
Let’s think back to Michael Jordan’s emergence. Michael Jordan literally leaped onto the national scene at the dunk contest. In the dunk contest, he was wearing a gold chain. After that, you see this dramatic transformation with Michael Jordan so that you rarely saw him give a post-game interview in anything other than a suit.
I think the NBA in instituting this dress code, was thinking, "Can we create a league of African American players that are seen as different from other African Americans?" Cuttino Mobley wore a skull cap or a beenie to a post game interview, and it had an NBA insignia on it. He was told that if he wore it again he would be fined. Here you have the NBA marketing through clothing, music at games, yet when players wear that clothing, it transmits a different message to fans and corporate sponsors. The NBA tried to mitigate that and then deny that they were doing that.
I think the whole nerd chic is a way that the players have responded. In a league that’s attempting to curtail individuality, attempting to limit individual expressions, players have found ways to dress within the parameters of the rule book but do so on their own terms.
Let’s talk about this most recent incident with Metta World Peace. It’s been almost ten years since the Palace Brawl. Do you feel like anything’s changed in regards to how he’s seen?
No. I mean, slight changes, but the mere fact that this most recent incident with James Harden was immediately linked to 2004, to the Palace Brawl, is telling. I think what was most revealing was the fact that there were so many media commentators — on air, ESPN, and also columnists — who basically said, "I refuse to call him anything but ‘Ron Artest.’ Because in our eyes, he hasn’t changed. He’s the same person." You saw the commentators really say that we’ve been lied to. We’ve been convinced that he has changed when he hasn’t. We might say that there’s a certain tension there from the league, the media, that that’s the feeling by the NBA as a whole, that they’re just waiting for some incident to happen. For something to become that moment, well the eighth year of changes and punishments and rule changes didn’t change anything."
Of course it didn’t change anything because it’s in their minds. They’re seeing Metta as the same person, as a bad person, as a criminal, a "thug." I think the fact that within an instance, it was, "See we told you he was no good." It’s telling that he can never get redemption, he can never move forward because that’s always what defines him in the national imagination.
Is there anything else you wanna add?
One of the things that often strikes me is the disconnect between progressive and those engaged in anti-racist movement and struggles — and sports. Sports continues to be seen as antithetical or a distraction, or not part and parcel with the movements for justice. I think that when you have a society that is increasingly invested in and has been for the last 30 years, with incarceration, with a suspension culture, with racial profiling, it’s not a coincidence that you have a sports culture that’s equally invested in those practices. And invested in the language of the criminal justice system.
I think it matters that Metta World Peace cannot be treated and outlive the stigma of the Palace Brawl. Not just for him individually, but because it tells us where we are at as a culture that has left an entire segment of our population suffering under the stigmas of criminalization.