by: Chris Foss
The Malice at the Palace. The Punch. Pedro vs. Zimmer. The melee at the end of this year’s Super Bowl. Because games are, in a sense, controlled fights, sports and brawls have always gone hand in hand. There are enough brawls available on YouTube to easily take up a lunch break or help a college undergrad stay awake while cramming. But after the smoke clears, what do fights in sports
really signify to the people, the teams, and the games in question, both in the short run and in the long run? Sports analysts often say that fights are the turning or defining point of games. But are they, really? I argue that fights in sports have four possible outcomes:
Outcome 1: Fight has no short or long-term effects on the game or players
Outcome 2: Fight aids the team who benefited from the fight’s adjudication (often through disqualification of opponent) to victory
Outcome 3: Fight “fires up” team that should have been disproportionately hurt by the fight’s adjudication and they go on to win
Outcome 4: Fight’s long-term ramifications, either in terms of future head-to-head matchups between the teams, a series, or to society, are more significant than in the immediate contest. I argue that most fights end up in the Outcome 4 category, meaning that the outcome of a fight is often much easier to see over the long term than in the immediacy of the brawl.
I will provide brief examples of each of these outcomes, and then elaborate on why most fights fall into the category of Outcome 4.
Outcome 1: The fight at the end of Super Bowl 49 on Feb. 1, 2015 between Seattle and New England (1). With no timeouts remaining and out of options, the Seahawks desperately brawled with the Patriots at the end of the game, a sad coda to one of the sadder seasons in NFL history, marred by the domestic violence scandals involving numerous players and the Deflategate scandal with the Patriots themselves. But it had no outcome on the game—Seattle’s Russell Wilson had already tossed the game-deciding interception and had no recourse to stop the clock, except to get penalized and spark a meaningless end-of-game brawl. There was no real societal outcome, unless you count further notoriety for Patriot brawler Rob Gronkowski.
Outcome 2: The altercation between France’s Zinedine Zidane and Italy’s Marco Materazzi that occurred late in the extra period of the 2006 World Cup final (2). Zidane inexplicably headbutted Materazzi and was ejected, meaning he sat out the shootout which Italy ultimately won to claim the Cup. This was the non-U.S. equivalent to LeBron James being ejected for punching in the final minute of a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, or Tom Brady being tossed before the final drive of the Super Bowl. Zidane’s otherwise-extraordinary career was forever stained by this incident, which not only occurred in a World Cup final, but in his last game before retirement.
Outcome 3: J.R. Smith’s ejection and suspension from two games during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Game 4 win in the first round over the Boston Celtics in the 2015 NBA playoffs for striking Boston’s Jae Crowder (3). This occurred in the context of a rugged game where Celtics enforcer Kelly Olynyk appeared to intentionally injure Kevin Love, knocking him out of the postseason. But the Smith and Love losses only appeared to motivate Cleveland (arguably, but it’s one possible explanation). The Cavs hung on to win the game, and managed to split the two games Smith missed due to the suspension, a major factor in their ability to overcome Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinal that followed the Celtics series.
Outcome 3 fights are relatively uncommon. Fighting rarely seems to pay off in the contest in which the fight occurs when the fighters are ejected. Let me give a couple of instances in which a fighter should have been ejected, but was not, and it affected the game’s outcome in ways that helped his team. In Game 5 of the 1987 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, Boston’s Robert Parish clocked Bill Laimbeer with two punches, and inexplicably was not tossed. The Celtics went on to win Game 5, and the decisive Game 7, after Parish returned from a one-game suspension. In the 2003 American League Championship Series’ Game 3, the Boston Red Sox’ Pedro Martinez tossed 72-year old New York Yankees assistant Don Zimmer to the ground during a benches-clearing brawl, and again, inexplicably, was not thrown out (4). Martinez didn’t give up another run for the rest of the game, although the Yankees ended up winning.
More common and significant, I argue, is outcome 4, the most notable example of which is the infamous “Malice at the Palace,” a Nov. 19, 2004 late-game brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons (5). With the Pacers on their way to victory, Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace) unnecessarily dropped a hard foul on Pistons center Ben Wallace, whose retaliation sparked a melee. As the fight was being sorted out on the sidelines, a fan threw a drink at Artest, who then went into the stands after the fan, triggering players from both teams to spill into the stands—and vice-versa. The game was called off, Artest was suspended for the remainder of the season, and Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Stephen Jackson, and Reggie Miller all received lengthy suspensions for their roles in the fight, which went on for nearly ten minutes and resulted in the famous Bill Walton deadpan: “This is a disgrace.” On a more serious note, the NBA instituted rigorous new anti-fighting policies which, over the years, have basically snuffed out any kind of altercation in the league. The lengthy suspensions arguably hurt the Pacers in the regular season: their regular-season win total slipped from a league-best 61 in 2004 to just 44 in 2005, costing them home-court advantage in a rematch against Detroit in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Pistons won that series 4-2 and went on to the NBA Finals (6).
I believe many more fights end up in the Outcome 4 category, meaning that the outcome of a fight is often much easier to see in structural, societal terms than in the context of the specific contest in which the brawl takes place. In November 2004, no one was concerned about the outcome of the contest, which ultimately was called off. The Pacers’ win, clearly, had no bearing on the teams’ playoff seeding in and of itself. But the NBA, and to a degree, society at large were outraged by the “Malice at the Palace” because of its ferocity. It played out in front of a national television audience on a Friday night in front of a sold-out crowd that literally got involved in the brawl. It was remarkable that no player or fan was seriously injured.
The Malice at the Palace was also the culmination of a series of incidents that convinced commentators inside and outside the league that the NBA was out of control (7). A 1990 fight in Detroit between Bill Laimbeer and Charles Barkley ended with Barkley going into the stands after a fan. A Knicks-Bulls playoff brawl spilled into the stands in front of Commissioner David Stern in 1994. Houston’s Vernon Maxwell attacked a fan in Portland’s Memorial Coliseum in 1995. Ugly Knicks-Heat playoff brawls marred their 1997 and 1998 matchups. At the end of a heated Portland-Golden State matchup in 2002, Rasheed Wallace went after a fan in the stands, and Chris Mills challenged the entire Trail Blazers team to a fight outside the locker room and even the team’s bus. A month later, Wallace menaced the now-disgraced referee Tim Donaghy on a loading dock (8). The pressure was mounting for the NBA to tame their product.
The end result of all of this was not just that Indiana lost key players for long stretches of the season. The NBA instituted a dress code for players on the sideline, instituted video replay to adjudicate fighting and/or hard foul incidents, and cracked down on fighting or near-fighting in games. Even borderline rough contact now regularly draws flagrant or technical fouls. Scoring and finesse play are up in the league and fighting is down, but the so-called “ticky-tack” fouls have increased as well.
But it’s just as well that fighting in the NBA has been significantly curtailed. History shows that overt fighting, outside of the rules of the game, rarely pays off. It provides exciting moments for the sports fan, but also occasionally leads to disgust and horror on the part of the spectator who did not come to the game or turn on the TV, in the long run, to see millionaires (and, occasionally, college athletes) brawl and behave in a boorish manner.
 See http://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/IND/2005.html
 Want some fights? See a 1993 benches-clearing midcourt melee between Kevin Johnson and Doc Rivers (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTYQSYzf5Mk), a 1997 Knicks-Heat playoff battle resulting in multiple suspensions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfXSEyhbjRk) and its sequel in 1998 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_05JqkoQaLM).
 David Aldridge, “What really happened between ref, Rasheed,” ESPN.com, Jan. 29, 2003. http://sports.espn.go.com/nba/columns/story?id=1499153