Condemn The Foul, Not The Mind
Leave the mental assessments for professionals.
by David J. Leonard / @drdavidjleonard
There is no defense for the elbow seen around the world. Metta, why? Irrespective of intent, it was a hard flagrant foul, one that has no place in the beautiful game of basketball. The seven-game suspension, while a bit on the high side, is measured and appropriate.
In fact, given the incendiary rhetoric from the media, the continuous loop of the incident, and their overall efforts to excite anger, the decision from David Stern to issue a sensible suspension (not the case with the Palace Brawl) is worthy of praise.
As such, there is nothing to debate regarding Metta World Peace elbowing James Harden in the head—it was vicious, uncalled for and disheartening. As a Lakers, Metta World Peace and basketball fan—it was disappointing. It is indefensible; yet, that fact is not a defense for a media spectacle-defined unnecessary cheap shots, much of which has nothing to do with the incident.
From the hyperbole and rhetoric designed to incite anger, to the constant invoking of the language of the criminal justice system and the demonization of Metta as a crazy person, much of the sports media has failed to inform and elevate the discussion, instead embracing roles as referee, commissioner and worse yet, doctor.
A common theme evident since the nationally televised elbow has been the constant mention of Metta’s mental state. While one might think mental illness mitigates culpability (it can within our justice system), the media establishment has used his purported mental fabric and wiring as part of a narrative that depicts him as pathological and dangerous. Although painting him as unstable and mentally weak, the ubiquitous references to his mind reflect an effort to mock, make fun and ridicule Metta World Peace.
The references have saturated the airwaves. “To say that something is wrong with Artest would not do him justice. This is the guy who applied for a job at Circuit City to get a discount, has come to practice in a bath robe and has admitted to drinking cognac at halftime,” writes Jason Black. “After winning the NBA Championship in 2010 he thanked his psychiatrist. There are many people who need therapy or have mental health disorders, so the fact that he publicly talked about having a psychiatrist isn’t a bad thing, but it tells us there is a problem.”
Black goes onto argue that Metta’s mental illness represents a threat to himself, other players and the game itself, calling for extensive punishment as a method of protection: “Having a mental health issue and getting help for it is commendable, but what price does somebody have to pay before it’s too late?” As with media pundits like Stephen A. Smith, who described Metta as “not that far away from coo-coo nest,” “as touched,” and as someone who has refused to take his medication in the past, the media narrative demonizes Metta for his mental issues.
Describing him as having “violent tendencies,” Bill Plaschke furthers the picture of MWP as psychopath, as crazy dangerous man: “This was about a celebration that turned caustic when somebody walked into the middle of it, the weird mind of World Peace switching from jubilation to rage in a matter of seconds. Maybe even scarier than the elbow was the look in his wild and crazy eyes as he stalked around the floor immediately afterward.”
Comparing him to Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Matt Monogan describes Metta as having a “few deep-seeded issues,” with a career dominated by “insane antics” and “on-court antics and erratic behavior seem to always outweigh his professional accomplishments.” Not done, Monogan refers to him as “a complete nut job” who “deserves a straight jacket.” Michael Ventre agrees, describing Metta in the following way: “He’s nuts, but he’s not stupid.” Similarly, John Stansberry sees Metta as a “world class wackadoo,” “a fucking wack job” and someone who isn’t “normal”
In fact this is a common theme throughout the media coverage, where MWP is seen as so unstable and crazy that therapy would not help. Jim Litake makes this clear when he writes: “After years of counseling, he still has precious little impulse control and even less of an idea when his demons are about to grab the upper hand.” Jonathan Hailey, blaming Metta, also focuses on his failed history of treatment: “Despite having a standing appointment with his therapist, Metta World Peace let all of his stress relieving exercises fly right out the window.” Likewise, Charles Joel identifies Metta’s mental state as his ultimate Achilles heal:
Subsequently, given Artest’s legitimate personal strides and commitment to self-improvement in the past few years, this random assault suggests that he is not yet in complete control of his emotions and actions. Temporary insanity, which many theorize is what we witnessed, may be a suitable justification for leniency when considering whether to lock someone up and for how long. But in the NBA, when you’re talking about an unavoidably physical environment and you’re weighing League safety against one man’s ability to earn a paycheck or a team’s ability to compete, temporary insanity is reduced to an ethical gamble.
Along with the constant references to his mental deficiencies, his psychosis, and his “being touched,” the media consistently depicts MWP as a bad man. Whether calling him Ron Artest (as if MWP is a name unfitting for a crazy and violent person), “selfish,” Metta World Knucklehead, and Metta World Selfish, the focus has been on him as a person rather than the foul; the reports have been clear: The foul is not an aberration but rather evidence of a horrible and crazy person.
“Artest is a kind of lovable retard, a gentle giant who lashes out because he’s just so darn sensitive,” writes Drew Magary. “There’s nothing to learn from the life of Ron Artest. Like Arenas, he’s just a flaky shithead. That’s the full truth of his being. At his core, he’s a boring player—one who can’t shoot, can’t jump, and can’t dribble—with a violent streak who stumbled into making a briefly popular brand out of his own blithering idiocy.”
Such reporting is abusive and deserves its own technical foul.
The demonization and criminalization is nothing new as evident by the various statements about Ron Artest in 2004. He was: “Branded America’s menace” (Wise and Jenkins 2004), a “child” who “must act on a whim” (Telander 2004) and who is prone to “tantrums” (Marrone 2004); a “historically troubled soul” (Moore 2004) who “two years ago” “was in a perpetual paranoid rage” (Ryan 2004); “an extremely talented player who doesn’t compute things upstairs” (Windhorst 2004); “a crazed man with a history of crazed outbursts and rampages” (Wiseman 2004); someone with “anger issues” (Robbins 2004); a “spoiled brat” with “mush for brains” (Mariotti 2004); a “punk” (Kindred 2004), “lunatic” (LeBatard 2004), and a “knucklehead” (“Artest Outburst Typical of Street-Stupid Culture” 2004) “who is in need of some serious help” (Rosenberg 2004).
The efforts to diagnose Ron Artest then, and Metta World Peace now, represents a destructive element within the sports media. If you wonder why athletes don’t open up to the public and show a level of vulnerability (such as referencing/thanking his psychiatrist), just think about how the sports media has used that against Metta as both explanation for the elbow and justification for a lengthy suspension, all while turning mental illness into a criminalized joke.
This kind of pop psychology has no place within the culture and does little to uplift the discourse. It has contributed to a culture of demonization/ criminalization, as well as ridicule, of Metta World Peace and so many others; likewise, it contributes to an overall cultural refusal to address issues of mental health, instead criminalizing and incarcerating those seen as “troubled” and “crazy.”
While reflecting a widespread practice of columnists and commentators playing Freud, it also embodies a history of American racism whereupon Black masculinity has been linked to psychosis and mental illness. Within the dominant imagination, it is but a small step from being a “monster” or a “beast” on the court to being “a crazy beast.”
The practice of disregarding, punishing and locking up those who are depicted as having mental illness, a fact that disproportionately impacts communities of color, is given life within these spaces. It is time for sports commentators to stick with what they know—sports—leaving the mental assessments for professionals. I am hoping that we began to follow the lead of Bomani Jones and Dave Zirin, who both have shown how to criticize the follow and not the person. In this instance, talk about the foul, not the man; condemn the elbow not the mind.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of the just released After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press) as we as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent contributor to Ebony, SLAM and racialicious as well as a past contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs @No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.