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Sports | NBA Commissioner David Stern takes strong action to curb future fighting

Issue: "Rice: Starboard at State," Dec. 4, 2004

There was enough blame to spread around following the shocking riot between fans and Indiana Pacers players during a game in Detroit. On television, where highlight programs showed replays of Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, and Stephen Jackson pounding Pistons fans on the court and in the stands, NBA analysts focused on fans who breached the court and the players' wildly inappropriate reactions. But while announcing the suspensions (a season-long suspension for Mr. Artest; 25 and 30 games for Mr. O'Neal and Mr. Jackson), NBA commissioner David Stern found another culprit in the ugly incident: a nexus of sports and declining expectations.

Mr. Stern says the NBA and other leagues haven't taken anti-social behavior seriously. Fights in the NBA? It's only players lashing out in the heat of competition. Fans slinging insults (or beverages) onto players? It's paid for by the cost of admission. "[We can't] allow our sport to be debased by what seems to be declining expectations for behavior by fans and athletes alike." Mr. Stern can't do much about an epidemic of American hooliganism. But by handing down 143 games of suspensions without pay (costing the nine players involved nearly $12.5 million), Mr. Stern can make it painfully clear that the league won't tolerate violence-provoking behavior from its players. "The line is drawn, and my guess is that won't happen again," Mr. Stern said. "Certainly not by anybody who wants to be associated with our league."

Coach swap

Utah football coach Urban Meyer should have seen it coming. On the set of Game Day (ESPN's popular college football show) before his Utes played BYU, anchor Chris Fowler asked the 40-year-old coach if he would take the University of Florida job if offered. "There's been no deal, no contact," he said. "I plan on staying at Utah a long time." If Mr. Meyer leaves, he'll regret not preparing a better answer.

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An 11-0 record this season and a Fiesta Bowl berth have made Utah's young coach a hot item for any school with a vacancy. Chief among them is Florida, which became available after the school fired Ron Zook. Coaches would tell Mr. Meyer he'd be a fool to pass up the Florida job if it's offered-major coaching positions only become available so often. But like Dennis Franchione (TCU to Alabama and then Alabama to Texas A&M) and Gary Barnett (Northwestern to Colorado), he won't let his fans down softly.

Will Utes fans understand that although they may be Arizona-bound, their coach may be headed east? Owen Biddle, a Utah alumnus who spoke with the Gainesville Sun during the broadcast, doesn't: "I want him to stay forever. Please don't take our coach away."

Around the Horn

• It's safe to say Lleyton Hewitt can now relax as the ATP Tennis tour takes its short winter break. If for no other reason, Mr. Hewitt won't have to face the red-hot Roger Federer again until 2005. Mr. Federer knocked off the Australian six times in 2004, including in the just-completed finals of the Tennis Masters Cup. The Swiss tennis star has taken home wins this year at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open.

• The NFL plans to go old school for the halftime show at the 2005 Super Bowl. Very old school. The league has asked Paul McCartney to perform during football's championship game, making a conscious effort not to repeat last year's provocative and controversial show featuring Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. Last year's show earned CBS a $550,000 fine from the FCC.

• NASCAR's Kurt Busch became the fourth-youngest Nextel Cup champion when he held on for fifth place in the season-ending Ford 400. But it wasn't easy. Mr. Busch lost a tire and broke a wheel on the 93rd lap, but managed to avoid crashing. Said Mr. Busch: "All year long we've done things like this, whether we put ourselves in a hole or had a small problem. I just can't believe we were able to overcome all that turmoil today."


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