The NBA: When athletes attack: Does brawl bode well for the NBA?

Some PR pros see the recent brawl between NBA players and fans as a major crisis for the league, while others see it as a key opportunity to win publicity.

Some PR pros see the recent brawl between NBA players and fans as a major crisis for the league, while others see it as a key opportunity to win publicity.

Fight! Fight! Fight! Forget high-minded rhetoric and plaintive appeals to our better nature. There are few things that people enjoy watching more than a wild fight that they are not personally involved in. This natural blood lust has been channeled largely into the realm of pro sports, where average viewers can watch muscled titans wail on each other within socially accepted boundaries. All sports are fights, whether literal (boxing), metaphorical (football), or only in the minds of sportswriters (golf). But what to do when the metaphorical spills over into the actual and a fun family day out at the game turns into a violent spectacle? The honest truth is that fans whoop, cheer, and beg for more when fights break out. In many cases, the fans instigated them in the first place. That is what happened when a Detroit Pistons fan landed a plastic cup on the face of Indiana Pacer Ron Artest on November 19, resulting in the spectacular "basketbrawl" that spread immediately through the stands, over TV screens, and into the American psyche. Such a jarring departure from the norm turns every casual NBA watcher into an instant pundit and necessitates a forceful PR response to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. Or does it? Experts in the field all have strong opinions on how to handle the crisis - though some don't think it's such a crisis after all. NBA commissioner David Stern, a man credited with reviving the flagging league over the last 15 or so years through savvy marketing, responded two days after the incident by suspending Artest for the rest of the season, and tagging his Pacer teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal with 30- and 25-game suspensions, respectively. In a statement released November 21, Stern said, "The penalties issued today deal only with one aspect of this incident - that of player misconduct. ... There are other issues that the NBA must urgently focus on at this time," including fan behavior standards, stadium security, and possibly new league rules. Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, believes that Stern did the right thing. "When you have situations like this, they're precedent-setting, either from a negative perspective or a positive perspective," he says. Paul makes an analogy likening Artest and others to misbehaving children who have been warned in the past, yet persist in their defiance. At some point you have to lay down the law. "Commissioner Stern comes home and sees his son - his league - and hears that this happened," he says. "And he decides, 'You know what? The only way that we truly learn is by being accountable.'" That means harsh penalties, including the loss of millions in pay and the potential for deep-pocketed sponsors walking away from players with reputations that are perceived as irredeemably tarnished. "We can cut you loose," Paul says, channeling a sponsor. "These are serious ramifications." Peter Land, the head of Edelman's sports and sponsorship practice, echoes the positive assessment of Stern's forceful moves following the fracas. "David ... did what a CEO should do in a crisis situation, which is get involved, take immediate action, take decisive action, and adequately show the gravity" of the situation, he says. A potential bright side The long-term implications of the brawl are murkier and somewhat harder to predict. "Contrary to what many other people think, I think that this could be seen as very good for the brand," says Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of 5W PR. "The target [audience] and demographic is not a 12-year-old female; it's not a senior citizen woman." And Artest need not lose heart. Torossian offers examples that might serve as models for the Pacer wild man's future: Latrell Sprewell, whose coach-choking incident in Golden State didn't stop him from repping And 1 sneakers; and Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker who bounced back from a murder charge to become the cover boy for the king of gridiron video games, Madden 2005. "I think that this makes people more marketable to a certain degree," Torossian says. Although the NBA would never admit it outright, the brawl could be priceless publicity for the sport. "Look, people are going to be tuning in. People are going to be watching more than ever before," says Torossian. "For the demographic of people who are interested in sports, who are interested in this sort of thing, those sorts of people will tune in and talk about it." Of course, not everyone is so forward-thinking, so to speak. David Allred spent 16 years as VP of communications for the Utah Jazz before leaving a year ago for Salt Lake City agency Richter7. Perhaps because he worked in the wholesome climes of that region, Allred does not see the mini-riot as a PR coup. "One of the longer-term PR implications is the public perception reinforced: Some people feel that the NBA has become a league of players that are bullies and street-ball players and that kind of thing, and trended away from more of the purist basketball standard," he says. A remedy might need to involve an increased physical separation between the fans and the players. This would be a delicate exercise on the league's part. "Do you gear up to where you have, in New York during the Red Sox-Yankees series, a cop every 4 feet?" he asks. While Allred credits Stern for his spectacular resurrection and management of the league, he says the example of decorum must be set by the players (as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan did in the past), not the commissioner. "I don't think the NBA has, right now, leaders of that caliber," he says. "The leaders in the NBA are, unfortunately, the Ron Artests." That perception could have an unfortunate ripple effect on all NBA players. Positioning yourself as a bad boy is a risky move at the moment, says Robert Tuchman, president of TSE Sports & Entertainment, which serves as a liaison between sponsors and athletes. Already some of Tuchman's corporate clients have requested retired players from the Magic-Bird glory days rather than active players. With both money and reputation at stake, they don't want to take a chance on a spokesman who might be the next one flinging punches on a beer-stained court. "There's definitely some edginess in terms of what to do and what might happen," Tuchman says. "And any time you have sponsors who are edgy, it's not a good thing." Cleaning up the mess It's all fun and games until the rich people take their wallets and go home. But Stern is a marketing mastermind, and he will surely do everything in his power to prevent that from happening. League representatives did not return calls for this article, but Tuchman predicts a slew of fan-friendly, family-friendly initiatives in the near future designed to placate sponsors. Still, the brawl will likely be recurring news until at least the end of the regular season, experts say. And what about Artest, a man who's had one of the worst PR years in recent sports history? A man slammed in the media only weeks before the fight for supposedly requesting time off from the court in order to promote an album for a group on his record label? A man who can change the game plan of any offense in the NBA with his mere presence, but who is likely to get shown up by the likes of Bow Wow when his tepidly awaited Paqman album drops? If he is listening to PR pros, he will apologize, sit down, and shut up. "If you run your mouth and you are angry, it is only going to be like throwing gasoline on a fire," says Paul. "The first step in crisis management is ego management." Ricky Williams made waves by leaving the NFL to take a spiritual journey. But Artest better not quit his day job. "[He] wanted a few days off to promote [an] album? Well now he's getting a few days off to promote [it]," says Torossian. "He should go to Australia for a year, sit on a beach, and just really be quiet. And then come back next year and see what he can do."

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