New Fallujah, Michigan
A month ago I happened to catch the fateful NBA basketball game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons on TV. As everyone knows by now, a skirmish between players at the end of the game quickly erupted into a full-blown riot with the fans in the stands at Detroit’s Palace of Auburn Hills arena. Since then players have been suspended and fans have been arrested, but the 10-minute melee that unfolded live on television continues to be both riveting and repellent.
Burned onto my cortex, this feeling lingers thanks to the continuous viewing that began right after the game when I stayed up late into the night watching ESPN’s Sportscenter. The show devoted practically its entire hour to breaking down the brawl from every angle imaginable—like “a poor-man’s Zapruder tape” wrote one sportswriter—assigning blame to players, spectators, and the nonexistent security personnel. And when that was over, I found myself watching the repeat broadcast immediately afterwards, and then the subsequent coverage on sister network ESPN2.
The ugly spectacle of fans throwing blunt objects and players throwing punches, or vice versa, was strangely thrilling. The utter disintegration of the sacred boundary between fan and player had turned a lackluster early season basketball game into irresistible television—but in the same way that footage from a war zone is irresistible. In fact, as the graphic NBA fight footage was sucked into cable television’s spin cycle it butted up against the latest carnage from the war in Iraq, and the violent images played endlessly until they appeared as two sides of the same coin. It’s a coin that, minted in the current climate of fear and moral ambivalence, can tell us a lot about the current American zeitgeist.
American sporting events have long served as a metaphor for military warfare, so it’s no surprise that the Detroit debacle was immediately framed in terms of the War on Terror, and by extension the Iraqi occupation. Although the roundball rumpus produced only minor injuries it quickly assumed life-and-death proportions under the media spotlight. “It’s like the 9/11 of the NBA,” a Pacers fan was quoted as saying in USA Today. Sports columnists wrote of “civilian combatants” who “lobbed beer like grenades” and “whaled on players in the fog of mob war.” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle, one of many pelted with concession stand projectiles, told ESPN “I felt like I was fighting for my life out there.” And when they got on the team bus, center David Harrison said, security officials “told us to shut off the lights. They were afraid of people shooting at our bus.” Rush Limbaugh, in typically exaggerated fashion, made the terror connection explicit on his radio talk show the next day. “Just rename the city of Detroit to New Fallujah, Michigan, and then what happens at the Palace of Auburn Hills will be understood by everybody who goes there.”
Limbaugh’s overheated rhetoric aside, his comparison does indeed beg to be understood. With Iraq increasingly in disarray, should we be shocked that similar tensions could explode in a Detroit basketball arena? The sight of civilian spectators mixing it up with professional athletes is an eerie reflection of the situation on the ground in Iraq where the traditional rules of engagement no longer apply. Kidnappings, beheadings, and assassinations have blurred the line between soldier and civilian as never before. It’s not a stretch to say that a similar line was crossed in the basketball game. Despite the tense atmosphere, the American public has mostly condemned the players for losing their cool despite provocation by the fans. Yet the same public has been far more forgiving of the American marine who was recently captured on video tape shooting a wounded insurgent (or is it terrorist?) lying defenseless on the ground. There have always been rules of conduct governing both military and athletic contests, and so if the former have begun to break down why shouldn’t the latter?
“I was distressed and shocked to see the situation spiral out of control…it was clear that there was no security in place, I feared for my own safety and for the safety of my teammates.” Although this description could have come from a beleaguered convoy of American GIs in the Sunni Triangle, it actually came from Pacers player Jermaine O’Neal, who engaged in fisticuffs with fans who brazenly came onto the court. Security (or a lack thereof) continues to come up in the national discussion of both Iraq and the basketball brawl. When NBA commissioner David Stern was asked afterwards if barriers might someday be erected around the court, transforming it into a kind of protected Green Zone, he said, “I would like it not to come to that…the safety alert has not gone to ‘orange.’” But for many Americans a lukewarm color alert can’t dispel the oppressive feeling of fear and loathing that has gripped anxious citizens and disaffected fans alike. A USA Today political cartoon perfectly captures the national mood by showing two guys at a sports bar watching a television with a crude illustration of an insurgent wielding a knife near a kidnapped hostage’s head. One guy says to the other: “VIOLENCE… BOMBINGS… SHOOTINGS… BEHEADINGS… STILL, IT BEATS WATCHING THE NBA!...”
But watching the looped footage of indiscriminate violence whether in Iraq or in the NBA, as I did for hours on end the other night never quite leads to any real understanding. The hostility becomes decontextualized to the point where we forget its true origins—there are good guys and bad guys with innocent victims disguised as collateral damage. The human actors in these struggles appear as strangers, shadowy figures, and cold abstractions of our worst fears, who may or may not deserve protection under the Geneva Conventions. Or may or may not be the guy who actually threw the first beer cup that sparked the clash in Detroit. But maybe if cable news shows us the TV replay one more time, we’ll begin to figure it out.
That was the excuse offered the day after Detroit’s unrest, when players from Clemson and South Carolina fought brutally at the end of their college football game. Though the fans stayed in their seats this time, Clemson coach Tommy Bowden suggested that repeated viewings of the NBA fight from the previous night might have been a factor. But the coach’s assessment, like much of the country’s, is off the mark. It pretends that the problematic brutality of the War on Terror is only limited to television, where it’s either absorbed by incessant viewing or just as quickly avoided by the click of the remote. Thus, we never have to admit that our game plan in Iraq might be faltering, or that our moral authority is crumbling. It’s the same culture of denial that recently led a number of ABC affiliates to refuse to broadcast the graphic World War II film Saving Private Ryan. For some reason, a number of them replaced Ryan. with the 1986 movie Hoosiers, the heartwarming tale of high school basketball players who claw their way to the championship in 1950s Indiana. While we can all get behind that vision of America, the less heartwarming tale of “New Fallujah, Michigan” may not be resolved until the chaotic reality of Fallujah, Iraq follows suit.
Derek L. John can be reached at email@example.com.