When Robert Horry rudely decked Suns point guard Steve Nash into the courtside press tables during Game 4 of the Suns-Spurs 2007 playoff series, he ignited a firestorm of debate over the application of NBA Rule VII(c) that prohibits players from leaving the bench area during altercations.
League Commissioner David Stern defends the Rule on the basis of fairness, yet steadfastly applying an inflexible rule to achieve a foolish consistency of unfair results is anything by equitable. The solution, however, is not as hard as the issue—and the commissioner—might suggest. According to the Rule, if there is an altercation on the court, players who “leave the immediate vicinity of their bench” will be suspended for a minimum of one game and fined up to $35,000. The purpose of the Rule is to prevent escalation, but the application of the Rule can reward—and therefore even encourage—on-court thuggery, just as it seemed to reward the Spurs for the misconduct of Horry. Although Horry was nailed with a two-day suspension, two Suns players, including star Amare Stoudemire, were also suspended one game each for racing to the vicinity of the fallen Nash on the sidelines. They were promptly restrained by their coaches and never made it to Nash or to Horry, and they quickly returned to their bench without incident. The strict application of the Rule mandates the two Suns’ suspensions, but it also rewards the Spurs for Horry’s violence. In a short playoff series, this has a crucial and potentially harsh impact on the series outcome.
Moreover, the more brutal the attack seems, the more likely an innocent teammate may react—not necessarily to escalate the action but to help or support his fallen teammate. The game film suggests this was the case in the Suns-Spurs contest. The NBA says it needs the Rule to curtail brawls, while the Suns and many fans cry foul because this rewards Horry’s apparent attempt to injure Nash. Had Horry succeeded in hurting Nash, the innocent Suns would have lost three main players in exchange for an over-the-hill Robert Horry. So what gives?
The problem is fundamentally simple: the single Rule contains two mandatory provisions—the strict application of the Rule with no exceptions, and the imposition of a mandatory 1-game penalty. Except for the wiggle room in defining “altercation” and “vicinity of the bench,” there is no way out of the rule—no defenses, no rule of reason, no rational interpretations, and no balancing of harms in the interest of fairness.
So here is the solution. Leave the essence of the rule itself in place, but allow the penalty to be applied according to the circumstances so that the operative clause would read more like this: “Violators will be suspended for a minimum of one game and fined up to $35,000, except as mitigating or aggravating factors under all the relevant circumstances may otherwise justify considering the interest of fairness as interpreted and applied at the sole discretion of the Commissioner.” This requires the Commissioner to think and be accountable, but the burden of thought would be much less harmful than blindly embracing an unjust result in the feigned interest of equity.
This would give the Commissioner the latitude to assess the egregious nature of Horry’s attack, the circumstances that led up to it, the natural reactions of the players, the stakes involved, and the fact that no harm had occurred. Sometimes discretion is the only fair answer, but blind adherence to bad rules in the hollow name of consistency never is. Indeed, such foolish consistencies, as the poets say, are little more than the hobgoblin of little minds. As a lawyer, Commissioner Stern should be both familiar and comfortable with principles of equity, a flexible judicial escape hatch for even the courts to remedy wrongs without invoking even more havoc.
The Rule should be amended soon. Until it is, the only remedy for teams victimized like the Suns will be hope and blind luck instead of reason and justice.
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