Metta World Peace and the Language of Incarceration in Sports Coverage Pt. 1
By David J. Leonard
The elbow seen around the world and the media fallout continues to bother me. Over the last two weeks, I have found myself debating others online, yelling angrily at the television and otherwise struggling to make sense of Metta World Peace’s (formerly known as Ron Artest) elbow of James Harden. Almost every day, I have woken up thinking about the incident and what needs to be said. Clearly, Metta is on my mind, but not because of the elbow (indefensible), my love of the Lakers’ (unwavering), my tendency to always side with players (not saying much given the media), and the connection between this incident and my book, After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness.
So, what’s gives?
My focus or concern on Metta’s elbow and more centrally the media spectacle has little to do with the incident but instead what it tells us about society, especially as it relates to the criminal justice system and race. The media and public response has been one focused not on the foul itself, but rather depicting Metta as a crazy criminal that deserves punishment. The constant use of the language of the criminal justice system — “repeat offender”; “the letter of the law,” “does the punishment fit the crime” – is telling because while the incident has nothing to do with the criminal justice system, the media continues to apply language of criminalization to Metta World Peace. For example, Scott Carefoot depicts MWP as a “dangerous menace” in “Why intent shouldn’t factor into Metta World Peace’s suspension.”
I don’t need to read Metta’s mind or his body language to determine if he meant to nearly decapitate James Harden with his elbow — I don’t care because it doesn’t matter. I know he’s a swell guy with a big heart off the court, but he’s a dangerous menace on the court who is more likely to end somebody’s NBA career than anyone else in this sport. I’m not advocating a permanent ban, but I won’t complain if that’s Judge Stern’s verdict.
Similarly, Jess Coleman sees MWP as a serial “criminal” who cannot be helped, yet because of the NBA’s culture gets a free pass:
World Peace is lucky: he could have seriously injured Harden. Regardless, he will once again slip loose from this criminal act with nothing more than a measly suspension. Any money he loses – he will remake in the next few weeks. And when he does something like this again, we will all act surprised. My question to the NBA: what exactly are you waiting for?… If a normal citizen engaged in any of these actions on the street, they would be prosecuted. But when athletes act up on the field, they are immune from criminal law, and handed slaps on the wrist that do little more than please the public.
The argument that if any person did what Metta did on the street they would go to jail is at one level ridiculous (wouldn’t that be the case with any foul or even a box out) and on another level troubling. The continuous references to MWP as “criminal” as deserving of prosecution, as unredeemable points to a larger process of criminalization. When Henry Abbot labels MWP as a permanent threat — “I don’t think punishments are likely to extinguish the tinderbox of danger inherent in that combination, which has a track record of producing trouble – or when Kelly Ogle describes him as “a thug, a ticking time bomb” who should be “kick[ed]… out of the league [because] he’s dangerous,” we see how MWP represents not an individual who made a terrible mistake, who did something awful, but someone who is awful. We see how that he is being categorized as a criminal that needs to be locked up.