I like basketball. I like beautiful basketball. I am not a fan of brutality, nor of violence. I roll my eyes when I watch hockey and a semi-predictable fight breaks out. I know some love that aspect of the sport, but I just want to watch the game.
But I also know that professional sports are played by athletes with desire and incentive to win. That desire and incentive will lead to cut corners in playing style. If they think they can gain an edge by shoving an opponent, kneeing them in the calf in the post, planting an elbow subtly into the breadbasket or even jawline, athletes are going to do it.
Neither referees nor the league office will catch most of these tactics. Nor will officials catch their emotional cousins: jawing and baiting and insulting, and demeaning, and humiliating designed to get into the heads of opponents. Once upon a time they didn't have to. Most guys came to the game ready for physical play. Many teams had players specifically designated as enforcers. You didn't get out of line because you didn't want a hulking forward assigned to knock your block off trailing you on every play. If a confrontation got to the point of over fisticuffs the league stepped in. Short of that, players policed players. Occasionally proceedings got out of hand, even dangerous. Kermit Washington's famous punch comes easily to mind. Then again, the infamous Pistons-Pacers brawl happened under "new" rules so I guess we're ev.
The game was better then. Andre Miller is right. This squeaky-clean (not really, but let's pretend) league is soft. And I'm glad he said it.
What we have now is a league where guys can commit subtle infractions all day without fear of reprisal. We have a league where a big guy like Griffin can shove a point guard and get the benefit of the doubt because he's huge and athletic and maybe just blocking out hard. When the little guy has the guts to stand up to him and give it back, that act of bravado is considered a crime. We have a league where two-bit jaw-flappers like Kevin Garnett can needle all day without any fear of getting that jaw jacked or having to back it up. The league isn't sanitized, it's annoying.
In that same Clippers-Blazers game Brian Cook got tossed (and later suspended) for a push on Joel Przybilla. Przybilla went down on the play. It was scary in a sense because of Joel's injury history but the fall itself wasn't remarkably different than one would take when drawing a charge. The play was illegal, no doubt, but it wasn't tragic. And Joel knew what time it was. Even on his back he began standing up for himself. Cook did as well. What, exactly, is wrong with that? What's wrong with hard play? What's wrong with giving a shove if you got one? What's wrong with standing up to the trash-talker? We're not talking undercutting guys as they leap 10 feet for a dunk here. (Although you might ask yourself how many players in this "clean" league stick their feet under the feet of a jump shooter as he returns to the ground with no chance to avoid landing on said foot and rolling an ankle.) We're not talking turning the other way as scrums break out. We're talking a baseline of player-centric deterrence, effective in probably 99% of situations, about the same percentage that the league-heavy measures are. We're talking guys handling the game whom we actually pay to see do just that. We're addressing the whole game, not just the parts you see on video highlights.
It's time to let these guys be responsible athletes rather than encouraging covert jerks with free license to do what they wish as long as it doesn't reach a level noticeable by The Eye Above. They're grown men. They, not any of us or anybody in a suit or stripes, bear the greatest risk and responsibility for their actions. Let them shoulder that responsibility for themselves and each other.