The Fans, Stupid! 

People are focusing on Ron Artest when the problem is elsewhere.

As far as I'm concerned, the guys I've seen over and over again on TV throwing punches at various members of the Indiana Pacers are the functional -- and nonfunctioning --- equivalent of that guy who faced down the tank in Tiananmen Square. Only he had a majestic, noble cause: democracy. What these guys were fighting for is beyond me.

To take on athletes in the prime of their lives, men almost seven feet tall and bulked up to the strength of an ox, is stupidity so sheer, so perfect that it is rarely found in nature and, by itself, contradicts Darwin. People this dumb should have died out by now.

Much attention continues to be paid to Ron Artest, as if he is such a mystery. He is a rough kid from a rough part of the world with what are known as anger-management issues. These are the same issues that bedeviled Lizzie Borden and now afflict road-ragers across the land. Artest has a record when it comes to such matters -- this is not his first suspension -- and he appears (although I am not personally acquainted with him) a couple cards short of a full deck. It is authoritatively reported, for instance, that while playing for the Chicago Bulls at the usual multimillion-dollar salary, he applied for a Sunday job at Circuit City so he could get an employee discount.

Be all that as it may, you can surely appreciate the sort of anger that erupts in a man when a fan hits him with a cup full of liquid. It is not just the ignobility of it all but the actual potential for serious injury. A cup full of liquid could do eye injury, and it is an assault in itself. Sure, Artest should not have reacted the way he did, but you can appreciate what angered him and why. He deserves to be punished, but he is not all that hard to understand.

But the fans? What is wrong with them? They are idiots being played for suckers by a bunch of millionaires who own ball teams. Because they happen to live in a certain area, they root for a certain team. Never mind that the players usually don't live in the area and would, for either a buck or a whim, go somewhere else, the fans for some reason identify so passionately with a team that they are willing to risk physical injury on its behalf. Freud, I am sure, had a term for such people: schmucks.

Being nicer, I see them differently. They are mere fools being manipulated by teams in ways that would make Pavlov salivate in appreciation. The noise, the choreographed cheering, the booming announcer, and, not least, the constant acceptance or encouragement of what used to be called poor sportsmanship -- for instance, "thundersticks" used to rattle players at the free-throw line -- are attempts to bond fans to a team that would, in a flash, desert them for a better arena in another city. It works. Vast numbers of people have turned over a piece of their self-worth to a team. They feel good when it wins and bad when it loses and, in some cases, will risk or inflict injury in a cause so worthless their children should be raised by foster parents for their own good.

I understand wanting to belong to something, and I understand a keen appreciation of the game. But the fan, like "the voter" and "the stockholder," has become so hypocritically venerated that it has become virtually sacrilegious to call him (or her) a chump and an idiot when they go too far. So, please, sports writers of the world, spare me any more analysis of Artest and throw some light on the world of the fan. It must be a dim one, indeed. n

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.

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