Does 1st Amendment Protect a Nasty Fan?

Kevin McHale's trouble is that he didn't go far enough. He had his hands around the guy's throat, but forgot to squeeze. He forgot to get his money's worth.

McHale is the latest victim in a public conspiracy to say, or yell, anything you want about, or at, anybody you want, and get away with it. Possibly even get away with some serious money in the bargain. Or at least make the victim pay.

McHale, of the Boston Celtics, recently could stand no more from a so-called fan in Milwaukee who was later described by the player as "the most obnoxious man in the world." McHale left his seat and went after the guy, grabbing him with a pair of hands the size of oven mitts.

For his trouble, McHale this week was fined $3,000 by the National Basketball Assn., one of those sports bodies that for some reason has the right to issue fines and suspensions like a court-appointed judge.

"There's no justice," McHale said.

And, it is only going to get worse. When the Celtics hit the road this weekend to play the third and fourth games of their NBA Eastern Conference championship series with the Pistons, they are going to encounter a gentleman behind their bench at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., who is known to one and all there as Leon the Barber.

Leon gets on athletes the way white gets on rice. He has a seat right behind the visiting team, and amuses himself for two hours or more by insulting them in ways Don Rickles never imagined.

He does this without fear of repudiation. After all, if some big lug did leave the bench and come after him, he would (a) have tens of thousands of reinforcements behind him; (b) have at least that many eyewitnesses, and (c) have the full support of the NBA and the legal system, both of which would come down hard on the well-paid celebrity who dared respond to vicious and vulgar taunts.

The athlete ends up forking over some of his hard-earned pay, and the rest of the world has no sympathy, simply because it is generally accepted that he can afford it. Three thousand dollars? What's that to him? After all, the man doesn't have real house payments and dentist bills and expenses, like we do. Uh huh.

Bernard King of the New York Knicks played in a playoff game against the Pistons a few years ago, and reacted violently when someone in the crowd said something he didn't like.

King wasn't talking after the game, and the word from his teammates was conflicting: The guy had either said something about King's drinking, about his skin color, or about a rather wild rumor about King's personal life that had made the circuit for a while.

The post-mortem seemed to be that nothing anyone in a basketball crowd could say should entitle an athlete such as King to go after him like that. King was supposed to just sit there and take it. He was supposed to set an example. He was supposed to avoid inciting a riot. He was supposed to be big about it, and excuse the whole thing, because after all, fans will be fans.

This is complete and utter bull . . . uh, well, you know what.

Maybe the Constitution does permit Americans to say anything they please, but what gives the people who run sports organizations the right to arbitrarily assign dollar amounts to the behavior of an athlete? Why should Kevin McHale's pursuit of an unruly customer be examined on videotape, then judged to be $3,000 worth of naughty-naughty?

McHale should refuse to pay the fine, and see what the NBA does. If he is suspended, or if the money is extracted from his paycheck without his permission, he should go straight from one court to another one and see if there is any justice for athletes in this society. Let the spectator sue him if he wants, but don't let a bunch of guys in neckties rob him blind.

Reggie Jackson was a private citizen that night in Milwaukee when some dude hassled him in Major Goolsby's bar. A "public figure"? Yes, but that legal loophole should not emasculate him to the point that he has to take everything from every idiot.

The celebrity should have the right to punch the offender in the nose. The offender, of course, thereafter has the right to sue for a few thousand dollars, although anybody who files a million-dollar lawsuit for a punch in the nose should at least have been punched in the nose a few thousand times.

This law should apply also to behavior at public events. Somewhere along the line, the "customer is always right" approach got so scrambled that it became acceptable for a human being to be able to shout absolutely anything at another human being just by virtue of having paid a few dollars for a ticket.

And any athlete who responded, by act or even by gesture--Garry Templeton, Bert Blyleven--was subject to fine and possible suspension from his sport.

There became virtually no safe way for a baseball player, for example, to answer a terrible heckler, although in Bernard Malamud's book "The Natural," Roy Hobbs was able to deliberately stroke a foul line drive off the forehead of one particular loudmouth.

McHale should have done something like that, presumably. Have one of his teammates accidently throw a wild pass, then pretend to go after the loose ball and end up directly in the heckler's lap. He could have flattened the guy and, instead of getting a fine, he would have gotten a standing ovation. Nice hustle, Kev.

Willie Stargell used to ask people: "Do I go to your office and yell at you? " No, he didn't, because he didn't know where their offices were.

People who yell insults at athletes, anonymously, are the worst type of cowards. One can only hope for a day when a fan gets into a fistfight with a professional athlete, and the fan gets fined $3,000. See how he likes it.

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