In twenty-five years of playing organized and disorganized basketball, I probably was involved in a dozen fights on the court. Call it a natural side effect of playing under the hoop, banging bodies, taking (or giving) a stray elbow and then having tempers flare. In none of those dust-ups did I ever face felony charges, mandatory jail sentences, and the prospect of a ruined life for my ill-temper.
But now players from the University of Cincinnati and Xavier, storied cross-town rivals, are staring at the prospect of criminal charges after an ugly brawl took place at the end of Saturday’s game. Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters released a statement that his office is considering a series of charges that could include assault and battery or disorderly conduct. No one condones fighting on the court, but the idea that college basketball players could go to prison speaks to the worst kind of hypocrisy and the most twisted traditions of the city of Cincinnati, a place with a history of institutional racism that would make Mississippi blush. [NEWS FLASH: JUST ANNOUNCED THAT NO CHARGES ARE BEING FILED AGAINST THE PLAYERS.]
Cincinnati has spent the last decade trying to heal after the police shot and killed an unarmed African-American 19-year-old named Timothy Thomas in 2001 which led to the largest urban riots in the United States since Rodney King and the LAPD crossed paths in 1992. The Cincinnati riots were an expression of bottled rage against a police department that saw, between 1996 and 2001, fifteen African-Americans died at the hands of Cincinnati police.
Given this history, and given Deters own history, we should look at this threatened prosecution, with a very suspect eye.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that hockey brawls, no matter how brutal and no matter how many teeth end up on the ice, don’t end with participants behind bars. There is a different reaction by the press, by a school’s administration and clearly by law enforcement when it’s young black men throwing the punches. This is a racist double standard that has the potential now to ruin the lives of the young men involved.
Myron Metcalf, the African-American college basketball journalist for ESPN started his column this week by stating, “I guess I’m wired this way. But my first thought about Saturday’s Xavier-Cincinnati melee centered on race. My initial response disregarded the pending suspensions or the blood spilled or the trash talk. Instead, it was simply: ‘Dang, young black men fighting on national TV.’ I wondered if other African-American viewers had the same reaction.”
It’s a bizarre comment on our times that Metcalfe would confine his comments to the African-American viewers and assume that only they would have a reaction colored by race.
Then there is the good prosecutor Joe Deters himself. Deters is a very ambitious political figure who was the local chair of the 2008 McCain/Palin campaign. Deters knows his base and maintains a friendship Jim Schifrin, author of a notorious Cincinnati rag described as a “racist political tip sheet,” The Whistleblower. Schifrin has been reported as having referred to Cincinnati’s first directly elected African-American mayor Mark Mallory as a “gay darkie,” and called Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent Rosa Blackwell “mammy.” It was also reported that Deters and Schifrin told jokes about President Obama being assassinated, a charge to which Deters never responded. When questioned about their friendship, Deters, said that this was his “personal life” and would not comment. This is the person who is now in a position to pass judgment on the players.
As Nathan Ivey, a talk radio rebel on Cincinnati’s 1230AM WDBZ said to me “Once again the Hamilton County Prosecutor is quick to deliver his very own brand of ‘Go-Go-Gadget’ justice. Joe Deters has an uncanny knack for pulling out the wrong gadget at the wrong time. In this case he should have used common sense. Instead he pulls out a flamethrower, choosing the classic Cincinnati knee-jerk reaction. From his political associations to his selective application and interpretation of the law, Joe Deters bungles and juggles justice so much, that I honestly can’t tell if he’s an officer of the court, or a clown yet another trait that he shares with Inspector Gadget.”
The players involved have expressed all the right remorse. Cincinatti guard Yancy Gates, suspended for six games, wept deeply on camera saying, “I’m just not that type of person. A lot of people have been calling me a thug, a gangster.’’ The fact is that this is a rivalry both schools have ginned up over the years to the point where the tensions transcended basketball. The more hype, the more tickets, the higher profile for the programs and the higher revenues. It’s been played up as the large public school against the elite small Catholic school, with every provincial prejudice tied up in which side you stand on in a game the schools call “the cross-town shootout.” But the players themselves don’t share these differences of class and community. They are gladiators thrown against each other for the joy of boosters on both sides. Now they are facing the judgment of a man like Joe Deters. Somewhere a toothless French Canadian on skates is breathing a sigh of relief he doesn’t play hoops in the city of Cincinnati.