Last week in Oracle Arena, the Toronto Raptors clinched their first NBA championship. The Raptors had a lot to celebrate as they not only made franchise history, they made NBA history. The Raptors made franchise history by bringing the franchise its’ first championship. Amongst the people who made their way to the floor was the Raptor’s president of basketball operations and general manager, Masai Ujiri. Ujiri made his way to the floor he allegedly had an altercation with an Alameda County Sheriff deputy. A video of the actual altercation has yet to surface, however, there is a video of the aftermath.
During the altercation, the deputy allegedly stopped Ujiri from entering the court because he did not have proper credentials. Ujiri allegedly shoved the deputy. Witnesses say that Ujiri did not shove the officer. However, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department plans to charge Ujiri with misdemeanor battery. Ujiri may face criminal charges for this altercation. NBA fans are questioning whether the Alameda County Sheriff’s department is going a little too far or if Ujiri actually deserves to be charged? However, this situation presents a broader question. That question is whether players or fans should be charged with crimes for incidents that occur inside sports arenas?
Should Players or Fans Face Criminal Charges for Incidents that Happen at Games?
The short answer to this question is it depends. The issue of potential criminal charges certainly depends on the severity of the act. This season, the NBA has experienced several instances where it was forced to address player and fan interactions. All of the incidents brought up what is considered a sore spot for the NBA. That “sore spot” is the night of what became known as “Malice at the Palace.”
In 2004, during a game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, a brawl between the fans and players took place. It all started when a fan threw a drink that hit the Indiana Pacers star, Ron Artest.
Chaos immediately ensued and several NBA players got into a major fight with several fans. The NBA issued some of the harshest penalties in NBA history. Several of the players and fans faced criminal charges for misdemeanor assault and battery. In this case, criminal charges were appropriate especially on the part of the fan who threw the cup at Ron Artest. After all, that was the catalyst that started the whole brawl. The incident was a clear fight between the players and fans. Whether a fight takes place inside of the arena or outside of the arena, such acts cannot be tolerated. Valid self-defense arguments could be and was made in this case. However, the prosecutor did not overstep in this case, as there was clear video showing a major brawl with multiple parties at fault.
Player Interactions With NBA Fans This Season
The NBA was forced to address the issue of player and fan interactions several times this season. Two incidents involved Oklahoma City Thunder star, Russel Westbrook. Another took place during the NBA Finals in Oracle Arena. The most recent took place immediately after the last game of the NBA Finals involving Masai Ujiri.
Russell Westbrook’s Incident With a Young fan in Denver
During a game in Denver, Westbrook was touched by a young boy on the sideline. He politely told the father that it was not appropriate for his kid to touch the players. Ultimately, this was a no harm no foul situation. However, it did lead to discussions about players, fans, and safety and how those issues should be addressed. Clearly, in this situation, there was no need for any type of criminal charges to even be discussed. However, later in the season, Westbrook experienced an encounter with a fan in Utah where such a discussion may have been warranted.
Russell Westbrook’s Interaction With Hostile Fan in Utah
During a game in Utah, Westbrook is seen yelling expletive comments to a fan. After the game, Westbrook stated that the fan made disrespectful and racial comments towards him. The fan told Westbrook to get down on his knees like he was used to. Clearly, in this situation the fan was wrong. The fan’s conduct was extremely inappropriate. This again led to discussions of how players are treated by fans. The Utah Jazz organization immediately addressed the situation and banned the fan from the arena for life. The punishment definitely was the appropriate action for this situation. No one was physically hurt, so any criminal charges would have seemed a bit over the top, especially with the Jazz making sure the fan could no longer attend games at the arena.
Kyle Lowry Shoved by Golden State’s Minority Owner
During game three of the 2019 NBA Finals, Toronto Raptors star, Kyle Lowry, was shoved by Golden State Warriors minority owner, Mark Stevens, when he divided for a loose ball. Here, Stevens shoved Lowry for no reason. He had no reason to touch him. This case again reignited the discussion about player and fan interactions. It had overtones of how the “Malice at the Palace” brawl began. Fan assaults player and the incident gets out of hand from there. Current NBA players took up for Lowry and called for Stevens to be punished. Most notably LeBron James spoke out and made the point that if it was the other way around people would be up in arms calling for Lowry to be suspended and maybe even put in jail.
This is a case where misdemeanor battery charges could have been made because Stevens intentionally shoved Lowry for no reason. No such charges were made in the case. However, Stevens has been fined $500,000 and banned from all team events next season. This punishment is certainly appropriate given Stevens’ actions.
The Masai Ujiri Case
Given the limited details of what actually transpired between the deputy and Masai Ujiri, it would seem that criminal charges may be going a little too far. This is a determination that will be made after the investigation is done. If an assault occurred then criminal charges may be appropriate. If an assault did not occur then criminal charges are not appropriate. From the facts that have come out so far, the altercation appears to be a huge misunderstanding. A misunderstanding like this can be resolved without criminal charges against Masai Ujiri.
Whether Players or Fans Should Face Criminal Charges at Games Must be Determined on a Case-by-Case Basis
The NBA and its teams have a duty to ensure the safety of both fans and players during games. This is especially true if the NBA does not want another “Malice in the Palace” situation. Whether and if criminal charges at games should be filed is a fact-specific determination. In most cases, it appears appropriate punishment can be given out without ruining people’s careers by invoking criminal charges.