I know other stuff happened this week. There’s a power struggle in the player’s union. Dwight’s done for the season. But we need to talk about what happened at Staples Center today. We need to talk about Metta World Peace. I don’t really feel comfortable calling him Metta World Peace — more on that later — so I hope you, and he, forgive me if I use his old, real name: Ron Artest.
When Ron Artest threw an elbow into James Harden’s head, sending him immediately to the floor, and later to the locker room with an apparent concussion, I became sad. I wasn’t sad as a basketball fan. Rather, I was sad as someone who makes a living working with people with mental disabilities.
I’ve worked with many types of people who manage disabilities over the last five years. My 9-to-5 has me working with children with cognitive disabilities, mostly children on the autism spectrum. However, I started as a vocational rehabilitation specialist, working with adults with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Although Ron Artest has never been specific about what his diagnosis is (he has only said that he sees, or saw, a therapist), he has been an advocate for mental health awareness and education. Many people have speculated that he has bipolar disorder, or at the very least, some sort of chemical imbalance or personality/mood disorder. I have never talked to Ron Artest, so I won’t speculate. But today was different. Today was especially shocking; I am worried about Ron Artest. What happened today needs to be addressed as more than a flagrant foul, or a bench clearing brawl. What happened today needs to be analyzed and considered carefully, because this wasn’t the Malice in the Palace. It was much, much more unsettling.
For a long time, both Artest and the media dichotomized both Ron Artest and his recovery from whichever mental illness he’s managing. Ron Artest was seen as insane, and liable to go off at any time, without warning or provocation. Metta World Peace, on the other hand, was “zany” and “quirky” — weird enough to laugh at, but not strange enough to create discomfort. It was easy to forget about Ron Artest with Metta World Peace around, always making people laugh with his strangely timed references to the Queensbridge projects, or his videos about Afghan Women. It was almost as if they were two different people. Metta World Peace was zany, kind of like the Chuck E. Cheese mouse. Ron Artest was crazy.
How false that dichotomy was. Today, on prime time television, in one of the biggest games of the year, the world learned that Metta World Peace was crazy too. Immediately after the incident, ABC announcers Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy saw how vicious and deliberate Ron Artest’s actions were, and they sadly, but sternly, eulogized the fall of a hero. ”That’s disgraceful,” Breen spat. Van Gundy agreed. ”What’s sad is the amount of progress World Peace had made,” Van Gundy lamented, “I have to think that this undoes all of that. It’s really terrible.” In their minds, Metta World Peace had represented a person who had defeated their demons. He was someone who had beat his disease, stabilized, and returned to being the lock down defender — and zany personality — that made the Lakers so entertaining to watch. As a basketball fan, I loved Metta World Peace. His decline in basketball skills, but ascension in overall wackiness was a joy to watch; a strange specimen of personality in a droll, commercialized league. The league was a better place with Metta World Peace around.
However, as a mental health professional — whatever that means — I suspected Ron wasn’t where he needed to be. Even when he was “good”, he was still manic. When I worked with adults with mental illnesses, I was taught to emphasize achieving balance as a way to manage the diagnosis, and keep moving forward in productive, healthy way. What I always suspected — and fully realized after Artest threw the elbow today — was that Ron’s zaniness was just manic behavior under a different name. One of the hallmark features of a mood disorder is attention-seeking behavior. Does changing one’s name, auctioning off championship rings, or giving strange, nonsensical press conferences really seem like the actions of a stabilized individual? If we really think about it, can we say with confidence that Metta World Peace was any less unstable than Ron Artest who preceded him? At this point, no. Definitely not.
I work with autistic children as a behavior specialist in both school and home settings. When a child presents challenging behavior — either to their teachers or their parents — I am called in to observe the child’s behavior, assess a variety of factors, and come up with a plan to correct the behavior. With every child who acts out, I try to find an antecedent — the trigger that sets off the behavior. Usually this is pretty easy to ascertain; overbearing parents, late bed-times, bad food before bed and non-preferred activities (usually homework) are often at play. If I can identify an antecedent, it’s much easier to craft a plan and start directly dealing with challenging behavior.
What makes the elbow today especially troubling — and in my opinion, more troubling than even the infamous Malice in the Palace — is that, as far as I can tell, there was no antecedent. I felt for Artest at the Malice. He was trying to stay out of it. He was attempting to calm down on the scorer’s table when someone threw a full cup of soda at him. As a result, he charged the stands. It wasn’t the right response to the act, but clearly there was something that triggered the behavior. Ron Artest had every right to be mad. He should’ve expressed his anger in a more constructive (and less destructive) way, but at least we knew what set him off. Today, against James Harden, there was no apparent trigger. There was no antecedent. He dunked on Ibaka, celebrated for a few seconds, then wound up and clocked Harden with clear, malicious intent. We have no idea what set him off.
So, what to do? The NBA fan in me is livid. Mike Breen was right when he said “[that] was not a basketball play.” Artest thinks that the NBA will suspend him for the first round of the playoffs. This might be optimistic, seeing as how Artest has been suspended for over 100 games in his career. David Stern does not take kindly to repeat offenders, and will make Artest feel his wrath. More than that, Artest was the sole cause of a concussion, currently the most stigmatized and feared injury in professional sports. I do not think that a 2012-2013 season ban is off the table.
However, as someone who works in mental health, I am torn. For any other adult with a mental illness like Artest, I would question whether work is a healthy environment. We often forget that when we are watching professional basketballers ball, we are watching men at work. Their professional performances are judged by all, and most pronouncements are given by people who could never possibly understand the intricacies of the job. This has to be stressful and anxiety producing. For a person managing a mental illness, therapeutic activities that can create balance and proper perspective can be helpful. Basketball may be therapeutic. But basketball as a job? Likely a different matter.
Artest needs time off and time away. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Artest would be eligible for disability while he takes time to treat a mental illness. I’m not sure if that would fix anything. But to me, a huge suspension, giant reprimand, and increased pressure to “get better” won’t help. Mental health is already criminalized. Ron Artest shouldn’t have to go from advocate to pariah because of an illness that is difficult to control, and impossible to fully cure.
And in the end, we must forgive. For I suspect Ron Artest experienced the event the same way we did — disembodied, looking down from a third person view, horrified by an act committed by someone he didn’t recognize.