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NBA's stance on hard fouls and fights borne out of necessity

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

This weekend, I watched San Diego Chargers receivers Malcolm Floyd taken off the field against the Eagles on a stretcher following a brutal hit to the head. It was your average NFL play, a receiver coming over the middle, caught by one defender, hit by another, the receiver slumping to the ground and lying motionless. It's a brutal sport. That's a common assessment, but we're not here to lay waste to the NFL for its concussion policies or more accurately maybe, our own blood thirst in watching what has become America's pastime.

After all, I was the one watching the game, despite being fully aware of the horrific effect it has on those who choose to pursue a career in it.

But it did bring me to comparisons of the NBA, a limited-contact sport that has dealt with its own bit of in-game violence, and still suffers as critics and old-school purists blast the league for "softening" the sport. NBA TV has been running classic games as it usually does in its programming, and you can't watch those Bulls-Pistons battles or see the Knicks and Pacers go at it in the 90s without noticing the vicious inside play.

It's true that the NBA has stiffened penalties and fines for flagrant fouls, ejections and fights. It has taken what critics feel are unnecessarily drastic moves to protect players -- and its image and its legal liability. "The NBA will never suffer from the plague of injuries that a full-contact sport such as football does, so there's no need to overprotect them," goes the argument.

And yet the NBA has had to adjust to two concurrent factors in its evolution, elements also in play for the NFL as it deals with its own brutality: Developing medical knowledge to deal with long-term effects of playing a pro sport and the increased speed and athleticism of its participants.

In days of yore, an NBA fight proved necessary toughness. Players were, and still are to a degree, expected to be ready to fight. Only then, it was part of the game. "OK, you knuckleheads, that's enough," was the general response and the punishments were reflective of that.

It took a long time for the league to come to grips with the ramifications of fights. Other incidents may have revealed signs, but "The Punch" as it came to be known thanks to John Feinstein's book, took it to another level. Kermit Washington's full-speed punch into a running Rudy Tomjanovich changed the sport's outlook towards violence forever.

In between was a punch that landed with devastating force. It was thrown by a very strong man, pumped up on adrenaline from being in a fight, at a man running full speed right into the punch, completely unprotected. Describing what happened later, doctors likened the collision of Washington's fist and Tomjanovich's face to a collision between two locomotives traveling at full speed. The doctor who worked on Tomjanovich later that night, a specialist in head and neck trauma, said the injuries Tomjanovich suffered were not unlike those suffered by someone thrown through the windshield of a car traveling 50 miles per hour.

via Page 2: Book Excerpt: 'The Punch' -- ABC News.

Tomjanovich would suffer facial fractures and while being examined at a local hospital, a doctor would very calmly try and inform him that he needed immediate surgery to save his life. Tomjanovich could very well have died in that incident, which would have marked the league forever, maybe beyond repair. Still, fights didn't stop, as Zach Harper helped chronicle in one of his Rabbit Hole posts. The players involved in that fight on average were dealt only $500 fines. But the event eventually lead to the establishment of the rule that players cannot come off the bench. Ask the Phoenix Suns, who lost Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for a key 2007 playoff game, if that rule change had a pretty high cost in the absolute stance the league took.

The Malice in the Palace stands out as the most important fight of all time, in how the league went ballistic in its approach. That was an entirely different matter, one relating to players going into the stands; something everyone always has understood was a no-no. Stephen Jackson maintains his conviction that he did the right thing in coming to the aid of Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) in the stands, understanding there was a good chance the league would ban everyone involved.

But the fights continue, and at some level, are an unavoidable facet of putting adrenaline-charged men in a competitive environment for money. Like this fight from last season.

Gerald Wallace ran into the skirmish in that fight. Had a player, such as Kevin Garnett, turned around and clocked him, what happens?

Fights are considered these isolated incidents, but are a consequence of hard fouls in most cases. Players take exception to plays that seem intent on, or performed without consideration of, causing injury. There's pride, but there's also a sense of self-preservation. And that's where fights and hard fouls intersect in the discussion.

If you want the league to return to an era where hard fouls were permitted more regularly, you also have to accept the consequence that there will be more fights, more blows to the head, more concussions. And the league cannot abide that, from a PR, legal or moral position.

These things happen without any intent to harm sometimes. Sometimes, these injuries just occur.

So you can argue they'll happen anyway, but that only creates a greater burden for the league to protect players however it can. A cynic might suggest the league is simply trying to clean up the "image" of the game, and that's certainly a factor. But the league's new concussion policy is almost never seen by the casual fan. You show up at a game, no one's going to explain why a player isn't playing that night because he failed the mandatory follow-up concussion test.

League efforts to prevent these injuries not only helps itself, but players and fans, too. The allowance of hard fouls in the game increases the odds of injury or a fight. It's fine to pine for the good old days when the league was tougher. But how many of those players suffered, and played through concussions, of which we're only now learning about the long term effects?

The NFL tried to sweep its epidemic of life-changing injuries under the rug. The NBA on the other hand has adapted and evolved to try and limit and protect its players from them. Be it for selfish reasons or not, we should stop with the outcry over what the game was, and be thankful for a sport that endeavors to protect its players from consequences that can affect the rest of their lives.

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