Commentary

Crime and slap-on-the-wrist punishment

The truth about foul play in the heat of competition is that bad blood is good business.

Originally Published: March 17, 2010
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

There's a great scene in the Rodney Dangerfield classic "Back to School" in which Dean David Martin (played by Ned Beatty) tries to soothe the ruffled feelings of Dr. Phillip Barbay, who is dismayed to discover that the university's new addition is being christened the Melon School of Business in recognition of the largesse of Thornton Melon, Dangerfield's character.

"Phil," Dean Martin says, "in Mr. Melon's defense, it was a really big check."

Today's lesson: When in doubt, follow the money.

[+] EnlargeEdwards/Keselowski
AP Photo/Joe SeboEverybody walked away from this crash, including Carl Edwards, the man who caused it.

It makes all the sense in the world, for example, that the folks at NASCAR would conclude that double-secret probation for Carl Edwards beats the holy holes out of not actually having the wreck-causer on the track. After all, ratings and attendance are down, the circuit's top dogs are already on the record as advising the drivers to have at it, and -- let's face it -- bad blood is great business.

So while those who follow the sport closely are free to debate whether Edwards' non-suspension is a case of too much or too little, the one thing that cannot be in dispute is the sport's motive. It wants Edwards on the track, just as it does his nemesis, Brad Keselowski. Sure, you can argue recklessness or great bodily harm or any of that -- just so long as you do it while watching the next race to see if something, you know, happens.

Follow the ratings. Follow the crowds. Follow the money.

Crime and punishment are in the news all over sports lately, and that inevitably leads to some confusion about the relative merits of the individual disciplinary decisions (aka, "Do we really have to do this?"). Clearly, the leagues and sanctioning bodies competing for your viewership and product-placement bucks don't read from a single playbook.

Hockey star Alex Ovechkin drives Chicago's Brian Campbell into the boards (or did Campbell catch an edge on his blade?) and receives a two-game suspension. Ovechkin might grouse about taking a two-gamer when, for example, the Pens' Matt Cooke received no such discipline despite whacking Marc Savard on the head with his stick; but, really, the NHL wants everybody on the ice as soon as humanly possible.

In the grand scheme of things, two games is just enough to say, "Well, we did something." (Which, again, is as opposed to doing nothing in the Cooke case.)

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe NHL suffers if it keeps Alex Ovechkin off the ice for long.

The NBA has some basic rules in place that virtually ensured suspensions for Phoenix's Channing Frye and Indiana's Danny Granger after they fought a couple of Saturdays ago. But a one-game banishment to the time-out corner is the absolute minimum the league can impose, because that's all it wants to impose. Fans don't pay to watch guys sit out games. The NBA's worst nightmare is for someone like LeBron or Kobe to get flustered enough to throw a punch or get involved in a scuffle at playoff time. In a twisted way, it'd almost be worth it to see what the league would come up with in a case like that. Deferred adjudication, anyone?

One point of disorientation, of course, is that so many of us, perhaps even most of us, spend our days in the real world. In the real world, Baylor's Brittney Griner is under arrest if anyone feels like pressing charges or calling the cops. In the world of scholarship college basketball, Griner takes a two-game break -- one mandated by the NCAA, one by her coach -- for breaking Jordan Barncastle's nose by punching her in the face during an altercation.

Upon returning to action after her suspension, Griner heard mostly cheers and a smattering of boos from a Big 12 tournament crowd in Kansas City. The boos disappointed Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, who raved about Griner as a person and added, "That's a teenager who's made a mistake, and she's good for the women's game."

I don't want to twist Mulkey's words, because she was referring to Griner on several different levels. But to get specific? Griner is an incredible athlete and a woman who can dunk, and that is good for the women's game.

It'll also buy you a walk on the favored side of the street, when it comes to the inscrutable world of sports discipline.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Inning,", was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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