Do we treat basketball brawls differently than those in other sports?

Kansas State and Kansas players brawled at the end of their men’s college basketball game Tuesday. Sometimes that word “brawl” gets tossed around loosely, but this was the real deal. It was wild, with a lot of punches and genuine anger instead of just a little end-of-game frustration.

And yet the level and duration (a couple minutes) seems like it would have made it more of a footnote instead of a main story in other sports — particularly hockey, where it seems like someone gets at least a glove in the face every time the puck is in the crease during an NHL game.

Is there a double-standard with how we view basketball fights, particularly in relation to hockey fights? It seems like there is. In grappling with the “why” in the answer to that question, some theories are practical and some are uncomfortable.

Part of it, I would guess, is that there is no physical barrier between players and fans on most basketball courts at the highest levels. When a brawl can easily spill into the seats, as the one Tuesday did (or the Malice at the Palace 15 years ago in the NBA) , it threatens our perception of safety.

NHL fans can get really close to the action, but they’re separated from harm by tall glass (thought it hasn’t always been that way; more on that in a minute). It would be very difficult for an NFL fight to spill into the stands; MLB brawls almost always happen near the pitching mound, far from the stands.

In the direct comparison between basketball and hockey, I would imagine cultural acceptance and frequency of fighting numbs us to it, while the infrequency of brawls in basketball games make them stand out.

The New York Times did a piece 10 years ago on the 30-year anniversary (now 40 years) of huge Bruins/Rangers brawl that spilled into the stands. The headline: “Over The Glass and Into Hockey Lore.” I don’t think there will be similar headlines written about the Pistons/Pacers brawl when it is remembered a quarter-century from now, though at least that NHL brawl did usher in the era of tall glass separating players from fans.

But why are hockey fights more culturally acceptable, even in 2020?  It’s less comfortable to think that the skin color of the athletes plays a role in how we view these fights, but I think it does.

And I’ll be thinking about all those things the next time I see an NHL brawl of similar scale to the Kansas/Kansas State brawl — and see how it is treated in the media.

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