Charles Oakley’s Lingering Dispute With Knicks, James Dolan

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Thursday February 9th, 2017

Retired NBA player Charles Oakley has never shied away from controversy, and that proved dramatically true at Wednesday night’s New York Knicks home game against the Los Angeles Clippers. Oakley, 53, appeared to punch and shove Madison Square Garden employees in the midst of being restrained a few rows behind the court. Oakley may have been heckling and trying to confront Knicks owner James Dolan, who was sitting nearby and with whom Oakley has been feuding for years.

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As thousands in attendance watched live and many more watched from home, Oakley was forcibly restrained and then escorted out of the arena. From the arena Oakley was taken to the New York Police Department Precinct 14, which is a couple of blocks from MSG. He was charged with three counts of assault in the third degree and one count of trespass in the third degree. Each is a misdemeanor, with each assault count is punishable by up to one year at Rikers Island Jail while a trespass conviction carries a potential sentence of up to 90 days in jail.

Oakley’s lingering dispute with the Knicks and Dolan

Even though Oakley hasn’t been part of the Knicks organization since 1998, he has quarreled with Dolan for some time. Oakley contends that Dolan has ignored, if not ostracized, him. In 2015, Oakley told Christian Red of the New York Daily News, “As hard as I played for that motherf-----, and he don't want to talk with me?

Oakley has also complained that unlike other former players, he has to buy tickets to attend Knicks games. Teams often provide complimentary tickets to retired players, particularly those who, like Oakley, were key players for many seasons. Oakley has also told media he sought out the help of NBA commissioner Adam Silver to negotiate a peace summit of sorts with Dolan, who Oakley says is a “bad guy.”

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The Knicks public relations staff issued a statement in the aftermath of Wednesday’s incident that signaled Oakley intended to cause trouble. “Charles Oakley came to the game tonight,” the statement read, “and behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner.” The use of the phrase “completely abusive” suggests that Oakley had much to say at the game, and perhaps hurled inflammatory remarks at Dolan.

Oakley being forcibly escorted out of Madison Square Garden was not the first time he and venue employees have brawled. In 2010, Oakley—who at the time was an assistant coach for the Charlotte Bobcats—and security guards at the Aria hotel-casino in Las Vegas had an altercation over whether he had access to a “Very Important Persons” pool area on Aria’s property. Oakley and the hotel offered wildly different accounts of the incident, with Oakley claiming the guards beat him up in “gang style” attack. Each side sued the other and it appears the case was resolved out of court.

Oakley’s potential criminal charges, suit vs. the Knicks

Oakley’s immediate legal concern stems from being charged with a crime. Under New York penal law, assault in the third degree refers to a person who intentionally or recklessly causes physical injury to another person.

If Oakley wages a legal defense, he would likely argue that his punches and shoves did not cause the requisite “physical injury.” Courts that have interpreted New York penal law have (as smartly explained by NYC criminal defense attorney Jeremy Saland) required that prosecutors prove that the assault victim suffered from an impairment of physical condition or substantial pain. At least based on the video, it doesn’t appear that anyone was meaningfully hurt by Oakley or suffered in substantial pain. Ian Begley of ESPN reports that the Knicks employees hit by Oakley only suffered “minor injuries” and each refused medical treatment.

Oakley could also insist that he was acting in self-defense. If Oakley can establish that he only exercised reasonable force to defend himself from imminent physical danger, he may be able to defeat the charges. Unfortunately for Oakley, available video doesn’t indicate that he was in imminent physical danger. In fact, it looks like Oakley threw the first punch. However, if Oakley can prove that someone in the scuffle threatened him, he might have a better case for self-defense.

In addition to defending against criminal charges, Oakley could sue the Knicks, MSG and even the NYPD if he believes he was physically mistreated while being ejected from the game and transported to a police station. If excessive force was applied against Oakley, he could have a viable civil lawsuit for battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In any criminal or civil trial stemming from this incident, Oakley might benefit by both his popularity with New Yorkers and the present-day unpopularity of the Knicks. Jurors would be drawn from a pool of persons who would include persons who fondly remember Oakley’s tenure with the Knicks from 1988 to 1998. During that time Oakley was one of the league’s best rebounders and played for a Knicks franchise that made the playoffs every season. In contrast, the 2016–17 Knicks squad is toiling near the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 22–32 record. The team has been widely criticized for both underperforming play and the failure of its stars—namely Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis—to coalesce into a winning team. To the extent prospective jurors might sympathize with Oakley’s frustration with current Knicks management, jurors who are selected might be more forgiving of Oakley’s behavior.

The most likely disposition for Oakley’s charges and any civil lawsuits would be resolution out of court. It’s possible, if not likely, that he and prosecutors reach a plea deal where he does not serve any jail time. It’s also possible that Oakley and the Knicks avoid civil litigation. It seems Oakley most wants respect, rather than money or anything else from the Knicks.

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

Knicks could try to ban Oakley from MSG

If the Knicks determine that Oakley intended to embarrass or harass Dolan, the franchise might consider steps to prevent Oakley from attending Knicks’ home games. One such strategy would be to “ban” Oakley from home games.

Courts generally regard game tickets as revocable licenses to enter private property for a specific event, such as an NBA game. In the absence of such a license, a person in a sports facility would be trespassing and subject to arrest. Game tickets are revocable licenses in that the owner of the venue can, under certain circumstances, revoke the license if a license-holder violates the terms of the license. For instance, should an intoxicated ticket holder run onto the court, he or she’s license would be instantly revoked and the ticket holder would also be subject to arrest for trespass and disturbing the peace.

Because NBA games are events held by private businesses, it is within the discretion of the team to decide who can attend those games (obviously, NBA teams cannot—and they don’t—violate civil rights laws in determining who can attend). Through the Madison Square Garden Company, Dolan owns both MSG and the Knicks, along with various other sports and entertainment assets. As a result, Dolan could decide he simply does not want Oakley at Knicks games anymore and he could instruct his staff accordingly.

To be sure, the Knicks “banning” Oakley for any length of time would be highly controversial—there are many Knicks fans who would quickly side with Oakley over Dolan. Nonetheless, a ban is possible and so is a permanent ban.

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A permanent ban would also not be unprecedented.

In 2014, the NBA banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling from attending any NBA games in accordance with his lifetime ban from the league. Silver banned Sterling in the aftermath of Sterling’s racially insensitive comments about African-Americans who attend Clippers games. Sterling would later lose his ownership of the Clippers when his wife, Shelly Sterling, took control of the family trust and sold the franchise to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. It does not appear that the 82-year-old Sterling has tried to attend an NBA game since his ban.

Eight years earlier, the Detroit Pistons permanently banned season ticket holder John Green from home games due to his involvement in the so-called “Malice at the Palace” in 2004. Green, you may recall, was the Pistons fan who threw the cup of diet soda at Indiana Pacers forward Ron Artest while Artest lay on the scorer’s table. Artest then lost his temper and ran into the stands, swinging away, while the arena erupted into chaos. Pistons executive vice president John Ciszewski wrote a letter to Green informing him that he was “forever banned from attending any Detroit Pistons home games” and warned him that “if you are found entering the Palace … at any time for a Pistons’ game you will be ejected from the venue and subject to prosecution for trespassing.”

Would the Knicks impose the same punishment on Oakley? My advice would be simple: don’t. Oakley is popular with many Knicks fans and while Oakley should not cause disruptions at NBA games, his passion for his former franchise is something that the Knicks would probably be wise to embrace rather than resist. Perhaps a private meeting between Oakley and Dolan where they air out their grievances would be the most sensible approach.

Michael McCann, SI's legal analyst, provides legal and business analysis for The Crossover. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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