What started as a strange but concerning moment has turned into something much more interesting. Mark Stevens, the Warriors minority owner who—for absolutely no reason!—shoved Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during Game 3 of the NBA Finals, has been suspended for one year and fined $500,000, Golden State and the NBA announced Thursday.
The league and team have been swift in their response to the incident. Steve Kerr apologized to Lowry on Thursday, while Draymond Green also condemned Stevens’s actions, and praised Lowry for his measured reaction. Stevens—who Lowry says was also verbally abusive—was initially disallowed from attending the rest of the Finals before his one-year suspension was announced (I don’t know why people are calling this a ban? That feels more permanent), and his action has drawn scrutiny from all corners of the league, including the Players’ Association and LeBron James. Amid all of this, NBC News’ Dylan Byers is reporting Stevens will be forced to sell his shares before next season.
Phew, okay. There’s a lot to unpack here, and let’s do it step by step. The first thing everyone will react to is the fine and one-year suspension. Is that punishment enough? Yes and no. It’s important to think of precedent. When Ron Artest went into the stands in Detroit—though it should be noted he only did so after being accosted—David Stern suspended him for the rest of the season without pay. The time aspect of Stevens’s punishment is roughly the same, though the monetary value of it is nowhere close. So while the league’s one-year suspension somewhat falls in line with previous incidents, I’d argue it still falls short. And here’s why: Stevens had absolutely no reason to put his hands on Lowry.
Like, seriously. What was this dude thinking? Even if Lowry—who was making a basketball play—had crashed into Stevens, the part-owner would have looked like an idiot trying to shove Lowry off. The look of disgust in Stevens’s face as Lowry calls him out for the unnecessary contact is particularly gross as well. It would have been one thing for some drunk fan to shove Lowry—obviously that wouldn’t have been okay either. But someone who has a stake in the league—someone who is quite literally profiting off of Lowry’s labor—should be held to a significantly higher standard. The Warriors quietly shoving Stevens out the door in a few months wouldn’t really be impactful. The NBA should not only publicly pressure Stevens to sell, it should shame him so thoroughly and demand he donates a portion (if not all) of the proceeds to a charity of Lowry’s choice.
But what’s important about the fallout of Stevens’s shove is not what happens to him. What bothers me about the discourse in situations like these is the discussion often gets bogged down in who can come up with the most punitive punishment. Getting rid of Stevens from the NBA is a low-hanging fruit option that doesn’t really address the issue at hand. And I’m not saying a sports league is going to wave a magic wand and begin an incredibly important societal change, but if the NBA is going to be hailed as a progressive league, shouldn’t it at least try exactly that?
The racial politics of Stevens’s shove are hard to ignore. It’s also hard to ignore that people at NBA games feel entitled to do things to athletes they would not do in other walks of life. From the guy who threw the soda at Artest, to the fan who verbally abused Russell Westbrook, to Stevens, there’s a culture of entitlement certain people obviously feel when it comes to how they treat athletes.
It’s not particularly novel in 2019 to say that basketball players are sometimes treated like zoo animals. While Lowry has been praised for how he handled the situation, I wish he would also be praised for shoving Stevens back. I’m not going to start advocating an eye-for-an-eye justice system, or condone violence, but maybe the fear of knowing players can actually retaliate when they are poked and prodded would stop fans from feeling emboldened to hurl insults (or objects) or get physical with players.
But I don’t actually yearn for a world in which fans and players are on equal footing, and players are rushing into the stands every few games to deal with a heckler who got out of line. Which is why I think the real purpose of the Stevens fallout should be to use it as a catalyst to change the way fans, “owners” and players interact.
A punishment only does so much. What punishments often don’t do is ultimately change the culture behind a problem. Stevens shouldn’t only be kicked out of the league, he should be made into an example. Make him attend sensitivity training. Make him talk to fans around the league about the repercussions of crossing the line. Make him an example of everything wrong with the attitudes too many fans have toward athletes—that they exist to the audience’s disposal.
When you hear talk of the NBA wanting to get rid of the word “owner,” this is why. It’s because of people like Stevens, who think they can shove a player like Lowry, when Lowry is infinitely more valuable to the NBA product than someone like Stevens ever could be. The way to make this situation worthwhile isn’t for Stevens to be banished and forgotten, and for the NBA to treat his shove like an isolated incident. Instead, Adam Silver and the league should use this as an opportunity to forge a better understanding of how players deserve to be treated, and ultimately respected.
Getting rid of the term owner is an easy start, even if it’s just to reflect the importance of NBA players to the product relative to the guys who sign their checks. Is a one-year suspension for Stevens enough? No, but kicking him out of the league also doesn’t solve the real problem at hand. It won’t be easy work for the NBA to change the culture around how athletes are viewed by its audience. Getting rid of Stevens and then actually taking steps to address that issue is the resolution everyone should be seeking in the wake of this most recent incident.