Union appeals suspensions for Artest, O'Neal, Jackson

Tuesday, November 23rd 2004, 8:17 pm
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Employing an unexpected strategy in an effort to fight the suspensions leveled by commissioner David Stern, the NBA players' union is seeking to have the case heard by an arbitrator.

The union filed an appeal Tuesday on behalf of Indiana Pacers players Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal, who were suspended for their roles in a brawl with Detroit Pistons fans last week.

Artest was banned for the season, Jackson for 30 games and O'Neal for 25. Union director Billy Hunter has called the penalties excessive, saying a suspension of about 35 games would have been more appropriate for Artest.

Now, Hunter appears to be attempting an end-around to avoid the rule stating the commissioner has sole authority _ and is the final avenue of appeal _ over matters of discipline involving on-court behavior.

``The players association's efforts to bring this matter before an arbitrator ignores the plain language of the collective bargaining agreement and the consistent past practice of the parties and will ultimately fail,'' NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre said.

Stern would normally have 20 days to rule on an appeal of an on-court discipline matter, and it was unclear whether the union's appeal strategy would put this case under that timetable.

``The action taken by the commissioner sets a new high-water mark in terms of the kind of discipline he feels he can impose,'' Hunter said. ``I think he has exceeded his authority and should be subject to review and challenge.''

In other developments:

_ Two fans sued the Pacers and Artest, Jackson and O'Neal, contending they were injured in the fracas at the end of Friday night's game at Detroit. John Ackerman, 67, says he was hit by O'Neal and then knocked unconscious by a thrown chair. William Paulson, 26, says Artest and Jackson assaulted him.

_ Police released a videotape and asked the public's help in identifying a man who investigators believe hurled the chair into the crowd during the brawl. Oakland County prosecutor David Gorcyca has said the only possible felony charge in the brawl could be against the chair-thrower. He said other charges most likely would be for misdemeanor assault and battery.

_ Artest appeared on NBC's ``Today,'' saying he respected Stern but thought his punishment was unduly harsh. He used the opportunity to plug a CD he produced for an R&B group and wore a T-shirt and hat emblazoned with the logo of his record label.

The players' union was contemplating taking its case to federal court. A similar strategy failed in 1997 when the union contested the suspensions handed out to four members of the New York Knicks for leaving the bench during a fight in a playoff game against the Miami Heat.

In that case, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff cited article XXXI, section 8 of the league's collective bargaining agreement establishing the commissioner as the complete and final authority on discipline for what happens on the court.

The language, the judge said, is ``so plain, so clear, so unequivocal, so on-point to the dispute that underlies this controversy.''

``In that case we were seeking an injunction. We may not pursue an injunction if we pursue this in federal court,'' Hunter said, adding the union will argue that since some of the punishable behavior happened in the stands, it should not fall under the definition of ``on-court behavior.''

``We think the court is limited to the court itself, the 90-by-50 piece of hardwood, and the benches,'' Hunter said.

In 1998, the union successfully appealed the one-year suspension Stern gave to Latrell Sprewell, then with the Golden State Warriors, for attacking coach P.J. Carlesimo at practice. It was reduced by an arbitrator to 68 games.

The difference between Sprewell's case and the current one is that Sprewell's attack on Carlesimo happened at practice, so it was not considered on-court behavior and was subject to the arbitration provisions of the collective bargaining agreement.

The suspensions also could be contested by the Pacers, who have the right under NBA bylaws to appeal the commissioner's decision to the league's Board of Governors.

No NBA team has ever made such an appeal, according to the league.

Pacers spokesman David Benner said the team had not yet decided if or how it might contest the penalties.

Artest bolted into the stands after being hit by a cup thrown by a fan, touching off a brawl in which players exchanged punches with fans, who also threw drinks, popcorn, and other debris at the Pacers.

Jackson also went into the stands and exchanged punches with fans, while O'Neal hit a fan who ran onto the court.