By now, videos of the intense brawl that cut short the international “friendly” game between Georgetown and China’s basketball teams have had thousands of views. In an ESPN article, Diamond Leung writes, on Thursday, August 18, “There was ugliness in the form of a benches-clearing, chair-waving, bottle-throwing brawl between Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets. As video of the incident (courtesy of SportsGrid) showed, things got so completely out of control that Georgetown left the court for good.” I have to admit that I rubber-neck periodically and “Oooooooh” while watching a physical conflict (beyond hockey), but in something as dramatic and serious as this confrontation, the question that immediately jumped to my mind was: “Who threw the first punch?” In other words, who made the first offense, who took this “friendly competition” too far, and ultimately, who is to blame? When there isn’t a historical rivalry or animosity to offer an explanation, I can’t help but wonder, “What happened?”
I’ve looked at the video numerous times myself. It doesn’t look good. First, what is amazing to me is that the Chinese team is a professional team. They are beating up on a team of college basketball players. If something like that happened here – picture the likes of Lebron, Wade, and Garnett stomping on a team of foreign college boys – I’m sure there would be an uproar. Second, I really don’t get how it started and then simply erupted into such an emotional and physical altercation. So, it really does make me wonder if there was something festering beneath the surface? Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins seems to think that the situation was obviously flammable, and unavoidably “politically loaded.” She writes,
What happened on the court between Georgetown and the Bayi Rockets will be read as a full blown international incident, because of the simple fact that sports and politics are inextricable in China. China’s programs are highly institutionalized, rough, and sometimes brutal affairs that are direct expressions of nationalism. Did this cause the brawl? We’ll never know exactly. But it’s the culture of the place where it happened.
She goes on to explain how deeply entrenched China is in pursuing success in athletics from the Olympics to reports of abuse within its own basketball association. Clearly, there is a lot more at stake here for these people – perhaps China did have something riding on this so-called diplomatic game. But does it excuse or justify their actions? Most would say no and I’m inclined to agree, but I do acknowledge that misunderstandings abound; even a friendly game of basketball isn’t always culturally translate-able. There’s a diversity of styles (I was educated by my husband a long time ago that the way the Big East plays – aggressive and physical – is way different from say, the ACC – pretty and finesse).
Which leads me to the third question: Did something happen then that was somehow misconstrued by either side? Could it have just been a miscommunication? Maybe. But it seems that the game was fraught with tension from the beginning. I wonder if the Hoyas could sense there was something deeper going on for Bayi. There was clearly a bias; 57 free throws were awarded to Bayi to just 15 for the Hoyas, as well as a moment of aggression towards Hoya coach, John Thompson III, and constant shoving and jawing throughout. Whatever the case, it was disturbing and sad. My usual reaction would be, “Hello? It’s just a game,” but after years of being married to a die-hard everything-Pittsburgh fan, and getting sucked into all sports from football to baseball to World Cup soccer (men and women), I realize that a lot of times it’s way more than a game. There’s anticipation, pride, and an expression of identity. And, apparently, it’s another sphere in which people can be really ugly. Gilbert Arenas took this opportunity to be completely ignorant and racist by berating the Georgetown team for losing to China by referencing soy sauce, Kung Fu Panda, and karate chop (good thing no one takes him seriously). Even Kevin Blackistone on today’s Around the Horn episode could only comment on how the Hoyas will lose any street cred they have since they got a beat-down from the Chinese. Seriously?!
But, it’s an arena where people can be really admirable, too, like the Hoya coach, who handled everything with such grace and respect, and issued the following statement:
Tonight, two great teams played a very competitive game that unfortunately ended after heated exchanges with both teams. “We sincerely regret that this situation occurred. We remain grateful for the opportunity our student athletes are having to engage in a sport they love here in China, while strengthening their understanding of a nation we respect and admire at Georgetown. University.
And it’s a place where people can be really surprising, as we eventually did find out today that the Bayi team met the Georgetown team at the airport to apologize to them. (This isn’t the only time a Chinese team has thrown down. Check a game against out Brazil.) So, in the end there were definitely no winners or losers, and no one to clearly blame. As always, sports – for better or worse – can show us the good, the bad, and the ugly in people, but it can be an opportunity for understanding others better.