When do fights between professional athletes cross the line into assault and battery?

Sports fans have been known to get really excited at athletic events. But, on November 19, 2004, one fan's fanaticism transformed the game. A melee ensued. And, the much publicized brawl between Indiana Pacers basketball players and Detroit Pistons spectators crossed the line into a legal mess that has changed the game itself.

It all started with only 46 second remaining on the clock. The Pacers led the game 97-82 over the Pistons. Ben Wallace, center for Detroit, took a lay-up and was dealt a nasty foul by Pacers' all-star Ron Artest. Wallace, angered by the foul, shoved Artest in the chest and chin. You may be thinking that so far, this scene is nothing new. Teammates from both sides intervened to divide the two players. Like the course of altercations during many professional sporting events, including baseball, hockey, and basketball, the referees, coaches, and players restrained the angry individuals.

Artest, however, didn't want to let the matter rest. In a taunting manner, he acted up in front of the home crowd. Suddenly, an unidentified fan hurled a cup at Artest. Ice and the beverage hit Artest and his playfully inappropriate jeering instantly morphed into hatred and predatory instinct. He leaped into the stands, grabbed a spectator, and started pummeling him. Pacers teammate Stephen Jackson followed suit, rushing into the stands to attack other fans with Artest.

The NBA would like everyone to forget this escalation from a high-intensity game to a violent episode.

After Detroit fans and Pacers players exchanged initial blows, Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle finally was able to get his players out of the stands. Then, just as Artest began to leave the court, a young Pistons fan began shouting in Artest's face. Without so much as a second thought, Artest punched the fan in the head. Other fans rushed the court, and more violence ensued.

The entire brawl took about fifteen minutes from start to finish. As Pacers players exited the arena through the tunnel, Detroit fans continued showing their anger by pelting the players with obscenities, ice, beer, pretzels, popcorn. One fan even threw a folding chair.

The NBA would like everyone to forget this escalation from a high-intensity game to a violent episode. Commissioner David Stern has since said, "The events of the game were shocking, repulsive and inexcusable, a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA." The league quickly meted out huge fines and suspended the three Pacers players a total of 143 games. Artest was suspended for the rest of the season.

The punishment from their employer was not the end of repercussions for the basketball superstars. They were taken to criminal court in OaklandCounty (Michigan) and tried for assault and battery.

Assault and battery often go hand in hand in criminal charges, but most people don't know how to differentiate the two.Assault involves an intentional, unlawful threat to cause bodily injury to someone by force. A person can be accused, tried, and convicted of assault without ever touching the victim. Battery, in contrast, is when a person intentionally touches another person either with force or without permission. A battery can also result when a person uses an object or thing to injure or even touch a person without permission. Remember, an injury does not even have to occur. So, the fan who threw the cup at Artest was convicted of battery because he intentionally hit Artest with something even though Artest was never injured.

Soon after the incident, OaklandCounty prosecutor David Gorcycka explained: "You can literally count every time a punch is thrown and that would constitute an assault and battery. Now, whether or not some of them are justifiable under law remains to be seen. Some players could state they were coming to the defense of, say, Artest when he entered the stands area, but this is all going to have to be straightened out...."

Gorcycka continued: "there are going to be voluminous reports from people on press row, who were there just rows in front it, [as well as] player personnel, the players themselves, coaches, referees, fans, [there are] literally hundreds of reports to review."

And just as one would suspect, within weeks of the incident, five Pacers players and seven Pistons fans were convicted of assault and battery. John Green, the man convicted of throwing the cup at Artest, interestingly, was found guilty of two counts of assault and battery. Why? Because: his action was the catalyst for the entire fiasco.

It is suspected that these NBA players, the first professional basketball players to attack fans in the stands, might also get community service and anger management classes on top of fines and lost pay.

Larry Brown, head coach of the Detroit Pistons, said, "It was the ugliest thing I ever seen in my life. I am embarrassed for our league and disappointed to be part of this and disappointed for our young people who saw that."

Those of us who tuned in to the game didn't just learn about fouls and jump shots. We got a crash course on what constitutes illegal threats and contacts.