AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Four National Basketball Assn. players were suspended indefinitely Saturday after a melee at the Detroit Piston-Indiana Pacer game in which fans and players attacked one another, leaving the image-savvy league reeling from one of the ugliest incidents in its history.
In banishing Indiana's Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal and Detroit's Ben Wallace, NBA Commissioner David Stern called Friday night's violence "shocking, repulsive and inexcusable."
It was the latest in a rash of incidents pitting fans against professional athletes in recent years -- clashes that experts say suggest an increasingly dangerous blurring of the line between stage and audience.
"There is some sort of negative interaction between fans and athletes," said Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "It has gotten a lot nastier than just the common booing or commentary on the visiting team. It's gotten more edgy."
The length of the suspensions will be determined after the league completes its investigation, probably late today, Stern said in a statement.
Security was being increased at the Palace at Auburn Hills, the suburban arena where the defending NBA champion Pistons play the Charlotte Bobcats tonight.
Auburn Hills police also were investigating the incident, which began on the court with a hard foul by Artest and retaliatory shove by Wallace, then flared out of control when Artest and Jackson charged into the stands after a Piston fan threw a drink at Artest.
Two fans who came onto the court as the fracas continued were punched by O'Neal and Artest, a volatile player who has been suspended previously, one time for destroying expensive television equipment at Madison Square Garden in New York.
"This demonstrates why our players must not enter the stands whatever the provocation or poisonous behavior of people attending the games," Stern said, calling the incident "a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA."
The NBA is not the only league coping with a tense relationship between athletes and fans.
In September, two Major League Baseball players were suspended for the remainder of the regular season after throwing objects into the stands.
Texas Ranger relief pitcher Frank Francisco was charged with aggravated battery, later reduced to a misdemeanor, after he threw a folding chair at fans near the bullpen in Oakland, breaking a woman's nose.
Dodger outfielder Milton Bradley slammed a plastic bottle into the front rows at Dodger Stadium after the bottle was thrown at him on the field.
In another notable altercation four years ago, 20 Dodgers were suspended a total of 89 games -- a penalty reduced on appeal -- after a blowup that began when a fan at Chicago's Wrigley Field struck a Dodger catcher and took his hat.
Roby equated such reactions with "vigilantism."
"You can't take it on yourself as a player to dole out your own justice because it will be anarchy," he said.
"It's not any different than the laws in society. We can't have vigilantism and people taking matters into their own hands because it would get totally out of control."
At the root of the problem, Roby suggested, might be the "widening chasm" between the groups in terms of economics. The everyday fan might begrudge the multimillionaire center who can't sink 50% of his free throws.
"Whereas athletes once might have been a part of the community the fans were part of, you don't see that anymore because the economics are so different," Roby said. "I think that's led to some resentment and a lack of being able to relate to the athletes as people."
It is an era when it can be dangerous to be either a fan or a player.
Athletes and coaches have reason to feel vulnerable.
In a bizarre incident, a father and son attacked Kansas City Royal first-base coach Tom Gamboa on the field in 2002. Gamboa was not seriously injured, and his attackers received a probation sentence.
In the most notorious case of fan violence against an athlete, an obsessed fan stabbed tennis player Monica Seles during a 1993 tournament in Germany. She did not play again for more than two years.
Nevertheless, fans are still customers.
The NBA announced it will review its security policies "so that fans can continue to attend our games unthreatened."
In Auburn Hills, about 30 miles north of Detroit, fans are a huge economic resource for the community, and economists estimated that they have spent $4.7 million at restaurants in the area during the Pistons' playoff runs in each of the last two seasons.
At the Hoops sports bar here, employees said that patrons remained in the parking lot until 5 a.m. Saturday -- three hours after closing time -- to talk about the drama that unfolded Friday.
"If [Artest] hadn't jumped into the crowd, none of this would have happened," Brian Taylor, 35, of Auburn Hills, said Saturday night.
"There are lines you don't cross. If you're a basketball player, you just don't go into the stands."