Determining the Optimal Punishment for Metta World Peace

On Sunday, LA Lakers forward Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest) viciously elbowed James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Because of his previous history of on-court violence, many commentators are urging the NBA to give Peace a chance to experience a severe punishment greater than would normally be imposed for such an offense. ESPN columnist Jemele Hill writes:

It would be much easier to forget Metta World Peace’s turbulent past, if he didn’t so often provide present-day reminders.

With a vicious elbow to James Harden’s head during Sunday’s Lakers-Thunder game, it became 2004 all over again — when Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest) engaged in a brawl that spilled over into the stands and remains the most embarrassing incident in NBA history…

Was his elbow as violent as the one Karl Malone gave Isiah Thomas in 1991, which resulted in 40 stitches for Thomas? Was it as deliberate and dirty as Andrew Bynum clotheslining J.J. Barea in last year’s playoffs?

No, but World Peace must be held to a higher and different standard. He needs to be suspended at least 10 games, and league officials would be justified if they decided on an indefinite suspension.

If you think that’s too harsh, keep in mind World Peace has been suspended 13 times in his NBA career for a total of 111 games — 86 of which were related to the brawl.

Should World Peace’s previous offenses lead to harsher punishment this time? It depends on your theory of punishment. If the goal is deterrence, than extra severity probably is warranted. World Peace’s previous record proves that he is an unusually difficult guy to deter, which suggests that greater severity is needed for him to get the message. Moreover, he is notorious around the league and the sports community generally. So punishing him is likely to have a strong example effect, because the punishment will be so widely publicized. It would thereby achieve general deterrence, as well as specific deterrence.

On the other hand, if the goal of punishment is retribution, then Peace’s past offenses are irrelevant. Yes, he was at fault for the 2004 brawl at Auburn Hills and other incidents. But he has already been punished for them, and should not be penalized for them again. For a retributivist, what matters now is the appropriate punishment for offense currently at issue. And the latter should be determined solely by the seriousness of the rule violation, not by what we think of the offender’s past record.

Whatever theory of punishment the NBA prefers, perhaps they should reduce World Peace’s suspension by a few games if he agrees to change his annoying and clearly inappropriate new name. Many have suggested “Metta World War.” But perhaps “The Artest Formerly Known as World Peace” would be even better.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: As a Boston Celtics fan, I don’t much like either World Peace or the Lakers. However, I would never let that influence my judgment on important questions of legal theory!

UPDATE: The NBA just announced that World Peace will be suspended for a total of only 7 games. That punishment seems too light under any plausible normative theory. No justice, no World Peace!