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Celebrating sports championships shouldn't be about looting, burning and other criminal activity

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference before Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at a news conference before Game 1 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 4, 2015. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg, AP

The 2015 NBA Finals are far from over, and yet the worrying and handwringing have begun over post-championship celebrations possibly turning violent.

Rightfully so, since it seems a citywide celebration of winning a major college or professional championship — or the frustration of losing the same — has all too often escalated to flipping cars, looting stores and burning anything remotely flammable. Not to mention numerous assaults, injuries and arrests.

When the favored University of Kentucky lost the 2015 NCAA men’s basketball championship to Wisconsin, the post-loss reaction in Lexington included fires, fights, police pepper spraying, several injuries and 31 arrests involving what city officials described as a “rowdy, and at times hostile” crowd. ESPN’s sports analytics blog FiveThirtyEight used the incident as a catalyst to create an initial and admittedly incomplete database compiling the violent aftermath of many North American major pro and college championship events over the past five decades. For those keeping score at home, the database totals thousands arrested, hundreds injured and a dozen-plus killed.

Sports-related violence isn’t a recent trend, nor localized to North America. The first such major incident on record is the week-long Nika riots in the Byzantine Empire’s capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 532. After a day of 22 chariot races, supporters of the “Greens” team revolted against Emperor Justinin I, supporter of the rival Blues, with nearly half of the city burned by rioters and death counts estimated at 30,000.

Adding fuel to this year’s possible post-NBA Finals fire is the fact that neither the Golden State Warriors nor the Cleveland Cavaliers have won a title of late. Post-championship celebrating seems to careen out of control if it has been some time since the home team has been in the championship finale. The Warriors’ last NBA crown came in 1975, and the city of Cleveland hasn’t had any pro sports championship since the early 1960s Cleveland Browns in the NFL.

This year’s NBA championship series — and any post-championship lawlessness — comes at a time when law enforcement is already under tight scrutiny following a number of nationally high-profile fatal shootings.

Cleveland columnist Mark Naymik is pleading with local Cavs fans to keep the celebrations orderly. “There’s a fine line between sports celebrations and riots,” he wrote. “The latter can only harm the city and its people. And sports riots make you look even more superficial.”

To change the mob mentality, the first course of action is to change the expected traditions of celebrations turning lawless. Even better, says Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, is to correct the semantics.

Ramsey ought to know — he was deputy chief in Chicago in the early 1990s when the Bulls started their run to a half-dozen NBA titles. Violence there after the ’92 championship resulted in more than 1,000 arrests and 107 police officers hurt.

“One thing we could do is to stop calling it ‘celebrating.’ It’s not,” Ramsey told ESPN. “Call it for what it is — it’s criminal activity that’s taking place.

“The people who really want to celebrate enjoying a championship aren’t doing that stuff. They aren’t burning cars. They’re not looting stores. What has that got to do with winning a championship? Nothing.”