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‘You Suck!’: New Study Looks at 20 Years of Trash Talk in the NBA

When you’re a pro basketball player, if you’re not doing the dunking, you’re definitely getting dunked on

If you’ve noticed that professional basketball players don’t fight like they used to, it’s not in your head. But new research also confirms that what today’s NBA players lack in thrown elbows, they make up for in talking trash

The study, published today in PLOS ONE, found that between 1998 and 2018, acts of physical violence have declined during NBA games, while trash talking is on the rise. “The goal of this study was to examine the use of aggression and violence (both physical and symbolic) in the NBA,” the study authors wrote. “In particular, it explored the usage of violent actions since the beginning of the millennium, when the NBA began its zero-tolerance policy for acts of physical violence.”

Essentially, researchers analyzed a random, stratified sample of 117 NBA games and looked at both violations throughout the game as well as the broadcasters’ comments. Of the stratified sample, which included 36 games overall, a total of 105 violent acts took place — 65 percent of which were physical and 37 percent of which were “symbolic violence,” which the study defines as shouting, gloating, displaying bodies in a menacing way and “trash talking.”

“In general, from 1998 to 2013, physical violent acts were substantially more prevalent than symbolic violent ones. However, from 2014 to 2018, the opposite trend was observed: There were relatively more symbolic violent acts,” researchers noted, with the exception of 2016, when physical violence during NBA games was higher. 

The authors attribute much of the change to former NBA commissioner David Stern’s policies to prevent fighting during games, most notably imposed after the 2004 Malice at the Palace — a massive brawl that broke out between the Detroit Pistons, the Indiana Pacers and their fans that ended in the suspension of nine players, along with assault charges for five players and five fans. In what’s regarded as one of the largest fights in sports history, the consequences amounted to the combined loss of $11 million in salaries for the players, limits on the sale of alcohol at games and automatic fines of up to $50,000 for leaving the bench to participate in a brawl. 

Yet, despite Stern’s attempt to “sterilize” the game, the strict sanctions he imposed ended up increasing the amount of trash talking and other forms of “symbolic violence” over the next decade. To that end, ultimately, the study highlights that when physical violence is too costly in a highly competitive environment, aggression still comes out in other ways. 

Isn’t that right, cupcake?