Suspension is a nod to progress

There is almost no way you can watch a replay of Metta World Peace's elbow to James Harden's head from Sunday's Thunder-Lakers game, and not instantly form an opinion both on the appropriate punishment and of the man who delivered the blow.

The incident was as ugly as they come in sports. Vicious, violent and wholly unnecessary. It provokes a gut reaction. Something instant and emotional. And so it was a little surprising that the NBA took more than 48 hours to decide and announce that World Peace would be suspended for the next seven games.

Only the people in on the debate in New York know exactly why they took so much time. Yes, there was no rush because the Lakers didn't have any games between Sunday and Thursday, but clearly the discussion was both deep and substantive.

Punishment, whether it be in a court of law or in sport, is designed as much to send a message and act as a deterrent as it is to serve as penance for an unlawful act.

But the NBA had two messages to consider when disciplining World Peace: protecting its players from violent acts on the court, particularly those directed at the head, while also taking into account how hard World Peace has worked to rehabilitate himself and his image after his 86-game suspension for his involvement in the infamous brawl in Detroit in 2004.

By suspending him seven games -- effectively taking him out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs -- the NBA managed to both underscore how seriously it takes player safety, and give World Peace some credit for the therapeutic work he has done on his emotional issues and his very public work to raise mental health awareness.

Had this incident happened three years ago, before World Peace began to show he had taken his previous disciplinary situations seriously and tried to learn from them, it's easy to see the NBA acting far more severely with him. He probably would have been suspended for the rest of the year or even longer.

Of course, had it been another player, with no history or disciplinary issues, the suspension might have been far shorter.

All of which explains why the NBA took its time with this. As one executive told me Monday, "They're not soliciting opinions on this. Everybody in the league already has an opinion. They just have a lot to think about."

In the end, there was no right answer. No matter how many games the NBA settled on, there would be people who thought it was too harsh and people who thought it was too lenient.

What mattered was the message the league wanted to send to its players.

It was as important to discipline World Peace as a repeat offender as it was to take into account the work he has done on himself and with mental health awareness. World Peace's previous punishments have acted as a deterrent. He got the message the league sent him after the brawl in Detroit and his regrettable behavior in Sacramento. He took it seriously, and tried to rehabilitate himself and his image. To overreact to this incident by suspending him for the rest of the year or even longer would have ignored that history as much as it took into account his previous transgressions.

Having covered the man closely these past three seasons in Los Angeles, you feel his inner conflict on a daily basis. He is constantly trying to do what's right while fighting impulses and emotions that are wrong.

Even his name change speaks to that dynamic. On the one hand, it was another silly play for attention, but on the other, it was a declaration to the world that he wanted to be a more serene, kind person. A self-affirmation of sorts. Put it out there, then try to live up to it.

"Metta is going to be the first name, and it means like friendship, love and kindness," he said during a radio interview last summer. "World Peace is going to be the last name, so everybody can get ready to buy their World Peace jerseys."

It's hard to digest statements like that. There is a level of sincerity to it. But it also is so strange and silly that it's hard to take seriously. Even World Peace has a hard time keeping it all straight. He responds to both World Peace and Ron Artest, and has referred to himself in the third person both ways. His brother, Daniel Artest, still calls him Ron. His personal website is still www.ronartest.com.

To its credit, the NBA seemed to take all of this complexity into account when deciding the appropriate punishment for his latest transgression.

Metta World Peace lost control of himself and his emotions in the moment he swung that vicious elbow at James Harden's head. It was awful and inexcusable. He is very lucky Harden was not more seriously injured. Given his history, he easily could have been suspended for the rest of the year.

But the league had an opportunity here to show that it notices both the good and bad in a person. To recognize that World Peace has been doing more good than bad these past few years, while also serving notice of how seriously it takes this kind of behavior. This punishment did just that.