2004-12-03 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

When I was young and athletic teams played a “team game” rather than an “individual fame game,” the conventional wisdom was that athletic play built character.

That is obviously no longer true.

You don’t have to go back any further than the televised basketball brawl in Detroit for that fact to become clear.

Sure, there were lots of fights during hockey games in my earlier days and I remember sitting in the old Madison Square Garden watching Gordie Howe, then of the Detroit Red Wings and “Leaping Louie” Fontonato of the New York Rangers in a battle to the death that left blood all over the rink.

I also remember sitting behind the penalty box in that same venue when a long-forgotten enforcer for one of the six teams then in the league tried to climb out of the box to get to a fan who had been calling him some terrible names. He was suspended for life.

Similarly, I remember sitting in the infamous “Blue Seats” in the garden listening to the crowd chant, “Beat your wife, Potvan, Beat your wife,” every time Islander player Dennis Potvan came on the ice for a shift against the Rangers.

That was all considered part of the New York game, the New York Mystique.

That was a different time. Players in those days made so little that they had to work at off-season jobs – even such bit-ticket names as Mickey Mantle and Y.A. Title.

They loved the game and they understood that the fans paid the freight. They knew that they were being paid good American currency for playing a child’s game.

Not so today, and all sports are infected by the new thuggery that has become almost pervasive in all of our pro sports.

Just last week, there was a fight during a college football game when a defensive player hit a receiver a little too enthusiastically on a sidelines play. When asked about the fight, one of the coaches said, “I guess they have been watching the pros play too much.”

The thuggery has even moved down to the little league and youth leagues with fights breaking out on a regular basis and with young children cursing out the umpire for what they consider to be bad calls.

So much for building character.

Something has to be done at all levels, but it has to begin with the pros, because they set the trend and the ambiance for all of the lower leagues. For better or worse, they are the role models for those who aspire to play major league ball one day (and what young man or woman never has those thoughts growing up).

For that reason, I think that Bill Bradley was right when he said, “I think it [the Detroit brawl] was a deep violation of the spirit of the game. It endangers the sport.”

Bradley is not just another would-be politicians sticking his nose into something he knows nothing about. He is a basketball legend, having been All-American at Princeton University before moving on to the New York Knicks championship teams. He then moved on to the U.S. Senate and a run for President of the United States.

“The commissioner’s decision [to suspend and fine the players] in my opinion was appropriate, if not light,” he added.

I know that many people disagree, arguing that it was solely the fan’s fault, but I agree with Bradley.

Like many rappers, some pro basketball players today see themselves as gangsters and try to walk the walk and talk the talk. Some of them are actually gangsters, having been arrested for various crimes from criminal possession of a weapon to assault, to rape. Those who commit those kinds of crimes should not be allowed to play the pro game.

Those who exhibit gangster behavior, as ex-St. John’s player Ron Artest has on numerous occasions, should be barred for life as well.

In fact, any player who goes into the stands looking to injure a fan should be banned. There is no reason for that kind of behavior, not even being hit with beer or being called names.

All Artest had to do was point out the man who threw the beer (who, as it turns out, has a criminal record himself) and that person would have been ejected from the arena. All he did by attacking the man was to prove that he does not belong with civilized people and especially in a high-profile professional league.

I really think that pro athletes are too pampered to begin with. What’s up with this new rule to protect the quarterback in pro football? I know that the QB’s are the highest-paid, most-important players, but they are playing a fast, hard contact game and to penalize a defensive player for hitting him just as he throws the ball or a split second after takes something from the game.

Then, there are the tennis and golf players who make millions of dollars each year who demand quiet when they are playing. I will never understand, for example why a tennis shot or a putt are any harder and take more concentration than a free throw in basketball.

Basketball players must make those pressure foul shots with screaming fans in their ears and towel-waving yahoos in their eyes. They still make the shot more often than not. Why should tennis players and golfers have their peace and quiet?

Fans have the right to say (or yell) anything they want at pro athletes. They are paying the freight and without them, pro players might actually have to find a job that pays less than a couple of million dollars a year. Poor souls.

That stops, of course, at physical action against a player. Nobody has the right to assault anybody else and that goes for player to player as well as to fan to player or player to fan.

Is dumping beer on a player an assault? Hey, Artest was involved in a fight and then he went over and lay down on the scorer’s table. Some drunk dumped a cup of beer on him – not hardly likely to cause injury and he took his large, tough body into the stands to seek revenge when he should have called security and pointed the man out so he could have been removed, or even arrested.

Artest, being a thug, reacted otherwise and he was joined by other players of his ilk.

The players involved said that it was a matter of respect. One black activist argued that the fight was a “race war” because it was a fight getween black players and white fans who do not respect the players for their athletic ability and their money-making ability.

“If the white fans showed respect for the black players, the incident would never have happened,” the activist wrote, adding that only white fans can get seats at courtside because of their cost.

I don’t believe that for a moment. The fans who threw the beer were stupid, but the players reacted beyond what was necessary.

It is time to stop the thuggery before, like country bands in the south, games have to be played inside cages to keep both players and fans safe.

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