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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Uncivil liberties

Have hooligan fans and thug players erased all decency from sports?

Posted: Tuesday November 30, 2004 5:16PM; Updated: Saturday December 4, 2004 1:03AM
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You would hope we'd have more pressing sports issues to discuss around the water cooler than an utterly reprehensible NBA "basketbrawl" or a bench-clearing football melee that put a damper on Lou Holtz' closing act and ended bowl game talk for South Carolina and Clemson. And while we're dissecting the rude and crude, why do we have to rush the kids out of the room because a seductive TV hottie drops her towel in a promotional skit on a Monday Night Football pregame show?

If sport is reflective of society, as we're often told, then we're traipsing through a pile of horse manure on our fields of play these days. Judging from the recent headlines and Sportscenter clips we've evolved into thugs and raving lunatics, players and fans alike. We spend good money and precious time waiting for the latest sports train wreck, the next Ron Artest or Mike Tyson to flip his lid. And in our publicly financed arenas, a not-so-cool minority of us have become players ourselves, attempting to escape from the reality of daily life by treating entertainers like dirty dogs, spewing them with vulgar obscenities; warm, over-priced beer; and whatever else we can get our hands on.

Why are more of us acting like hooligans? "You shouldn't have to fear for your life if you go to a game, but you have people going to these events and thinking they get to suspend themselves from reality," says Patricia Harned, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center. "The rules that apply in the rest of their lives don't apply at the games. So they can get upset, fly off the handle, beat each other up, shout obscenities because it is not work and it is not home or church."

The real question is whatever happened to decency and civility? And how turned off are the majority of fans by this in-your-face violence and lawlessness?

MAILBAG

Harned suggests that there may be a connection between recent talk that the presidential election swung on family values -- and not more complicated, divisive issues -- and a rejection of sports misbehavior.

"When we talk about values being a deciding factor, I think it's fundamentally because people want to know they can raise their children and live in a country where there are certain values that we hold to be preeminent," Harned says. "And [where] we respect each other. And we do what we can to be honest and trustworthy with one another. In my opinion [the election] was less about a political agenda with respect to how are we going to rule on abortion and homosexuality, but more about 'Is this going to be a leader who is going to help us uphold these kinds of values in the way that we live and work and treat each other?'

"So we're appalled by a Desperate Housewives commercial because it airs on prime time and our kids are seeing it. We applaud people like Lou Holtz -- or even Joe Paterno -- who really encourages his team to actually go to class and study. We all look at a team and hope the players act like a team, and treat each other well. But also when we pay them huge amounts of money to be in pro sports we expect them to act like professionals and see themselves as role models."

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and author of Am I Black Enough For You: Popular Culture from the 'Hood and Beyond, doesn't buy it. He believes it's selective finger pointing to focus on sports crowds and a few misbehaving athletes, most of whom are African-American. Or even to matter-of-factly blame popular culture for dumbing down values.

"What's funny is a lot of conversation these days is about Hollywood and the effects of popular culture, but I never hear anyone mention that there are images from Iraq on television every day," says Boyd. "I mean, it is violent. And yet it is almost like it is not on television. People are just real selective about what they choose to point fingers at."

Yet Boyd admits the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl that spilled into the stands was true reality TV. The cameras captured black players fighting mostly white fans, and he worries that it might be taken out of context. Boyd speaks of wealth giving a sense of independence to young African-American men and of fans feeling a sense of entitlement.

But Boyd believes an eruption like the one we witnessed in Detroit was inevitable. Top-level athletes are already at an edgy, different mind state. Add to the mix two NBA rivals going at it on a Friday night, some beer in the mix as well as a stewing, emotional powder keg in Artest ...

"In my mind, if Artest does not run in the stands we are not having this conversation," says Boyd, who was raised in Detroit and grew up a die-hard Pistons fan. "Artest makes this cheap foul on Ben [Wallace]. Wallace comes after him. What does Artest do? He runs. He decides he's going to go beat up a drunken fan. Come on, dude -- fight another basketball player. To me, if Artest doesn't go in the stands what you have is a garden-variety NBA fight.

"What Artest did was cross the line. One of the things I keep stressing is Ron Artest is a special case. I don't know that he is representative of anything other than himself. I keep calling him the Mike Tyson of the NBA. So in the same way I wouldn't use Mike Tyson to judge boxing, I wouldn't use Ron Artest to judge the NBA."

Likewise, the issue of what's ailing sport or society can't be put at the feet of one or two jocks.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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