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Gene Calhoun of the Big Ten sees these "influences" filtering down rapidly. "I don't think it stops at the college level," he says. "It filters all the way down. There's a high school coach in our area who has a Hitter of the Week award. He puts a picture of his most vicious tackier on a wall."
Plank blames his own notoriety on the permissiveness of play in the pros. "The professional game is less controlled," says Plank. "[As a result] in some games there's an outright bad feeling between players. I don't think most of us in college [Plank played at Ohio State] could have gotten away with the kinds of hits I make now.
"The thing that really shocked me [in the NFL] was the way players talked to officials. The language. That just wasn't tolerated in college football. Officials were held in much higher respect. I think that would be one good thing to re-institute into the game: respect for officials. But if the rules aren't enforced, how can you?"
There is more than passing concern in football that the breakdown in sportsmanship that promotes injury is at least partly traceable to the failing respect for those who officiate the game. NFL officials earn as much as $17,000 a year (at a rate of $325 to $800 a game) in part-time employment. Their counterparts in college believe trouble lurks when such a handsome subsidy becomes built into a way of life, making an individual vulnerable, even acquiescent to abuse. College officials don't usually "need" the $150 to $250 a game they get in the major conferences. Williams, an engineer, says, "Half the officials in the SEC probably make more than the presidents of the schools [whose games they officiate]." But of the NFL officials, Gene Calhoun says, "I suspect that you can get pretty dependent on $17,000 a year."
The implication is clear enough: NFL officials are willing to put up with more. Says one coach, "As you progress up the ladder from high school to college to pro, you see officials grow more liberal in their interpretation of the rules, and that is a dangerous thing."
Players obviously sense this. Once they know the cops won't shoot, the looting begins for real. The most prominent recent example of the disrespectful player is Pittsburgh's Mean Joe Greene. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle says Greene is not mean at all but really a swell fellow. But Greene keeps making him out a liar. Not caring for some calls made against him in a game with the Colts last year, Mean Joe was quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as saying, "Given half the chance, I'll punch one of them [officials] out, and it'd give me a whole lot of satisfaction." He said if they got in his way he'd "cleat 'em in the spine. I won't go around them." He said he was "on a crusade against the striped shirts, and I will be until I get out of this game." The NFL did not take him out of the game for this threat. It merely fined him.
Players and coaches seeking justice in this manner may get more than they bargain for, says Calhoun. They may be promoting an atmosphere made to order for a disastrous consequence. "An NFL official [Armen Terzian] got conked by a whiskey bottle in a game at Minnesota three years ago. It knocked him out," says Calhoun. "It could have killed him. Even after the game the Minnesota coaches were still complaining about the officiating and the bad calls, and officials who 'blew it.' Well, is that an excuse for violence? It would have cost the NFL a bundle in lawyers' fees alone just to defend itself if that guy had been badly hurt.
"There's a time and place to criticize officials. If they're bad, they deserve to be criticized. That's why we have meetings and review films. But on the field is no place to go crazy. I tell coaches, protest, sure, if you have a gripe. But do it right. Blow your damn stack, do something outside the scope of your authority, and you are very likely to find yourself individually liable. Outside the protection of the school, outside the protection of the conference. Go ahead and berate officials. Incite the crowd. Start a riot. But when the damages are counted, you may lose everything you worked for, and face the possibility of a criminal charge as well."
The spread of unsportsmanlike conduct is insidious—from athletes flouting the spirit of good sportsmanship by turning end zones into discoth�ques, to the blatant acts of malice everyone condemns. It begins, says Doug Dickey, "when you make up your mind you're going to be uglier in order to win. Don't just put the guy on the ground, shove him around, rough him up, talk to him, verbally abuse him. Intimidate him." It amounts to a studied disregard for the other fellow. It amounts to getting away with things and taking advantage. If an offensive lineman moves prematurely, thereby legally drawing you offside, take a free shot at him. Put him on his pants. Really rip him.