SAN FRANCISCO — When the basketball season began last fall, Latrell Sprewell said little to the public. He froze out the media and let fans know him only by his often-gifted on-court play as an All-Star guard for the Golden State Warriors.
Yet starting in December and culminating this week, he's said it all to the American public.
Even in an era of ear biting and spitting in the face of umpires, Sprewell has become, in the eyes of many, the icon for all that's wrong in professional sports. When he wrapped his hands around the throat of his coach late last year, stormed out of the practice, and returned later for another confrontation, he was the logical conclusion of increasingly outrageous behavior that many fear circles back and shows up in schoolyards and backyards.
Now that his punishment has been softened by an arbitrator, sociologists and sports officials who hoped the case could offer a turning point by drawing a sharp disciplinarian line are convinced the ruling's overriding significance will be to appear to condone bad behavior.
"This sends a message to the general public that this kind of behavior is permissible. This transcends the sports field," says George Eisen, a sports sociologist at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona.
Others say that while it will likely reinforce negative public perceptions about professional sports, the punishment left standing is severe enough to represent a starting point for the long road back to tougher standards for athletes.
In some respects, the arbitrator's ruling was consistent with the notion that any improvement will be incremental. The National Basketball Association (NBA) had gone further than any team or league ever had against an offending athlete, outside of drug abuse, by suspending Sprewell for one year. In addition, the Golden State Warriors had terminated his contract, worth about $24 million.
Said arbitrator John Feerick: "The evidence indicates that there is no history of both the league and a team imposing discipline for the same violent conduct, on or off the court. This speaks to the issue of fairness, as I see it." Mr. Feerick cut Sprewell's suspension from 12 months to seven months and forced the Warriors to take him back.
At a high school in San Jose, basketball coach Chris Funk was harshly critical of professional sports and its impact on the youngsters he tutors. "Today's athlete, even at this level, wants to be pampered. They feel they're entitled to something that they haven't earned yet."
In the nine years he's coached, he's seen a dramatic shift in attitude. "There's lots of trash talking, in-your-face taunting, and crowing to the crowd. They get that from watching college and the NBA."
Indeed, on the same day as the Sprewell ruling, there were reports of a high school player in Oakland, Calif., being cited by police for attacking his coach.
Mr. Eisen, a former boxer, says what distinguished the Sprewell incident was not only the level of violence, though the coach was not hurt, but the fact that it occurred within a team. "Sports is ritualized aggression. In a sociological sense, it's tribal behavior, and when Dennis Rodman kicks a photographer, it's against another tribe. But this was against [Sprewell's] own tribe. That's something new."
Back to basics
Joel Kirsch, a former sports psychologist for Major League Baseball's San Francisco Giants and now president of the American Sports Institute in Mill Valley, Calif., says behavior is worsening and the short-term fix is the willingness by collegiate organizations and professional leagues and teams to enforce already-written rules of behavior. But long term, he feels the only fundamental fix is to reincorporate sports back into the arts and humanities, where it began in ancient Greece.
He has introduced a new class at 22 public high schools in California that teaches skills both physical and mental - like concentration, attitude, and balance - needed for physical and academic achievement. This is the only way, he says, to elevate and reinforce the nobler goals of athletics and to diminish the commercialism that he feels encourages acceptance of ugly behavior.
The celebrity of this case was evident early on when Johnnie Cochran was hired to help Sprewell's defense team. While there were early suggestions of underlying racism in the incident, Sprewell's legal team did not pursue that in the arbitration. Instead, they focused on the severity of the punishment.
Said Mr. Cochran after the ruling: "There is still a message that you have to comport to rules of society. It's just that they [the league] went too far." Some of the scores of calls flooding into sports talk radio echoed the sentiment that the remaining penalty, about $6 million in lost earnings, was sufficient.
Mr. Funk, the San Jose high school coach, saves his ire for the sports industry. "The professionals in sports have crossed the line. But the leagues and teams should have taken a stand earlier. This was a great time to take a stand, but it would have been going too far too fast."
While Funk hopes the Sprewell incident will mark the beginning of gradually tougher treatment against bad behavior, he says real progress can be made now in homes and schools. Coaches must begin setting higher standards, and parents need to put sports in proper perspective. For instance, "don't buy $160 shoes; that's crazy," he says.