When Rule-Busting Becomes the Norm

By , Senior sports columnist of The Christian Science Monitor

As the professional basketball and hockey seasons advance deep into the playoffs, there's something terribly amiss: The players, rather than working to win inside the rules, devote themselves to seeing how much they can get away with outside the rules.

Result is that these two sports have lost many of the qualities that attracted fans to them in the first place - the flow and grace of basketball, the speed and the elegance of ice hockey.

What both have become are depressing spectacles featuring whining athletes who will do anything - absolutely anything - that they can to gain advantage. Example: On Wednesday night, during Game 5 of the NBA semifinals, the Indiana Pacers' Dale Davis threw a vicious, outlaw elbow into Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls. It's as if the rules are only for fools.

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This is one of a zillion examples of how the contests often are reduced to thuggism.

The abject and deplorable violence in the games is a shame. Many have been railing against these travesties for eons but the people who run the leagues have made it clear by their actions and inaction that they think a little violence, like dessert, adds to the enjoyment of the meal.

The co-conspirators, aka the officials and referees, are willing pawns.

Hockey, for its part, doesn't just tolerate misbehavior, it celebrates it. Example: The Buffalo Sabres' Matthew Barnaby is revered for making a junior hockey team not because of his skill, which was and is minimal, but because he got into a dozen fights in two days at training camp. Fighting belongs in one sport - fighting.

But, just as insidious and discouraging is to watch the myriad rules transgressions the players commit all of the time.

The poster child for totally inappropriate behavior is the Bulls' Dennis Rodman. Let's ignore how he looks and what he says and focus on how he plays basketball. It's a disgrace. Although the competition would be stiff, Rodman would stand a good chance of winning the balloting as Dirtiest Player.

Watch him, especially when the ball is elsewhere. Rodman pushes, shoves, trips, grabs, torments, elbows, muscles, contorts, distorts, and retorts. Rodman is known for his rebounding, but careful viewing shows often that he is guilty of a host of infractions while getting himself into rebounding position. None of this should be permissible in basketball because it's not what basketball was intended to be. Rodman denigrates the game. But, like any child, he keeps doing it because he gets away with it.

Still, if Rodman is the worst example, let's look at his antithesis, Michael Jordan. He is properly praised for everything, including being enormously quick off the dribble. Alas, watch closely. Jordan routinely gains enormous and illegal advantage by using his off-ball forearm to drive defenders out of the way. Only rarely is he called for the foul.

In a semifinal series between Utah and Los Angeles, it was deplorable the way the Jazz's Karl Malone and the Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal attempted to manhandle each other, all of it outside of the way the game was, sigh, intended to be played.

All of this raises the interesting albeit troubling question: Do rules matter any- more in sports?

What has happened is that brute force and devious behavior become the trump cards that officials and referees allow to be played willy-nilly. O'Neal, for example, is not an all-around great player. Ever watch him try to shoot free throws? His main attribute is his size. Malone is a better player but O'Neal often got the best of the matter because of his heft.

We don't want our basketball and hockey games decided solely because of genetics. What about finesse and skill and intelligence? The way to keep an opponent in check is not to surreptitiously hold on to his jersey or pin his arms. The way is to play solid, fundamental defense, which includes a lot of heart and a lot of moving your feet - within the rules.

Hockey sticks should be used for hitting the puck. Period. Alas, dream on.

Time was a foul in basketball was an unintentional slap of a shooter's wrist by a player trying honestly and legally to prevent the shot. Now we find ourselves talking about hard fouls, fouls not only made intentionally but designed to hurt. Somewhere, James Naismith is not pleased.

Millions of little boys watch Dennis Rodman on television and they are patterning their games and behavior after his. How scary is that? Ditto mouthy Matthew Barnaby. We will see the results of their hero-worship in 10 or 15 years.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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