Sports loses when fans and coaches go ballistic

Behavior by fans, athletes, and coaches - some, by no means all - at sporting events over the years has gone from generally gentlemanlike to often abysmal.

Two events earlier this week bring the deterioration into sharp focus.

Most troubling was Boston fan behavior as the Red Sox were being drubbed at home by the Yankees in baseball's American League Championship Series.

Several hotly disputed umpire calls - including a couple horrendously wrong - were viewed by some fans as authorization to throw whatever they could get their hands on and to scream obscenities.

Equally outrageous was the berserk protest by Boston manager Jimy Williams. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, not always the poster boy for proper behavior himself, did get it right this time when he said that Williams "incited" the brouhaha.

Both teams were ordered from the field for a time to prevent injury. The proud and typically classy city of Boston should weep over its behavior. Instead, some segments of the chauvinistic local media are whining, saying nothing happened, and taking the position that if something did happen, which it didn't, it was the umpires' fault.

The truth is being pummeled by revisionist spin control. We understand. Truth is always the first casualty of zealots.

It all was, we are left to presume, a mirage. What we saw isn't what we saw. It's as if the local apologists forget we all watched on TV. But our eyes lied to us.

Even Mayor Thomas Menino called fan behavior "inappropriate," a weak characterization but at least an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Words from BoSox first baseman Mike Stanley were far more heartfelt. He said on behalf of the fans: "We're sorry for the way we acted. That's not right. Not right at all." The players did nothing wrong.

Indeed, what is it that seems to prompt sports fans to act, well, inappropriately, at event after event?

It is largely the cover offered by anonymity, the perfect cloak for cowards. Often the most vitriolic letter writers to The Sporting Scene spew their venom, then sign off sans name. At Fenway, it's safe to assume these hoodlums throwing things at umpires and Yankees would not conduct themselves similarly in a one-on-one confrontation.

It's reasonable to assume they are the same kinds of folks who make anonymous phone calls, steal newspapers from vending machines, and beat up mail boxes in the dead of night.

Then there was New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka who made two grossly obscene gestures to pro football fans who didn't think much of his coaching in a loss to Tennessee. Wouldn't you have been mortified to have been at that game with your son or daughter and have them witness such carrying on? Ditka, who has had many ill-tempered outbursts, says he's sorry. But that doesn't erase that ugly picture painted for millions of youngsters - and any adults with a sense of propriety.

It's as if people feel they can act any way they want in public because it's public. In a perverse way, they're right. The price we pay for democracy is citizen freedom. One person's freedom should end where another's nose begins. But that's no longer a defining principle, just a remnant of a more civil past.

Awful conduct at sports events fills books. Greek fans rioted at a European basketball tournament in Barcelona last year. Tennis stars Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were spectacularly obscene. Georgia Tech football fans once threw frozen fish at the Notre Dame players. Wrestling and boxing fans typically have few restraints on behavior. Football and basketball players these days are past masters of chest thumping and trash talking.

Fans, players, and coaches regrettably all feed off one another's misbehavior.

Solutions? It's increasingly possible that games will become studio shows with tightly controlled entry. It will all be pay-for-view TV.

Too many of us simply cannot be trusted to behave even minimally in public.

It's true the percentage of hooligans is likely somewhere around 1 percent of the total. That would be exactly 335 folks cutting up at Fenway the other night. But if the other 99 percent don't rise up in protest, the party will end and the misbehaved minority will have won - again.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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