Sports violence fed by both fans, athletes

Incidents throw harsh light on a culture fed by talk radio and disrespect for authority.

In far-gone days softened in the suffused light of memory, Ty Cobb used to sharpen his spikes to keep fielders on their guard. Linebackers spat and cursed at opponents when forearm shivers weren't enough to do the job. And basketball players brawled with one another at seemingly the least provocation.

Yet the madness that erupted during the basketball game in Detroit last weekend was a breach of sportsmanship extraordinary for American sports in the present day.

By leaping into the stands with several teammates to exchange blows with disorderly fans, Ron Artest did more than violate the primary tenet of sports protocol. He laid bare both sides of a mounting conflict as spectators and athletes come to arenas with an increased sense of entitlement.

Whether it is fans worked into a lather by talk radio or young players who have been coddled since their teenage years and have little respect for authority, the phenomenal success of pro sports has bred an energy of its own that teeters between elation and spontaneous combustion.

"There has been a drifting toward the individual," says George Karl, a former coach in the National Basketball Association. "When that happens, then you have individual breakdowns."

That ethic among both players and fans has already changed the nature of fair play from the NBA to Little League baseball - and not always in obvious ways. For all the angst about last Friday's spectacular meltdown, pro sports leagues have generally become less violent over the years, as a result of tougher league rules on fighting and dangerous play. Moreover, many observers say that a strong sense of camaraderie still exists among the majority of professional athletes.

Yet in the individualism of today, every entanglement is personal - meaning that a sense of going to war has been replaced with the notion of one-on-one vendettas. In the parlance of modern sports, it is all about "disrespect."

"In the youth culture, it is accepted or even appropriate to respond to disrespect with violence," says Dan Doyle of the Institute for International Sport in Kingston, R.I. "If you don't, you're not a man."

The thirst for respect has begotten a generation of trash-talkers and chest-thumpers who have turned the traditional notion of sportsmanship on its ear. In the past, there were many concerted attempts to steamroller such self-serving attitudes in college, where players as great as Michael Jordan were taught to play complementary roles and put the team first. Now, college is arguably more of a rest stop on the way to the pros for many high-schoolers who are already minor celebrities.

"During the adolescence of an elite basketball player, it's very difficult to come through unscathed in terms of values," says Doyle. "Unless you have great parents, these kids are so entitled by the time they get through high school that there are no boundaries for them."

Such elusive boundaries were also in evidence at last weekend's football matchup between Clemson and South Carolina, which degenerated into a brawl for 10 minutes. Yet both schools have sided with discipline. Each announced Monday it would not accept any bids for bowl games.

Still, discipline among players is only part of the equation. The boundaries for fans have also become dangerously blurred, as shown by the NBA brawl: What was simply an on-court shoving match escalated into a full-fledged fracas when a fan hit Artest with a full soda cup.

Although Artest's response has been universally condemned - and earned him the longest nondrug suspension in the history of the NBA - many sports experts say that fans are pushing the envelope of the acceptable. In college, it can be increasingly off-color chants. In the pros, where fans feed off 24-hour talk radio and fantasy leagues, more are looking for any way to rile opponents - from heckling to throwing drinks.

"People have a harder edge in terms of what they think is their right," says Ron Stratten of the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance in Kansas City, Mo. "It's the mob mentality."

With the increasing immaturity of many pro athletes, though, the combination can be explosive. During this baseball season, a member of the Texas Rangers tossed a folding chair into the stands during an altercation with fans, breaking one woman's nose. Two weeks later, a Los Angeles Dodger enraged by fans' heckling slammed a plastic bottle into the first row of seats.

The scene has becoming startlingly familiar across America - even in the lowest levels of youth sports, where touchline tirades at teen soccer referees are routine fare. In Florida, one youth baseball coach broke an umpire's jaw over a disputed call. A Massachusetts hockey dad beat a coach to death.

Taken to its extreme, it conjures images like those so often sent from foreign capitals, where soccer fans from opposing teams are separated by lines of security officers in riot gear. Some observers see this as a wake-up call for professional sports that could yield new security measures and a code of conduct for fans and players.

Says Karl: "The implications from this are going to last a long time."

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