March 21, 2011
It’s a Wednesday evening in a Students vs. Students intramural basketball league at your law school. You’ve just been called for a foul that you disagree with and as a result of arguing with the official about it, you’ve been thrown out of the game. Do you A) slam the ball down in a fit of frustration, B) disgustedly walk away, shaking your head in defiance, or C) walk passed the scorer’s table within earshot of all three game officials, two scorekeepers, a few players from each team and the commissioner of the league and declare “You guys are all a bunch of faggots”?
Maybe it’s because I’m old school and I had a different set of heroes. I grew up watching Walter Payton, Tim Brown and Michael Jordan in a day before MTV’s “And One Mix Tape Tour” when it seemed that being a decent human being was a key part of being a pro athlete. Now this humanitarian integrity has been replaced with exotic end zone celebrations, fantasy stats and players who would sooner walk over a fallen opponent than help them up. Showmanship is the new sportsmanship. And it trickles down to all levels of competition, from the pro game to the college game to recreational sports and all the way down to little league.
As a recreational professional, I have very little tolerance for students intentionally threatening, berating and charging into their fellow students. The presence of a ball in the setting of a basketball court does not give anyone the right to treat their fellow man with any more disrespect than they would in a classroom, on a bus or at a job.
From student official to full-time staff member, I have worked in the field of collegiate recreational sports for the last 17 years. I have seen my share of hideous behavior based solely on heightened adrenaline levels and the unfortunate bounce of a ball. There aren’t a lot of places in the world where slander defamation and felony assault are punishable by two free throws.
In a recent SportingKids Magazine study of 3,300 parents, coaches, administrators and youth, 80 percent believe that inappropriate behavior is destroying youth sports. In a similar study by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, 45.3 percent of youngsters surveyed said they had been called names, yelled at, or insulted while participating in sports, 17.5 percent said they had been hit, kicked or slapped while participating in sports and 8.2 percent said they had been pressured to intentionally harm others while playing sports.1
In July 2005, a T-ball coach paid one of his players $25 to hurt an 8-year-old teammate so the coach wouldn’t have to play him in a game. The victim was struck in the groin and the head with a baseball and did not play in that game. The 27-year-old coach was allegedly very competitive and didn’t want to play the child because of his mental handicap.2 The National Association of Sports Officials (NASO) receives more than 100 reports a year involving violence in youth sports and claims the numbers are increasing.3
It doesn’t take a lot of reverse engineering to eventually point the finger at the NBA and other professional sports for the lack of sportsmanship in today’s recreational and youth sports leagues. Professional athletes in the public eye are the role models of today’s youth. They wear their jerseys, they watch their games and they imitate their actions. As the image of the professional athlete changes, so changes our society.
Since the birth of ESPN 31 years ago, sports are now brought to the public in tightly packaged 2-minute highlight clips. It’s all about getting on SportsCenter where 48 minutes of textbook bounce passes and boxing out will go unnoticed by the greater public. Because of the success of their marketing efforts, the NBA and by extension the players, are getting a lot more money. It’s become more about getting paid as an individual than winning a championship as a team and it is likely this “Me first” attitude that has devolved sportsmanship to its current state. The average NBA player salary for the 2010 season was $5.84 million, up over 17 times from the $330,000 average back in 1986. And most of it can be attributed to the implementation of free agency.4
On July 8, 1988 at 12:01am, the Phoenix Suns signed All-Star forward Tom Chambers as the league’s first ever unrestricted free agent.5 Though an integral move for player rights, this would eventually lead to today’s NBA. Holdouts, contract disputes and referring to oneself in the third person has become commonplace. Loyalty to teams and cities died off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. A new collective bargaining agreement back in 1988 changed the face of professional basketball. And when you find something as profitable as the NBA, who cares if you leave small things like sportsmanship and teamwork in your wake?
Allen Iverson, MVP of the 2000-2001 season, had what is likely the world’s most famous press conference in sports history in 2002, going on a rant about the insignificance of practice. He is today’s role model. And there are many just like him.
The height of ugliness in professional sports came on November 19, 2004 in a seemingly average NBA game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons. With 45.9 seconds left, a Diet Coke was thrown onto Pacer’s forward Ron Artest, who then charged off the court and into the stands and proceeded to punch the man who he mistakenly thought had done this to him. Players followed him up the stands, some to rescue him and some to fuel the fire. Fans spilled out onto the court to escape the melee, including a father nearly run over by Artest desperately trying to protect his son. The outnumbered security desperately tried to regain order while two other Pacers threw punches at fans out on the court. After the smoke cleared, the NBA commissioner suspended players an unprecedented total of 146 games and over $11 million in salaries, including an 86 game suspension for Ron Artest, who would be the face of NBA’s bad boys for years to come.6
On the other side of the coin, David Robinson challenged fifth graders in Gates Elementary School of San Antonio back in 1991 to finish high school and promised a $2,000 college scholarship to all that did. In 1998, proving even better than his word, he gave all the graduates $8,000.7 But that doesn’t get nearly as much media coverage.
Unfortunately, the media is an extension of the greater public. It is their responsibility to report the news that gets ratings or website hits or whatever can be quantifiably measured. They have no moral obligation to make the world a better place, which is a shame as they are some of the very few people in the world who can. And David Robinson’s touching story doesn’t get the 3.93 million youtube hits that Allen Iverson’s press conference does.
Somewhere along the line, hip-hop has taken on basketball as a subculture. A lot of weight has been put on being disrespected (or dissed) in this culture, so if somebody fouls someone or crosses them up, they need to save face as part of the culture. Likewise, it is one’s purpose to try to prove their dominance over another to show worth. This leads to a lot of grandstanding and chest-pounding. For some youth, basketball likely keeps them off the streets, but that street mentality is often still prevalent in the way they approach the game. It’s not the way the culture had intended to affect the game of basketball in general, but once you put arsenic in the water supply, it’s in everybody’s tap.
Because of free agency and the culture today, it is unlikely that the system will change. It’s also a longshot and completely unpredictable to rely on a white horse superstar to save America’s youth. It isn’t their job. LeBron James looked to be a good candidate until in the most blatant display of arrogance I’ve ever seen, he bought 75 minutes of primetime television time on ESPN to host a show called “The Decision” entirely about where he was going to decide to play this season. And if we can’t rely on that, our only other hope is unfortunately the media, who I’ve already mentioned is basically at the mercy of what society decides is worth the ratings.
Last summer, the Lakers beat the Celtics for the NBA championship. The deciding game seven of that series was the most watched game in the NBA since Michael Jordan’s last season as a Chicago Bull. After the game, a jubilant Ron Artest had the privilege of talking to the media for something positive. He thanked his family, his team and likely for the first time in history, a sports icon thanked his therapist on live television, addressing his issues with his temper. “I’m not good at these moments. And I know that about myself. You know, so what do I do to BE good at these moments? Figure it out. And I needed some type of way to relax during these moments.”
This is an image of a man who knows he has a problem and is trying to make himself better, possibly the noblest pursuit a man can burden himself with. And the same media who admonished him for his actions back in 2004, when handed the gift of an obvious public reformation of oneself, chose to ridicule him. They mocked such a public showing of one’s emotions, calling it weakness and reveling in the opportunity to poke fun of a challenged man recognizing and dealing with his faults. A teaching moment was lost in that post-game interview, buried behind Kobe avenging his 2008 loss to the Celtics and the importance we all place on winning.
And if making oneself a better person isn’t a clear enough objective for today’s youth, how about the sportsmanship story of a lifetime that went largely unnoticed? Armando Galarraga was one out away from being the 17th player in history to pitch a perfect game. With one more out left to secure his place in history, first base umpire Jim Joyce called a runner safe at first, destroying Galarraga’s perfect game. When replays later showed Joyce’s call was incorrect, he gave an emotional and genuine public apology, claiming he stole the game away from “this kid who worked his ass off all game.” With every reason to complain or curse the umpire for stealing away his perfect game and thus his chance at an automatic bust in Canton’s Baseball Hall of Fame, Galarraga simply smiled and said “Nobody’s perfect.” This moment didn’t crack CBS News’ Top Ten Sports Moments of 2010, losing out to Tiger Woods’ indiscretions and LeBron James’ “Decision.”8 And if even the media can’t recognize the literary genius in the simplicity of this statement, sportsmanship doesn’t stand a chance.
Maybe we can’t rely on the NBA or the media to instill values in the youth of today. But as a recreational sports professional, I will no longer stand idly by and let two free throws be the maximum sanction for these heinous acts. And so when a student stormed off the court, calling our refs and scorekeepers “a bunch of faggots” last year, he was not sentenced to those free throws. He was instead sentenced to a meeting with the Dean of Students and has a permanent mark on his record that will follow him around and potentially be a talking point in his eventual Bar Review. I’ve seen him since and I honestly believe he gets it now. It’s just possible he never had any repercussions for his actions before. Nobody ever taught him that you can’t say or do things like that just because you’re playing a game. Maybe he just never had to worry about anything more than two free throws.
1. www.shatteredpeace.com; Violence in Youth Sports.
2. www.latimes.com; T-Ball Coach Allegedly Paid Player to Assault Teammate; July 16, 2005.
3. www.naso.com; Poor sporting behavior incidents reported to NASO.
4. Graham, Ian; www.ehow.com; The Average Salaries of NBA Players; May 11, 2010
5. Koek, Steven; www.NBA.com; Let the Negotiations Begin; June 30, 2004.
6. www.espn.com; Suspensions Without Pay, Won’t Be Staggered; November 22, 2004.
7. Boeck, Greg; www.NBA.com; David, the Goliath of Giving; October 22, 2001.
8. Norman, Joshua; www.cbsnews.com; Top 10 Sports Stories of 2010; December 31, 2010.