Sportsmanship battle rages many grope for solutions

DALLAS — DALLAS -- The picture is one of the most famous in sports Muhammad Ali, his right arm pulled across his body, as if he were about to backhand his fallen opponent; Sonny Liston, helpless, struggling to raise his head from the canvas; Ali, eyes afire, daring him to succeed.

Nearly 30 years later, the foggy details of the physical beating have all but dissipated. But Ali's brutal postscript remains as vivid as the photograph.


An image often is more indelible than the recording of victory or defeat. Grantland Rice wrote: "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game." As a code of conduct, the axiom often has been misplaced. But if he meant how you played was how you will be remembered, his reasoning was infallible.

The specter of Ali's sportsmanship manifested itself in University of Miami players during their 46-3 rout of the University of Texas in the Mobil Cotton Bowl. The precision, athleticism and mastery of the Hurricanes received far less attention than did their record 202 yards in penalties, most for unsportsmanlike conduct.


The backlash was quickly felt. The National Collegiate Athletic Association football rules committee adopted regulations late last month to curb taunting, citing the actions of the Miami players. Game officials were encouraged to be aggressive in their enforcement.

The media has joined this front, too. A critical column by the Miami Herald's Edwin Pope even appeared on the front page of the newspaper the day after the Cotton Bowl. More than two weeks after the game, Miami officials still were stung by media criticism. One month later, coach Dennis Erickson still is responding to the attacks, saying everything was blown out of proportion. A spokesman said they had been so "hammered" in the media that a resident sports psychologist, asked about the players' motivations for their actions, declined interview requests.

Other sports psychologists were not so media shy. Dr. Don Beck, director of the National Values Center in nearby Denton, Texas, said the response has been overwhelming to a column he wrote castigating the Hurricanes' actions.

He concluded the column by writing, " . . . It's time to decide whether values and ethics should play any role in sports. If not, let's at least end the hypocrisy."

The question, then, is whether sportsmanship is a derivative of sports in anything other than name. This is not a discussion on the merits of fair play, or whether kicking and gouging should be allowed. Rather, it is a look at the subjects of taunting and baiting, as well as spontaneous player celebrations.

Does a dance in the end zone, or at midfield, constitute inappropriate behavior? What danger is there in a player's ridicule of an opponent? Are those who protest such behavior to be dismissed, as is anyone beginning a diatribe with "In my day . . . "? And why do these detractors find the subjects so offensive in the first place?

The Hurricanes are not the lone source of violations. Their case likely was exacerbated by the forum, their history and an apparent disregard for anything coaches or officials could do to punish them. But rare is the spectator who has not seen a player rise from a tackle, raise both fists and exult over an opponent. Or watch a wide receiver take a bow after a routine catch. Or gape as a forward, busy celebrating a dunk, unwittingly allows his man to break free for an uncontested layup.

Athletes who would so brazenly champion their own play once were few. Those who did, paid for it. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was hated by whites early in this century not only for his color but for the manner in which he ridiculed opponents in the ring. Historians contend Johnson likely was not accorded the respect due him because of his style, as well as his race.


For the most part, athletes once were subtle in any messages they wished to convey. In a game nearly 20 years ago, the Houston Rockets' Calvin Murphy basked in Hofheinz Pavilion cheers after making a shot against the Boston Celtics. He must )) have been too caught up in the applause to see Boston's Paul Silas as he ran back down the floor. At any rate, he didn't see Silas' well-placed knee. Murphy caught it in the thigh, landing with a splat at midcourt.

Silas' solemn expression never changed as he continued

downcourt. A professional, he apparently was content his message had been received by the only person for whom it was intended.

Messages are louder now. So are the messengers. When Willie Burton of the Miami Heat recently blocked a shot by the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan, Burton, a rookie, stood over the fallen superstar and, for all to see, said, "Don't try that again."

"In the past," former Dallas Cowboys running back Preston Pearson said, "most guys were taught not to do that type of thing. It's different today. I'm not sure if it's just the times or what. Guys use this type of conduct as another means of degrading their opponent. They don't want to just beat you; they want to beat your heart and soul."

Pearson, who also played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Colts, does not blame increasing examples of poor sportsmanship on parents. Beck says it is more likely a shift in value systems.


An athlete's need to express himself, he said, often takes precedence over principles.

"It comes from an 'I'm not OK' mindset," he said. "There's a need to rub it in. I'd like to go back to when these people were 5, 6, 7 years old. They were probably those types who did all the 'nyaaaah-nyah-nyah-nyaaaah-nyah.' "

Fear also may be a reason for players' sometimes belligerent actions, said Eugene Levitt, a psychologist working in the Indiana University School of Medicine. Levitt said an athlete may use noisy bravado to disguise a fear of what he doesn't know or understand.

"It's the same as a barking dog," he said. "He may be fearful of you, but he's barking because he wants to make you think he's angry."

As a UCLA linebacker in 1967-69, Lee McElroy remembers few outbursts of any kind by players on the field. The only college athlete McElroy recalls openly celebrating was the University of Houston's Elmo Wright.

"Tommy Prothro would not permit it," said McElroy, now the athletic director at Cal State-Sacramento. "He figured it said certain things about your program."


The NFL apparently shares that concern. The league's ban of excessive end zone celebrations has been challenged this season by players as well as the media. Proponents contend celebrations do no harm. What looks even sillier, they say, is an official studying a player's reaction to determine whether his end zone act has gone too far.

Detractors cite three objections: The celebrations are self-centered, not team-oriented; it only antagonizes the opponent; and it provides a poor model for younger athletes.

"I like what I heard a coach say once," said Dotson Lewis, #F executive director of the Southwest Officials Association. "He said, 'If you think it's the only touchdown you'll ever score, and you did it all alone, go ahead and celebrate.'"

To denigrate celebrations on the grounds of immodesty might seem little more than a condemnation of personal taste. One player's excessiveness is another's exuberance. Erickson defended his players, at least initially. He said they were not playing tennis, though their displays might have been customary in that sport, too.

A greater concern about taunting and baiting, Lewis said, is the poor example set for younger players. Lewis, whose organization provides officials for all University Interscholastic League events, said the examples are far more prevalent than they were 10 or even five years ago.

"You first really saw it on the pro level, and then it filtered down," he said. "Maybe it's just the 'in-your-face' attitude society has now."


The problem with an "in-your-face attitude," said Beck and UIL director Bailey Marshall, is that few high school players are mentally equipped to handle it.

Violence has increased at high school games, Marshall said. He attributes it to players reacting adversely to taunting. The problems have been particularly evident in football, basketball and soccer. The incidents have been reported so frequently in soccer, in fact, that the UIL is evaluating it this season. There remains a slight chance the UIL will drop its sanction of the sport.

At least seven UIL basketball games were halted at some point last year because of brawls, Marshall said. Four of the fights that broke out during football season were during the post-game handshakes.

"Every case evolved from some kid mouthing at another one, or (( someone thinking somebody's picking on him," Marshall said. "They don't react well when someone gets in their face. Then it deteriorates into an even worse situation."

The worst of those situations, he said, happened during a basketball game Dec. 20 in Baytown, Texas. With 22 seconds left in the third quarter, two players from Clear Lake and Baytown Lee became involved in a shoving incident. Words were exchanged. As soon as the first punch was thrown, the crowd joined in.

"Here came everybody else, and there was just a melee on the floor," said Marshall, who has watched videotapes of the incident. "It was just a brawl. People were swinging and hitting kids blindside, knocking them down, swinging from their hips. Luckily, some of the shots missed. It's amazing some youngsters weren't hurt for life.


"It was one of the worst things I've ever seen."

To conclude that efforts to stop taunting would end fights at sporting events is, of course, foolish. But Marshall does not discount any possible causes. In early December, he was so concerned about the question of sportsmanship that he sent letters to the state's professional sports organizations, officials of the Southwest and Southland conferences, and the eight SWC universities in Texas.

SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby responded favorably to Marshall's letter. He informed Marshall that the conference, in 1983, was one of the first in the country to enact a "sportsmanlike-conduct policy," which includes a definition of violations as well as penalties.

But a lack of sportsmanship on the part of student-athletes may be little more than a reflection of other influences. SWC basketball coaches complained recently that Baylor and Rice officials purposely seat students directly behind the visitors' bench. The intention is that visitors bear the brunt of the inherent verbal abuse.

Coaches use players to settle personal grudges, too. Before his team beat Texas Christian University by 20 points, Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson told his Razorbacks to not only beat TCU, but "beat their butts." The reference apparently was in retaliation for TCU coach Moe Iba's vote that Arkansas not be allowed to compete for the SWC title because of its impending departure for the Southeastern Conference.

The actions of coaches often send poor signals to student-athletes, said Dale Brown, LSU's basketball coach.


"The youngsters are a direct reflection of us," he said. "It's my generation's fault. It's our value systems that are shot. Ethics have not evaporated completely, but pretty close to it.

"It deteriorates each year. I guess the quest for victory has made it old-fashioned. People shut their eyes to it."

The question of whether sportsmanship is old-fashioned appears valid. A poll of Miami residents indicated they liked the style the Hurricanes exhibited in the Cotton Bowl, although their reaction might have been in defiance of the national uproar. Ali shocked Americans when he mocked opponents. But 20 years later, Sugar Ray Leonard was considered cute when he stuck out his chin against Roberto Duran.

Perhaps the shock value has worn off. Sports fans have come to expect gaudy displays from athletes. The player who flips the ball to an official after a touchdown is a rarity. Fans accept it because they know theatrical displays are not always an indication of an individual's character. Most are caught in the moment's euphoria. They generally are not willful perpetrators of injustice.

But even the innocent can go too far. The reaction to the Miami exhibition provoked a negative response from many, judging by talk shows and other media. Levitt says fans generally do not wish to identify with anyone "taking hostility out of its appropriate setting."

Neither does a normal fan identify with a braggart or bully. The reason, Levitt said, is because the American ideal is modesty. Winning is the first priority. But when victory is assured, whether it be a defensive lineman over his counterpart or a wide receiver over a defensive back, Americans generally prefer that the accomplishment speak for itself. As those small victories roll into a greater one, the less said the better.


"Muhammad Ali did a lot of talking, standing over you and saying, 'What's my name, what's my name?'" Pearson said. "When you were as good as Ali was, some people called it marketing. But ask the guys he beat how they felt about it."

The most important consideration in victory, then, should be for the beaten. Winning is a salve unto itself. Accepting a loss should be difficult. But many athletes seem to have more trouble conducting themselves properly in victory than they do in defeat.

College and high school administrators say the arena is intended as a classroom. In that figurative forum, a classmate certainly would not be allowed to ridicule another. Neither should student-athletes.

As Brown said, these complaints may sound like a throwback to another era. For once, so be it.

"If times change," Brown said, "ethics shouldn't."