WITHOUT GIVING AWAY any of the plot points, or at least any more than have already been given away in commercials and trailers, there's an amusing moment in the movie Coach Carter that pretty much illuminates the dilemma facing today's high school coach.
After a win in the previous night's game, the Richmond (Calif.) High boys basketball team is delighting in its performance. Carter, as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, mocks his players by celebrating the plays they run in practice and for his success in tying his shoes.
Carter uses the joke of his reveling in the menial to make the point to his athletes that humility and good sportsmanship are as vital to the game as the performance itself.
In the real world, that lesson is getting increasingly lost, as the incidents of taunting and preening increase seemingly exponentially. Almost every goal, every touchdown, every dunk nowadays seems to come with a celebration choreographed right out of a Grammy Award dance number.
In the most recent Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association newsletter, director Ned Sparks noted that during the fall championships "a volatile environment exists just below the surface of many contests."
Sparks says while, as he calls them, the "usual suspects" - namely, sportsmanship, crowd management and fans - are partly to blame for this new environment, he points the finger at "the notion that people don't know how to win."
"When people demonstratively pump their fists, motion to the opposing crowd or perform demonstration dances, they rub salt into their opponents' wounds," writes Sparks, who suggests that coaches teach their kids not only how to win but how to act when they do win.
Sparks is right, of course. But the problem goes far beyond what beleaguered coaches can do, though they clearly have a role to play. Any time a student-athlete strikes a pose after a score or jaws an official and isn't immediately corrected is a lost opportunity to correct an act that almost certainly will be repeated.
At the recent Basketball Academy session, a center from the Theodore Roosevelt girls basketball team of Washington blocked a shot by a City player in the second quarter, then proceeded to get in her opponent's face to make her aware of what had happened.
The referee quickly and wisely hit the Roosevelt player with a technical foul, but the Roosevelt coach waited until the player got her third foul before yanking her, rather than immediately taking her out of the game.
The obvious bogeyman for our troubles is the media, and our constant hashing and rehashing of events, or haven't you seen Randy Moss' mock mooning about 100 times by now?
Go ahead and blame the SportsCenter culture if you want. It, and all of us on this end that let hype and highlights drive us, have much to answer for in the coarsening of the sports society.
And it can't help that so much of the attention we lavish is on kids such as Michelle Wie and LeBron James and Freddy Adu, who get a world of notice before they've even made dates for the prom. What kid can watch that and not want a piece of it?
And let's not forget video games. Whose bright idea was it to allow players to have the ability to program taunting into their Xboxes and PlayStations? My Thanksgiving dinner was nearly ruined when two of my great-nephews gleefully reported that they had not only endowed their characters with maximum playing ability, but also with the maximum "skill" to make fun of the opposition.
While the media is an obvious target, the evils seen on playing fields and on courts began long before television started replaying them and the newspapers chronicled them.
Nope, this stuff starts on T-ball fields, rec league basketball courts and Pop Warner football fields and is a problem before the high school coach ever has to deal with it. Indeed, my aforementioned great-nephews, who are 8 and 12, said they had acted out this taunting in their own games with the permission of their coaches, and even worse, the tacit approval of their parents.
Frankly, there's the problem. Far too many parents and adults turn a blind eye to the finger-wagging and posing, as well as deaf ears to the jaw-jacking that goes on at games, because their kids are in a superior position.
But that's the great thing about sports. Things have a way of evening out, and the ones who do the taunting today eventually get a finger poked in their faces. More often than not, they are ill-prepared to deal with the finger, and that's the best irony of all.