Putting Sports on Notice

The statistics regarding violence at school and other amateur sporting events have been cited regularly in the media — yet violence at those events continues unabated. A bench-clearing melee at a college football game on November 20, 2004, served as an exclamation point to the horrendous violence involving spectators and players at an NBA basketball game on November 19th. The television re-runs of the incident, and the action taken by the NBA against the offending players, speaks for itself. It is time for every parent, if not every prospective spectator of an organized athletic event, to consider the wisdom of attending contests that have become as much about the egos of the fans as about the players.

Professional athletes have a duty to their fans, particularly the young fans who try to emulate them in behaviors that go far beyond the skill sets for which they are admired. As a result, these athletes need to conform to a standard of conduct worthy of emulation. But it has become apparent that voluntary compliance with acceptable standards of behavior for any responsible adult (much less one in the public eye) has not been adopted by too many of our nation’s professional athletes.

Nor have we seen any willingness on the part of their employers to help them better understand the importance of adhering to basic codes of conduct. It is difficult to estimate the emotional and psychological impact of witnessing the kind of out- of-control violence on the millions of viewers who saw the NBA basketball contest in Detroit, but it is doubtful that anybody who has seen it can be unaffected by it. The fact that, as of this writing, there have been no reports of serious physical injuries can only be attributed to the shock and chaos surrounding the event — I cannot imagine any spectator on the receiving end of the wild punches thrown by large, well-conditioned athletes emerging intact. I suspect that, after the beer anesthetic wears off, signs of damage will appear.

Considering Liability
We are all aware — or should be — that the use of force with the intent to injure another is prohibited by statute in every jurisdiction in America, and that anyone violating the law is required to be held accountable. Most of us are similarly aware that negligently or intentionally causing physical harm to another is something of which civil law suits are made, and that the liability for harmful contact can be spread beyond the individual who throws the punch. Highly-paid players and the corporations that employ them are now, I am sure, considering their liability for damages that may yet flow from Friday night’s “game.”

By now it must come as no surprise that some professional athletes actually believe that, when assaulted verbally or by a projectile from the seats, they are permitted “to beat the hell out of the offending fan,” as was stated by a former NBA All-Star. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as there is no circumstance when an uninvited spectator can enter upon the field of play without paying a penalty (usually arrest), the rule applies in reverse for players who climb into the seats uninvited. Unfortunately, in both cases the resulting penalties have been too ineffective to accomplish the necessary deterrent effect.

In addition, when we do not extend penalties to all who knew of the risks of violence, had a duty to try to prevent it, and ignored that duty, we leave the door wide open to repeat violations and the likelihood of increased harm to spectators and players alike. The leagues and the facilities managers need to exercise their duty to provide reasonable security for all in attendance. In the same way, the teams and players need to exercise their duty to provide reasonable programs to rid sports events of intentional criminal violence. So far, neither group has performed reasonably in light of the foreseeable risks of violence, and both need to be held accountable for the damage that has resulted.

Organized athletics is not exempt from liability for either criminal or negligent conduct. Some more enlightened jurisdictions, usually as a result of seeing the effects of big league violence on Little League sports, have been aggressive in punishing violent athletes, fans, officials, and parents. Through the aggressive application of criminal and civil statutes, and the enforcement of existing anti-violence-in-sports statutes, participants, the organizations that sponsor and oversee events, the venues in which they are played, and the spectators who provoke violence are paying a price in suspensions, fines, and incarceration.

The Effect on Kids
Foul language, threats, and taunting, spurred on by alcohol and a pack mentality, have made both professional and amateur sporting events a risky proposition for families. The days when families would watch the local high school basketball or football game are already over in some communities, where violence during and after the game has caused liability-conscious school districts to ban spectators. Violence at college sporting events has caused many a parent to choose a less risky event on Parents’ Weekends. And the violence often instigated and participated in by parents and coaches at local hockey and baseball programs has caused millions of children to quit team sports altogether — largely because of the stress resulting from their being badgered to participate in unsportsmanlike conduct.

Yet despite repeated reports of violence in sports on all levels, there has been very little movement toward a nationwide effort to combat a problem which is ruining the dreams of youngsters. Our kids are being denied the opportunity to participate in the type of athletic competition where they can be recognized for their abilities, learn important lessons about sportsmanship and teamwork, and share in the educational opportunities and even economic rewards that come with sports excellence.

The apologists for those who are responsible for the violence at the Detroit NBA game have already taken to the airways. Promises of support for players who crossed the line into unacceptable violence have begun, even though none of the players has offered a word of remorse. The concern over lost revenue through diminished attendance at games has already trumped any sense of duty to the players and public that team owners may have felt. Once again the problem has degenerated to a matter of finger pointing rather than constructive planning.

Players and fans act as they do because they are subtly encouraged to do so. Bravado and violence is too-often bred into athletes from the time they enter organized sports. The use of elbows, knees, fists, and epithets are learned together with how to guard, slide, skate, and pitch. Kids are given lip-service about sportsmanship from coaches and parents while being encouraged to engage in name-calling from the bench, the dugout, the sidelines, and even the penalty box. Fans discuss the finer points of how to “brush back” a batter by throwing a leather-covered rock 97 miles per hour at his head, and are equally adept at provoking each other and players with words. Spurred on by peer pressure, alcohol, and a permissive environment, they regress to their days as super-star wannabes and challenge opposing fans and players to combat. That same early training which taught them disrespect for sportsmanship as children is manifested in adults who should know better.

Teaching Professional Discipline
Some teams and some players have a better record of maintaining control under the most challenging of circumstances. They exercise discipline and a professional demeanor in the most provocative situations. Through repeated lessons about who they are and what they represent, their pride and self-respect don’t allow them to act in a manner which brings shame upon themselves, their team, or their sport.

That pride and self-respect needs to be imbued in athletes on all levels — but it must start with those who are paid the big bucks. Like it or not, they are role models and are responsible for those who will follow. To ensure that professional athletes will keep open the paths that brought the benefits they enjoy to coming generations, the business side of professional sports needs to take the first steps. Team owners and general managers must require training in sportsmanship and responsibility for all members of their organizations. They must not only call for conduct about which the team and the public can be proud, they must enforce it.

To accomplish this, self-esteem and self-respect training must become part of a program to ensure that violence is not the first response to provocation. Athletes have long led by example, but too often that leadership has been destructive — because the example has been destructive. The time to reverse that trend is now, while we have everyone’s attention.

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