Sportsmanship battle rages many grope for solutions

March 17, 1991|By Kevin Sherrington | Kevin Sherrington,Dallas Morning News

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."

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