Punishment everyone can understand

December 06, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

Two different sports, two different attacks on authorit figures.

The American League suspended Oriole Roberto Alomar for five games for spitting in the face of umpire John Hirschbeck.

The NBA suspended Latrell Sprewell for one year for choking and threatening to kill his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.

On the list of sporting atrocities, Alomar's actions might have been less offensive than Sprewell's.

But that much less?

Sorry, don't think so.

The difference is, NBA commissioner David Stern decided enough was enough, more than a year after baseball blew the chance to make a similar stand.

Stern is not blameless in all this -- the NBA created the Sprewell monster with a depraved star system in which even high school kids are paid kings' ransoms.

But at least Stern recognized that fans are tired of the spoiled babies who pollute every sport, tired of the druggies and drunks, tired of the rebels without a clue.

Baseball? Forget it.

Baseball not only lacks a true commissioner, but also the centralized authority enabling a commissioner to make such decisions.

It was American League president Gene Budig who issued the Alomar penalty -- and he mishandled it so badly, he made a bad situation worse.

Alomar's suspension was outrageous because it was too lenient, and because it did not take effect until the following season.

A true commissioner might have worked more closely with Budig to reach a proper decision, saving his sport embarrassment.

Yes, Alomar apologized. And Sprewell, giving new meaning to the term "choking dog," committed an actual physical assault.

Still, the parallels are unmistakable.

Carlesimo, playing the role of Hirschbeck, is not exactly an innocent. He provoked Sprewell, provoked him with his big mouth.

Then there is San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, playing the role of Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

Brown, who once called former 49ers quarterback Elvis Grbac "an embarrassment to humankind," said that Carlesimo may have "deserved choking."

Angelos never went so far as to say that Hirschbeck deserved to be spit on, but he did call Alomar's reaction "understandable."

Two sports, two acts of inexcusable misconduct.

And one appropriate penalty.

Stern wasn't scared of Sprewell's agent, wasn't scared of his union, wasn't scared of the protracted legal battle that is certain to follow.

Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, called the punishment "excessive and unreasonable."

Sprewell's agent, Arn Tellem, said, "It is totally excessive and outside the bounds of any precedent in team sports history."

Perhaps it was, considering that Stern's act followed the Warriors' decision to terminate Sprewell and void the remaining $25 million on his contract.

But who cares?

Sprewell's actions were so loathsome, it's ridiculous that Mayor Brown is asking Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP to investigate.

You choke your boss, you're gone.

Black or white, everyone should understand that.

Stern and the Warriors can stand comfortably behind the Uniform Player Contract, which states that players must "conform to standards of good citizenship and good moral character."

No one in baseball was smart enough or brave enough to take such an unprecedented step with Alomar. No one challenged Donald Fehr, head of the players' union, to defend the indefensible.

Stern's message is just the opposite.

If you want to defend this creep, he's saying, be my guest.

Still, just as Carlesimo has been exposed as a loudmouthed bully, Stern could be exposed as an grandstanding opportunist if he stops now.

Let's see the Commish pull the plug as severely on Dennis Rodman or even Charles Barkley the next time one of them behaves like a juvenile.

And more important, let's see him work with the players' union to establish a new drug policy that is in touch with reality.

The New York Times recently reported that between 60 and 70 percent of the 350 NBA players smoke marijuana and drink excessively.

Yet, the NBA does not test for marijuana as a prohibited substance, and cannot test for cocaine and heroin except under rare circumstances.

Huh?

If Stern wants to remain the most effective leader in sports, he needs to keep leading.

A recent poll showed that three of four adults are very or somewhat uncomfortable buying a ticket to watch a sports celebrity who has a criminal record.

Everyone is fed up.

Fed up with criminals like Bam Morris. Fed up with punks like Michael Westbrook. Fed up with excuse-makers like Alomar.

What was it Stern said on Thursday?

"A sports league does not have to condone or accept behavior that would not be tolerated in any other segment of society."

Let that serve as a mission statement, not just for the NBA, but all of professional sports.

Pub Date: 12/06/97

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