NEW YORK -- A lot of sports writers and commentators are trying to make the case of Latrell Sprewell a racial cause celebre. Especially since the celebrated black lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, is trying to rescue Mr. Sprewell, the black basketball player who attacked his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.
But this latest ugly episode in American sports has nothing to do with race. It is about the absence of law and order, due process and a single standard of justice in institutions that have been corrupted by greed and a desire to win at almost any cost.
The real rules
My initial reaction was that no punishment of Mr. Sprewell could be excessive, because punching one's coach is intolerable. Then I remembered some of the real rules of big-time athletics in America: Thou shalt not beat up an umpire or referee. But thou may, in the closing days of a pennant chase, spit upon him or her in moments of provocation if one is a superstar.
Roberto Alomar of the Baltimore Orioles spat on an umpire when his team seemed World Series bound and he was suspended for a few days. Mr. Sprewell choked Carlesimo when his team, the Golden State Warriors, is going to the dogs and Mr. Sprewell gets suspended for a year and the team unilaterally cancels his $32 million contract.
You don't have to condone Mr. Sprewell's thuggish behavior to ask how Messrs. Alomar and Sprewell could get such different punishments. Mr. Cochran is surely going to focus on the fact that organized sports have no system of due process and that punishment often is meted out according to a variety of prejudices and whims.
Another rule in American sports might read:
While thou may physically maim a girlfriend or beat up a wife and stay eligible to play, thou will get banished for punching an able-bodied coach.
That may sound absurd, but it is the reality of life in a system where almost anything goes for players who are so gifted that teams regard them as indispensable. One running back, Lawrence Phillips, who survived some atrocious behavior at the University of Nebraska, was recently thrown off the National Football League's St. Louis Rams, but still wound up with the Miami Dolphins and a chance to go to the Super Bowl. This kind of coddling is justified in the name of ''giving a second chance,'' but it is nothing more than letting the desire to win wipe out almost all standards of decent behavior.
A star system
This destructive behavior begins in high school, or even earlier, as star athletes take on the brattish attitude ''you can't win without me.'' It intensifies when high-schoolers are courted shamelessly by college coaches for whom recruiting is the key to winning and winning is essential to survival. The college kids are corrupted with under-the-table cash, cars and girls. Then the students are told to steer clear of gamblers and gambling, and most people pretend to be shocked when stories erupt of point-shaving and other detectable transgressions.
Do I expect the Sprewell case to become a catalyst for cleaning up these abominations? No, because deep at the heart of our culture there's only one name of the game: WIN!
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/16/97