Vulgarity not new in world of sports

Manners: Albert Belle's June 4 outburst was no surprise, but an Orioles owner's gesture of apology to an upset fan was.

July 17, 1999|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

This week's sports talk concerned some of those extravagant gestures fans love to discuss: A goal kicker tearing off her shirt in the thrill of the moment, a right-fielder making an equally passionate -- but obscene -- motion to heckling fans.

Perhaps most surprising of all was a gesture of apology: Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos attempting to make amends with a season ticketholder offended by Albert Belle's antics.

The fan wrote he was humiliated in front of his niece when Belle held up his middle finger and grabbed various lower parts of his anatomy during a June 4 game at Camden Yards. Not only did Angelos apologize on behalf of the ball club, but he also invited the offended fan and his family to watch a game in his box.

The folks who mind manners were also watching.

"I think Mr. Angelos's way of handling this was commendable," says P.M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project. "He is the owner of this business, and an employee of his was caught in a very un-professional kind of behavior. As the owner, he apologized and did something to redress that breach of good manners.

"Very often these breaches occur in an unthinking way, in the heat of the moment, under stress," Forni says. "Often they are not rooted in maliciousness or evil, but in thoughtlessness. But after that, the thinking process should take place.

"It's important when an athlete says `I'm sorry,' or the owner says `I'm sorry' on behalf of the company to restore the bond between player and fan," Forni says. "It takes intelligence, it takes courage, it takes heart. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do.

"We live in a society where we are not very amenable to accepting responsibility for our own actions; we prefer to shelter ourselves in a cocoon of excuses," Forni says.

"Having the strength of character to say `I made a mistake, I'm sorry,' is not only an important form of respect for others but also a form of self-respect."

Admitting guilt, however, does not signal a return to a more genteel and sportsmanlike past -- a world perhaps more imagined than real.

U.S. sports has a long tradition of rude and violent behavior from players and fans, sports historians note. Sportswriter Frank Deford has observed that sports in the "good old days" were generally racist and rude. Athletes were drunks and scoundrels who were frequently barred from respectable society; so were fans. Women and children were seldom seen, or welcome, at sporting events.

Now that athletes command multi-million-dollar contracts and games are family-room fare, players are expected to maintain G-rated standards. But television coverage hasn't succeeded at bleaching sports of its temper tantrums or boorish behavior.

Forni believes we wouldn't want it to.

"The normal rules of behavior do not seem to apply to athletes," he says. "As long as they deliver on the field, everybody is happy. ... We glamorize the non-conformist, we romanticize the figure of the maverick. The United States has made individualism almost a national article of belief. There are categories of people -- actors, singers, athletes and other people in the entertainment business -- from whom we tolerate, and almost expect, unconventional behavior."

Approval of unbridled individualism is embedded in American culture, he says.

"Think of the TV commercials that encourage viewers to break the rules, to make their own rules, to `Just do it' because it is the manly thing to do. This in-your-face culture is pervasive, and it is a concern because very often acts of rudeness can escalate into acts of violence."

The way they did on May 15, 1912 when baseball legend Ty Cobb leaped into the stand and attacked a heckling fan, punching him in the face, knocking him to the ground and kicking him.

The outfielder did not apologize to his victim, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was suspended from baseball indefinitely, a sentence that was reduced to 10 days after his Detroit Tigers teammates refused to play ball without him. They protested that Cobb was unjustly treated and said no player should ever have to suffer such verbal abuse without taking action.

"If players cannot have protection," they stated in an outraged telegram to the American League president, "we must protect ourselves."

The discussion continues.

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