Snap decisions

Over the years, many athletes and coaches have been tarnished by spur-of-the-moment incidents that prove unforgettable - and sometimes unforgivable.

April 26, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

He coached in a small-time league, and the incident happened in an out-of-the-way town, so Blast coach Tim Wittman did not find his name splashed about like those of Kermit Washington, Woody Hayes or Mike Tyson.

But the details of his predicament seemed so familiar.

A fierce competitor believes poor officiating, a violent opponent or a hostile crowd stand in his way. His quick decisions have almost always been good ones. But now, frustration takes over, his judgment lapses and he does something he can't take back. No one ever forgets.

It happened when Washington decked Rudy Tomjanovich in the midst of an NBA game. It happened when Hayes struck a Clemson football player as a bowl game slipped away from his beloved Ohio State. It happened when Tyson, feeling that Evander Holyfield was roughing him and realizing he could not win, bit a chunk from his opponent's ear.

It has happened to Juan Marichal, Bob Knight, John McEnroe, Roberto Alomar, Latrell Sprewell and Ron Artest. Last month, it happened to Wittman, 42, who admitted shoving one soccer official to the ground and choking another after his team's 8-6 loss to the California Cougars.

While the Blast is preparing for this weekend's Major Indoor Soccer League finals against the St. Louis Steamers, Wittman has been suspended for the next two seasons and fined an undisclosed amount, and he still faces charges in Stockton, Calif., after Monday's continuance.

Wittman, a Blast Hall of Fame player and a Calvert Hall graduate, was always known as a tough, wild competitor. He once told off owner Ed Hale and got himself traded to San Diego. When he returned to Baltimore with his new team, he taunted the crowd. But he had never been involved in anything like the fracas in Stockton.

Like most sports figures who've snapped, the coach explained his actions rationally.

"I shoved him, and he falls to the ground," he told The Sun. "I know I shouldn't have done that. I went over to where he fell on the ground, and then everything broke loose. People were grabbing and pushing me into the penalty box, this guy grabbed me around the shirt and was pushing me against the glass, and I choked him to [defend] myself ... as he was holding me up against the glass."

But it doesn't matter that such moments may not reflect a player or coach's career, say those who've watched past cases.

"It's a public act," said author John Feinstein, who has written about Washington, Knight and McEnroe. "And tapes don't go away."

Nor should the blowups be forgotten, many argue.

"Oh, sure, there are any number of examples where the incident is not reflective of that person's nature off the court," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "But having said that, it's irrelevant. You have to prepare yourself and know that reacting that way is not an option."

Moral judgments aside, might the occasional spitting, choking and ear biting be inevitable byproducts of a world built on split-second decision-making?

"There are times when an athlete will describe going into a zone of optimal performance where they stop thinking and just react," said Eric Morse, a sports psychologist who works with University of Maryland athletes. "When they get into a zone like that and someone does something to trigger a reaction, it's not really thought out."

Klein Associates is an Ohio-based company that researches rapid decision-making by experts. In considering Wittman's situation, Klein executive Steve Gabbard noted that the coach is an expert at making soccer decisions but may not be expert at dealing with chaotic situations in which he feels threatened.

So at the moment when a melee ensued, Wittman may have been no different than any guy in a bar fight, said Gabbard, who also referees amateur soccer.

"The actions in those two domains require completely different skill bases," he said.

Feinstein said it's incorrect to lump these incidents together.

McEnroe and Knight had learned they could abuse officials with limited consequences. So when McEnroe berated an umpire and was disqualified from the 1990 Australian Open, "it was the culmination of years and years of walking right up to the line and thinking he could get away with it," Feinstein said. "He finally found the line he couldn't cross."

Washington, conversely, was a gentle man who had rarely pushed boundaries of conduct.

"I hesitate to call it an accident," Feinstein said of Washington's fearsome punch. "But it was so sudden."

The past is prelude

Some cases - those of Hayes, Knight and Tyson - inspired less shock because they seemed to confirm expectations of those volatile figures.

Knight's Hoosiers had fallen 10 down to Purdue in the first half of a 1985 game. A referee called a foul Knight didn't like and then called a technical on the outraged coach. As a Purdue player stepped to the foul line, Knight acted.

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