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Violence rears its ugly head.

Last spring, for a record 24th time, the Montreal Canadiens raised the Stanley Cup in triumph. A couple of weeks later, the Chicago Bulls captured their third consecutive National Basketball Association championship. This sounds like cause for celebration. Instead, riots erupted north of the border and in America's heartland. What should have been a euphoric festival of cheering and hero-worship deteriorated into an ugly imitation of the Rodney King aftermath. Can the creeping, sickening ills infesting society be linked to the wonders of athletic competition? Apparently, there's no denying the fact: It's an angry (and so-sad) in-your-face universe that has been created, and the sports world gleefully has jumped into one of its primordial orbits.

Not that there is any conceivable justification for what happened in Montreal and Chicago, but the calculated mindlessness in these particular instances is hard to understand. These are not championship-starved cities ready to lurch out of control at the thought of a long-awaited crown. Les Habitants perenially are the toast of the hockey world. The Canadiens never have gone more than seven years without winning the Cup. Moreover, Montreal remains the only sports franchise in North America with at least one title in every decade since the 1910s. The Bulls, meanwhile, led by the All-World Michael Jordan, practically rewrite the record books every time they take the floor. How does so much talent and good fortune end up causing a three-ring circus of looting, vandalism, and brutality in the streets?

Why have shaking fists replaced shaking hands? How could bashing heads be preferred to feting one's favorite team? The answer, at least in part, is found on the field. Basketball players routinely are hailed for their boorish habit of breaking backboards and bending rims with flamboyant "look-what-I-can-do" slam dunks. In between, there's enough trash-talking and gutless gesturing to fill a skid row bar. In football, the vanquished ball carrier or receiver routinely is humiliated by the tackler with both verbal and physical taunts. On the diamond, meanwhile, there's a new joke making the rounds: "I went to a baseball game and a hockey game broke out." Only it's no joke. The beanball wars are on, and so is the endless assault on sportsmanship's sensibilities.

Yet, no matter how vicious the violence, the only reaction elicited seems to be "Ho-hum." For one thing, the individuals running sports don't think there is a problem or, perhaps more accurately, just won't admit it. After all, the marketing spin doctors have to sell tickets and television rites. For instance, NBA Commissioner David Stern - who remains in a complete state of denial concerning Michael Jordan's enormous gambling debts and how those huge monetary losses could compromise and connect the league with underworld racketeers - actually told NBC's Bob Costas "that he doesn't think trash-talking inspires violence in NBA games," wrote New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick. "That's absurd," Mushnick maintained. "Of course it does. Just listen to the players' explanations for throwing punches - they speak frequently of being |dissed' or disrespected by their opponent before finally lashing out. Violent reaction to verbal abuse is in humans' nature, so why would Stern's NBA be immune?"

Of course, when these unfortunate incidents arise, there's a tendency to yearn for the good old days, but how good were they really? Before the turn of the century, hockey was played outdoors on frozen lakes and ponds. There were no boards, and patrons would rim the ice surface while rooting on the home team. It was common practice then for the host club purposely to send the puck skidding into the crowd, in the hopes that an opposing player would give chase. He then would be dragged into the partisan mob and roughed up before being tossed back on the ice to try to continue play with his freshly induced injuries.

When hockey finally did make its way to indoor arenas, fans often taunted and spit on the players, and the athletes responded by climbing into the seats with eyes ablaze and sticks swinging. Until the late 1970s, these scenes were met with a shrug and a business-as-usual attitude by the hockey hierarchy.

Baseball's past hardly is free from such unsavory behavior, either. More than one fan was beaten (and even shot) during the days of the Brooklyn Dodgers-new York Giants rivalry. Then there's that renowned shot of the Polo Grounds in the aftermath of the famous one-game playoff in which the visiting Chicago Cubs beat the Giants to win the 1908 National League pennant, as thousands of angry fans stormed the field and the surrounding neighborhoods, wreaking havoc and bloodshed.

Fast-forwarding to modern times, there was the case last spring of the man who jumped out of the stands and stabbed teenage tennis sensation Monica Seles in the back. The fan, a German, was distraught because Seles, a Czechoslovakian, had dethroned Steffi Graff, a fellow German, as the No. I women's player in the world. It would appear to be impossible to subdue that kind of twisted mentality.

The escape, as silly and flip as it sounds, is to root for a loser. Just ask New York Mets followers. Scattered attendance, uncongested access roads, suddenly spacious parking lots - all wonderful byproducts of a bemusing last-place team - make for a pleasant ambiance at the ballpark. The tension inherent in a loaded stadium brimming with drunken, foul-mouthed beasts is nowhere to be found. Instead, child-filled families are everywhere, enjoying a low-key game replete with all the trimmings: convenient seating and as many hot dogs, ice cream cones, and cups of soda that parents can afford.

Yes, it's come to this: Cellar-dwelling is the best, and safest, way to see sporting events.
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Title Annotation:violence in sports
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Authors, publishers, and the McCarthy era: a hidden history.
Next Article:Healing and the Mind.

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