Sports civility appears to be fading

STARKVILLE. Miss. - Saturday afternoon fading to Saturday evening, the Mississippi State cowbells began ringing in advance of the Bulldogs' Southeastern Conference football game against visiting Tennessee.

Thirty-five years ago the SEC viewed such noisemakers as an unfair advantage for the Bulldogs and a possible example of poor sportsmanship.

In 2010, however, the league lifted the ban on MSU's cowbells because of their long history with the school.

"It means a lot to our fans," said Jim Ellis, the radio voice of the Bulldogs. "And I think they're mindful of the SEC's guidelines for ringing them. I think they try to adhere to the rules."

Yet if the unnerving power of the cowbells may have been worth revisiting, the impact of sportsmanship in general has taken quite a hit the past couple of weeks.

For one example, there were all those Atlanta Braves baseball fans pelting the Turner Field playing surface on Oct. 5 with everything from plastic water bottles to half-full beer cans because of a highly questionable "infield fly" call in their season-ending, wild-card playoff game loss to St. Louis.

A little more than 24 hours later, following their team's 35-7 loss at South Carolina, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and linebacker Christian Robinson returned home to find their house "egged and rolled," according to Robinson.

Added the senior on his Twitter account: "Seems that people turn on you when you're not perfect. Thought we were in this together."

If Kansas City quarterback Matt Cassel thought he and the Chiefs fans were in it together before last Sunday, he knows better now. As the struggling Cassel lay on the Arrowhead Stadium turf after suffering a concussion, at least several thousand KC fans began to cheer, happy to see his day come to an end.

"You might expect that in Philadelphia," said McCallie School and Georgia Tech grad Ellis Gardner, who played for the Chiefs in 1983. "But not in Kansas City. Every player on every play in the NFL is exposed to injury. For the fans to react without class and cheer someone getting hurt is unconscionable."

Added current Chief Eric Winston in an interview with ESPN: "We are not gladiators and this is not the Roman Coliseum. This is a game. ... We've got a lot of problems as a society if people think that's OK."

There are clearly a lot of problems in our society, most of them far more important than a few thrown bottles and obscene words. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about it or attempt to correct it, especially when such bitterness is aimed at college kids rather than highly paid professionals.

"We use the cliché that sports is a microcosm of society," said Dr. Roger Brown, who just retired as chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "We've been losing a sense of civility for years in our everyday lives, and it appears it's happened in sports, as well."

Along with his athletic director, Dr. Brown met with his coaches and athletic department personnel every August to discuss the importance of sportsmanship.

"Maybe we should have had those meetings with the students and fans, too," said Brown, who more than once ventured into the school's student section to halt vulgar cheers.

"When you come to a college game as a fan, you represent your school. In some of these cases, fans are acting like goons. People need to behave with some dignity."

The Southeastern Conference long ago took a financial stance on at least one form of bad and potentially dangerous fan behavior -- storming the field or court.

The first offense cost the individual host school $5,000, the second $25,000 and the third $50,000. Once you hit the $50,000 mark, any subsequent offense in a three-year period results in another $50,000 fan. But even if you go three years without a charge, it never drops back to $5,000. The next offense would be $25,000.

"The SEC is committed to making game-day atmosphere as fun and safe as possible," league commissioner Mike Slive said Saturday. "[We] have implemented policies that reinforce this commitment. When fans come to our campuses, they are visiting academic institutions as well as athletic venues, and our schools realize the importance of creating a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all their fans."

But is it really getting worse? We seem like a more crude and vulgar society today, less reluctant to spew profanity than in the past. Or have 24-hour media cycles and the Internet merely made isolated incidents seem commonplace?

"I think maybe because of today's media you know about it quicker, but there have always been bad fans," Gardner said. "I'm sure the Golden Age of the NFL, I'm sure those guys have stories. And when you buy a ticket you have the license to criticize. But when you start cheering an injury, you've crossed the line."

Dr. Murray Sperber, one of the nation's leading critics of college athletic culture, agrees.

The author of such highly acclaimed sports books as "Beer and Circus: How Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education" and "Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football," the 71-year-old Sperber noted in an email on Friday afternoon:

"The behavior by fans that you cite is reprehensible, but it is not new. A World Series game in 1934 had to be stopped because Detroit fans pelted the Cardinals' Joe Medwick with a huge amount of garbage. ... (There was also] a famous riot in Montreal after Rocket Richard got suspended.

"The more I think about history, the more I can see that this is nothing new. In some future article in some future media form that you and I can't imagine, a writer will quote someone about some recent deplorable fan conduct in Rollerball or some other future sport. As the French say, 'Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose (The more it changes, the more it stays the same)."

Indeed, when University of Tennessee Police Department deputy chief Jeff Severs was asked last week if he had seen a decline in the decorum of Volunteers fans in recent years, he said, "Fan behavior has been fairly consistent over my past 20 years at UT."

Severs meant that as a compliment to the Big Orange Nation, but Dr. Sperber also is right that poor sportsmanship has been around for 50 years or longer.

Dr. Brown remembers Tennessee fans throwing oranges at former football coach and future athletic director Doug Dickey after he left the Vols for Florida at the close of the 1969 season. In 1964, legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant wore a football helmet onto Georgia Tech's Grant Field, partly because angry Tech fans had thrown liquor bottles at several Crimson Tide players in 1962 as retaliation for a vicious hit by a Bama player that severely injured a Tech player.

And even though there were no incidents last November in Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium after the Wildcats snapped a 26-game losing streak against Tennessee, Vols defensive back Prentiss Waggner said, "That's the most nervous I've been" when Big Blue fans stormed the field after the game, thus earning their second $50,000 fan from the SEC in five years.

If there is a silver lining in any of this, it may come from the way Georgia's Robinson responded to the egging of his home.

"Still get to be a hero this morning to little kids at Athens Church," he tweeted. "There are more important things in life than wins and losses."

Though his tongue was somewhat planted in his cheek as he said it, retiring Braves third baseman Chipper Jones also saw a bright spot in the unrest at Turner Field.

Said Jones after the final game of his certain Hall of Fame career: "You won't be able to say that Braves fans don't care."

It's what to do when they care too much that sports must worry about in the future.

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