- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Washington Nationals made a little news Friday before the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons and some crazed basketball fans made bigger news.

The Nats acquired Jose Guillen from Anaheim. Guillen is a talented outfielder who was kicked off the Angels during the height of the division race in September because of repeated temper tantrums. The final straw was Guillen going ballistic after getting lifted for a pinch-runner. However, Nats general manager Jim Bowden reported all is well because Guillen has since attended anger management classes.

That’s a coincidence. So did Indiana’s Ron Artest, who was suspended for the rest of the NBA season after touching off the riot during the Pacers-Pistons game in Auburn Hills outside Detroit. Then again, maybe Artest misunderstood and went to see the Adam Sandler movie “Anger Management” instead of a counselor.

But is it a coincidence, really? Artest and Guillen are hardly the only athletes whose emotions have lately prevailed over reason. There used to be a TV show called “Mad About You,” a good-natured sitcom about a married couple. Forget that. These are different, testier times. We have a new show now: “Mad About Everything.” It’s about athletes who freak out on the field and in the arena, in the dugout and the bullpen, even on the racing oval.

The big rage in sports these days is rage.

“It’s almost as if anyone can express anything they feel at any time in any way,” sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman said.

That also would apply to fans, one of whom threw an ice-filled cup at Artest to start the whole thing. Others threw beer, punches, a chair, anything portable. Some ran on the floor to confront the players. Emboldened by alcohol, perhaps resentful of athletes’ salaries, steeped in an environment where interaction is required of every experience, fans are getting increasingly carried away.

“In the past 10 years there has been a greater intensity in confrontational language between fans and players,” former NBA coach George Karl wrote on ESPN.com. But as NBA commissioner David Stern noted in handing out the suspensions, players are held to a higher standard.

Many athletes can’t or won’t handle the responsibility. Artest and the other suspended players have lots of company. Richard Lapchick, founder and former director of the Center for the Study of Sports and Society, once served on a national commission “and one of the focuses was the decline of civility and the lack of control and increased violence in society,” he said. “It was inevitable that what was going on in society also becomes part of an athlete’s culture.”

Less than 24 hours after the Pandemonium at the Palace, some college football players had a cultural experience. In the final regular-season game of Lou Holtz’s long and distinguished coaching career, his South Carolina team mixed it up with Clemson in a 10-minute fracas on the field. Don’t blame the fans for this one. Some might have been drunk and disorderly, but none was near the action. On Monday, both programs rejected potential bowl bids because of the brawl.

Before Artest and Co. grabbed hold of the news cycles, the big story was Terrell Owens’ burlesque routine on “Monday Night Football.” In an indignant response, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney last week wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece that he was “disgusted” while noting, “Overall, we have a tremendous group of young men representing our teams on the field and in our communities.”

Rooney also wrote, “We represent achievement and excellence based on performance, not on extraneous outside personal factors.”

The previous Sunday, one of Rooney’s tremendous young men, linebacker Joey Porter, let an extraneous outside personal factor get the best of him by fighting with Cleveland running back William Green during pregame warmups. Porter was ejected, along with Green (who spit at Porter), negating any chance to achieve and prove his excellence through performance.

And speaking of spitting, Cincinnati’s T.J. Houshmandzadeh that day accused the Washington Redskins’ Sean Taylor of doing the same thing, although an NFL investigation did not uncover any evidence.

Taken individually, none of this is new. Latrell Sprewell chokes a coach here, Charles Barkley spits at a fan there. In 1995, the Rockets’ Vernon Maxwell drew a 10-game suspension for attacking a fan in Portland. Many expressing their horror-disgust-revulsion over the Artest episode overlook that the most violent act on an NBA floor occurred in 1977, when Kermit Washington’s blind-side punch crumpled Rudy Tomjanovich’s face and nearly killed him. In the NHL, back when there was an NHL, several players have gone after fans.

But these were scattered incidents. What’s going on now is one big angst-fest, a mass meltdown. And a guy thing, according to sports sociologist Don Sabo.

“I’ve been preaching for years that masculinity is part of the problem,” he said. “The more the macho image reigns supreme, the more you’re apt to see this kind of behavior.”

The testosterone was gushing like an oil well during Game 3 of the 2003 American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, during which a major brawl erupted. It started when the Red Sox’s Manny Ramirez charged the mound after a Roger Clemens pitch came nowhere close to hitting him. Ramirez was simply angry, spoiling for a fight. In the ninth inning of that game, two Yankees players fought with a Red Sox groundskeeper in the bullpen.

During this past baseball season, Guillen wasn’t the only one to lose it. Milton Bradley of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Frank Francisco of the Texas Rangers each went bonkers during a game. Bradley picked up a plastic bottle someone threw at him and hurled it at some unoccupied seats. He didn’t strike anybody but still drew a five-game suspension.

Francisco’s actions were worse. Responding to Oakland fans hurling insults at the Texas bullpen, Francisco picked up a chair and threw it into the crowd, breaking a woman’s nose. Misdemeanor assault charges are pending. Like Artest, Francisco was suspended for the rest of the season.

Oakland fans are more than a bit off-kilter (the Rangers’ Carl Everett was struck by a cell phone there in 2003), and the stuff coming from the seats reportedly was shocking even to players who have heard it all. But was such behavior any worse than the abuse heaped upon black athletes in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s (and beyond)? Routinely showered with vile insults and objects, they kept their cool and their dignity and took their frustrations out on their opponents. Francisco chose to throw a chair.

If a player’s biggest enemy is himself, then pitchers Kevin Brown and Julian Tavarez really taught their foes a lesson. Furious after getting knocked around during a game, the Yankees’ Brown came out and punched a wall, breaking his hand. Tavarez, pitching during the postseason for the St. Louis Cardinals, duplicated Brown’s tantrum, breaking his hand when he punched a dugout telephone after getting lifted.

NASCAR races have been marred by fights between drivers and pit members. But the most potentially dangerous display of anger occurred during a race in September, when driver Robby Gordon intentionally caused an accident.

Gordon was irked over Greg Biffle causing him to spin. Road rage anyone? Gordon retaliated by wrecking Biffle’s car, taking out innocent drivers Tony Stewart and Jeremy Mayfield in the process. Amazingly, Gordon, who after the race directed an obscene gesture toward a reporter, was only penalized two laps for an action that might have killed someone.

It might be a platitude to say that sports reflects society, “but it’s true,” Dorfman said. “There has been a lack of restraint. … You turn on the television, and you hear language you’ve never heard before. You see scenes both violent and sexual you’ve never seen before.”

Said Lapchick: “We act things out with violence, with abrasiveness, with a lack of civility in ways we wouldn’t have dreamt of before.”

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