Keep Me Out of the Ball Game

They used to joke that "I went to fight and a hockey game broke out." In the last few weeks, it seems like the fight comes before the sports in football and basketball and baseball as well. The whole culture of athletics needs someone with a whip and a chair to bring some order back to the scene.

Even before the 6-foot-7-inch brat known as Ron Artest of the Indiana Pacers started throwing punches at fans in Detroit, sports fights were breaking out all over. In mid-September, Texas Rangers relief pitcher Frank Francisco threw a metal chair into the audience, breaking a female fan's nose. The National Football League saw a fight break out between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers before the game even started. A college football game between South Carolina and Clemson the day after the Pacer-Piston melee devolved into punching and kicking. So we can't even take any comfort in the notion that the debacle in Detroit was just an isolated incident, just one nasty cocktail of too much fan-consumed beer and too much millionaire-athlete ego.

In the old days, parents could take their children out to the ball game for the excitement of sitting in the stands and rooting faithfully for their team. In addition, if they were lucky, they could tell their grandchildren that they watched Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or John Riggins play with their own eyes. Cal Ripken Jr. would faithfully sign autographs for fans, mainly children, in the parking lot after the Baltimore Orioles game was over. Athletes were urged to take their role seriously as role models and heroes for the young. They could argue that they shouldn't be - but they were. And they are.

Today, taking your son or daughter to a major sports event might require a helmet and earplugs. Too many players aspire to create gangsta images and cover themselves with tattoos, record nasty rap albums in their spare time, and push and kick a cameraman or two just to maintain that bad-boy image. Too many obnoxious fans use the game as their public soap box for reprehensible behavior, spending hours either taunting the opposing team with profanity-laced epithets, or screaming at their own players and coaches for ruining their behind-the-bench dreams of a championship. Parents fear even asking politely for a fan to tone down the gutter language in front of their children for fear of getting a fist in the face.

Too many college-game audiences love to chant the fuller form of "B.S." at referees, and when the game is nationally televised, all of Amreica has to put up with the profanities roared. Earlier this year, a pile of University of Maryland supporters showed up in "F- Duke" T-shirts. Sauced-up fans in the stands greeted Duke's J.J. Redick at the free-throw line with loud chants of "F- you." Many of these offenders are the college's own students. You'd think that university staff and alumni alike would discourage this kind of incivility. It hardly builds the image of a university as a place for high-minded civility and disinterested learning.

For its part, the NBA tried - finally - to send a message over the Pacer-Piston brawl. It might seem late after tolerating the Dennis Rodmans and Latrell Sprewells, but Ron Artest was banned for the season, and other players were also suspended without pay. The fans involved are also beginning to get punished for their role in the stupidity epidemic. These are good steps, although talk radio stations are blazing with callers who wanted Artest banned for life from the NBA. You can't get punishments harsh enough for many people, demonstrating the depth of public disgust for how low our athletic culture has sunk.

Despite the punishments, the damage has already been done, incident by incident, obscenity by obscenity, gangster athlete by gangster athlete. It's bad enough that it requires several hundred dollars to take the family out to a professional sports event. You're also stuck with the knowledge that your hard-earned cash is part of the reason the pro athletes behave like idiots. The high ticket prices give fans a greater sense of entitlement to scream and curse and taunt.

In the old days, Americans looked down their noses at foreign sports fans and their ridiculous behavior, causing melees and riots at soccer games. Today, we are the ones who are sinking in our seats and hiding our faces at what our fellow Americans consider a fine night at the stadium. It's enough to make one considering singing "keep me out of the ball game."