Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2004 / 19 Kislev, 5765

Robert Robb

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Sportsmanship? What's that? | Given the oversized role of sports in American culture, the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl was bound to become a national Rorschach test. This disproportionate absorption of the nation's time and resources is sometimes justified by the assertion that sports develop character.

In some youth leagues, that's probably still the case, where there is a coach who tries to make it so and a critical mass of parents who refrain from acting as their child's manager or agent.

But, interestingly, the character-building attribute of sports seems to dissipate as the skill level progresses.

While there are many admirable professional and college athletes, it would be hard to make the case that, as a class, they exhibit superior character. An alternative rationale is that sports reveal character. But even this seems increasingly doubtful.

I suspect that boorish fans and athletes actually tend to behave better outside of sports than when watching or participating in them.

Sports have become, to a remarkable degree, a release for anti-social behavior, particularly for young males. Spectators and athletes alike tend to indulge in and rationalize behavior that, outside of sports, they would recognize as reprehensible.

In the wake of the Pacers-Pistons melee, NBA Commissioner David Stern said he would try to enforce a higher standard of conduct among players and forge a new social compact with fans.

That's an admirable endeavor. But it will have to overcome the phenomenon Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified in a 1993 essay as "defining deviancy down."

Moynihan's thesis was that a social organization could regulate only so much deviation from behavioral norms. If deviancy began to exceed that capacity, the organization would change the standard, accepting behavior previously found objectionable.

Donate to JWR

Moynihan was referring to the acceptance of levels of criminal violence that in previous eras would have been shocking — much more serious stuff than sports. But his observation helps explain what's been happening in sports, on the field and in the stands.

Profane language has always been part of sports. But relatively private expression has become a public cheer, as crowds frequently respond to what they perceive as poor officiating with a unison chant of "bull____!"

Booing is now regarded as a fan prerogative. But what moral or ethical standard deems booing an appropriate way to show disappointment in your team's performance or contempt for the other team? For that matter, what moral or ethical standard approves showing contempt for the opposition in an athletic contest in the first place?

It used to be the norm in basketball that if you knocked someone down, you helped him back up and asked whether he was OK. Now that's regarded as weakness.

That minor erosion of sportsmanship transgresses rather easily into trash-talking, taunting and in-your-face celebrations.

I doubt that there's a scintilla of evidence that a callous disregard or contempt for your opponent enhances athletic performance. Yet it has become the norm.

Flopping — deceiving an official into believing that a foul has been committed when it hasn't — is now a valued basketball skill and actually taught.

Even the rules of the game have defined deviancy down. Largely ignored in the finger-pointing following the Pacers-Pistons brawl was the actual triggering cause: NBA rules that provide incentives for hard fouls to the body.

Ron Artest may have violated a social norm because of when he put a hard foul on Ben Wallace, way behind with little time left in the game. But such hard fouls are not only acceptable, in most circumstances they are regarded as compulsory.

In a NBA playoff game, the homicide squad will be called out before a cut to the basket will decide the outcome.

From a marketing perspective, the lax enforcement of the rules during playoffs has always perplexed me. When the NBA has its largest audience, it puts on its worst show. And officials determine outcomes as much by not calling fouls as by calling them.

But from the standpoint of regulating player behavior, providing incentives for hard fouls will inevitably lead to confrontations. Which begins the process of defining deviancy down.

This may seem like a lot of prissy moralizing. For many sports fans, attitude is what gives the game its edge, its excitement.

But Moynihan's lesson is that if you don't want beer thrown on players or players fighting in the stands, you have to draw the line well short of the behavior you seek to avoid.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


11/22/04: Tax reform limited by, uh ... tax reform
11/14/04: Empowerment agenda reality check
10/13/04: And what tax rate should Americans making over $200,000 a year pay? Some pre-debate advice for the President
09/24/04: Too many of the wrong people have too much ability to influence public opinion too quickly?
09/20/04: Kerry asks good question about security costs
09/07/04: Right city, right message
08/30/04: Bush's key task: His reinvention as a true uniter
08/20/04: Bush's burdening the Middle Class
08/13/04: For prez to win, he must change his campaigning style
08/03/04: Missing in Beantown was a sense of the art of the possible
07/26/04: Kerry inflated agenda reveals he's failed to truly make the transition from legislator to presidential candidate
07/12/04: Edwards punctuates Kerry fantasies
07/06/04: Kerry ups the ante in bid for Latino vote
06/30/04: High Court gave administration limits
06/25/04: Parallel (political) universes
06/21/04: Al-Qaida-Iraq interaction strengthens case for war
06/02/04: Gas whiners don't believe in or trust markets
05/10/04: Border reforms fail on black-market issue
05/07/04: It wasn't Bush's recession nor Bush's recovery
04/28/04: Arizona to become test market on immigration as a political issue
04/23/04: Accusations that the Bush administration has been shredding civil liberties are hyperbolic
04/16/04: Learning the limits
04/14/04: Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

© 2004, The Arizona Republic