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Sports-violence Link Highlighted in Hockey Case

By Douglas E. Abrams 


A Vancouver court sent a powerful message last month when it
convicted the Boston Bruins' Marty McSorley of a vicious assault in a
National Hockey League game in February. Losing 5-2 with three seconds
remaining, McSorley skated up from behind, reached back and swung his stick
like a club at the skull of Donald Brashear of the Vancouver Canucks. The
blindsided Brashear fell back from the two-handed blow, hit his head on the
ice and was carried off on a stretcher, unconscious with his neck in a brace
and blood flowing from his nose. Brashear suffered a severe concussion and,
according to one player, was "lucky to be alive."

McSorley's assault conviction is a wake-up call because brawling and
other professional sports hooliganism have created a culture of athletic
violence staining our social fabric. Violence in pro sports was once largely
local, seen by only the few thousand fans at the game and forgotten with
yesterday's newspaper. Network and cable television, however, enable
millions of Americans to see the violence replayed
incessantly, as the McSorley mugging was.

Among the most impressionable viewers are children, with frequently
tragic results. In schools and youth leagues each week, youngsters suffer
serious injuries caused by opponents imitating tactics taught by televised
professional sports. To help cure this epidemic of youth-sports
violence, prosecutors should follow Vancouver's lead and charge professional
athletes for brawls and other violence clearly outside the rules of play.

Prosecution treats professional athletes like other citizens who
must obey the law in their daily lives. A fan would almost certainly be
arrested for clubbing someone from behind in a major league arena. But when
a player clubs an opponent from behind, he ordinarily faces only a
league-imposed suspension or fine that barely dents a multimillion-dollar
paycheck.

With youngsters watching closely, we can no longer tolerate this
double standard, which grants professional athletes license to commit
assaults because "it's part of the game." When pros such as McSorley commit
muggings clearly outside the rules, their conduct is not part of the game.
Granting pros immunity from the legal process would leave scattered acreage
-- major league playing fields -- somehow beyond the law that regulates the
rest of society. In our nation, not a single square inch of territory is
beyond the law.

Courts must tread carefully because controlled aggression is central
to "contact sports" such as hockey, which depends on assaultive conduct that
might be criminal if committed off the field by ordinary citizens. In
hockey, violent body checks are central to the game; on Main Street, they
would be criminal assaults. Players consent to contact and the risk of
injury, even when referees call a foul. Consent, however, should not condone
muggings and other mayhem clearly outside the rules.

Leagues alone should police fouls inherent in the give-and-take of
the game. Prosecution should result only when a player clearly crosses a
reasonable line between legitimate athletic performance and criminal
conduct. McSorley crossed the line.

Punishment cannot always be left to the leagues, which frequently
wink at assaults that help win games or fill the seats. After the February
beating, the NHL suspended McSorley for the final 23 games of the regular
season and for the playoffs. The league, however, had let him play for the
past 17 years despite at least seven brief suspensions for such errant
behavior as spearing, fighting and eye-gouging. Even before he took his
stick to Brashear's head, McSorley was the third-most-penalized player in
NHL history, with 3,381 minutes -- more than 56 hours -- in the penalty box.

As McSorley's trial date approached, NHL officials predictably
warned that a conviction would destroy the essence of contact sports,
leaving players reluctant to play aggressively. Athletes and fans need not
worry. The conviction simply means a player can be held accountable for
sneaking up from behind, winding up and walloping an opponent's skull as if
it were a cantaloupe. The message was well worth sending to all athletes,
from the pros to the playgrounds. Sometimes the message must
be sent with the force of law.

Haywood Hale Broun often said, "Sports doesn’t build character." To people working with children, Broun’s axiom meant that youth athletics programs were not expected to take bad kids and somehow make them good. Nor were these programs necessarily expected to keep good kids from going bad. The conventional wisdom was that most youngsters who chose to participate in organized sports were already on the right track: athletic competition merely revealed their predisposition to solid citizenship.

Indeed, in my first 25 years as a youth-league coach, I heard very few parents stress that their children needed organized sports to help keep them off the streets and out of trouble. Lately, however, parents commonly articulate the "trouble factor" as a prime motivation for encouraging their boys and girls to participate. "If my children get high on sports, maybe they won’t get high on you-know-what."

The national climate has led us to view sports program, and the self-discipline that comes from teamwork and commitment, as antidotes to temptations faced by youngsters who appear trouble-free. But youth sports programs, like other initiatives that seek to build children’s character, are only as good as the adults who administer them. Too many programs are failing to meet the challenges of the 1990s because too many parents and coaches fail to meet the athletes; needs:

The need for adult role models. Years ago, one of my players missed a few games, offering excuses I did not believe because his attendance had always been perfect. I asked for the real reason. "I don’t want to play in front of my parents any more, because they embarrass me every game," he confided. His parents would bait referees, verbally assault the opposition and unleash profanity in the stands. Coaches and other parents often behaved no better.

In the home and the arena alike, children learn character by example. When parents and coaches disdain sportsmanship as a petty annoyance, they do not teach children the fortitude to win with humility and lose with grace.

The need to be treated as youngsters. Youth Leaguers are not miniature professionals. The pros are adults employed to provide public entertainment and to earn profits for themselves and management. Youth leaguers are children with a natural desire to win, but with equally strong needs for recreation, camaraderie and positive reinforcement from their parents and coaches.

Children do not learn character when they are cut from the squad, when they warm a bench for a coach who seeks victory by overplaying the elite few, or when they drop out rather than endure adults who take the fun out of the game. Character lessons emerge when adults value victory only if each child’s dignity and self respect remain intact.

The need to play without pressure for financial gain. With annual tuition and other costs at some private colleges approaching $30,000, many parents see potential athletic scholarships at the end of the youth sports rainbow. The lure of pro contracts may increase the pressure imposed on children by adults who link youth sports to monetary reward.

Youth leagues are not farm system for collegiate powerhouses or the pros. According to Michigan State University’s Institute for the study of youth sports, about 25 million youngsters between the ages of 6 and 18 play organized sports annually. This number is more than half of all youngsters in this age group. Few will ever be talented enough to play collegiate sports, and fewer will ever reach the pros. Character lessons can reach everyone, however, when parents and coaches encourage participation for its own sake.

The need for safety. Thanks to advances in equipment and sports medicine, participation in youth sports is safer today than ever before. Youth baseball and youth hockey, for example, have both reduced serious injury with improved headgear and other protective measures.

Local decisions, however, frequently compromise safety. Youngsters are sometimes encouraged to play despite injuries. Coaches and parents lead youngsters through football, soccer or baseball games on rainy fields that invite knee, ankle and back injuries. When I ask why, I hear something such as, "Well, the pros do it, don’t they?"

The need for leadership opportunities. Our youth hockey program enrolls boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 17. When players reach 15, they may serve as assistant coaches of our youngest teams. Integrating older players into the coaching staff pays rich dividends. After years of receiving discipline and instruction, these players develop character by giving. Teaching is an ideal way to learn.

With more than half of all American youngsters playing, sports programs are a national resource with a unique opportunity to influence a generation at risk. Parents and coaches forfeit this opportunity when they overlook the youngsters’ physical and emotional well being. In the sometimes turbulent 1990s, the true mission of youth sports is to produce citizens enriched by meaningful participation, long after the outcomes of distant games have faded from memory.

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Douglas E. Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri, has been a
youth ice hockey coach for 32 years.

The Associated Press