All Choked Up

The millions of working stiffs who fork over their hard-earned dollars for tickets to football, baseball, hockey and (in some cities) real, live NBA basketball games are justifiably fed up with the sour culture of American sports--in which spoiled athletes and high-handed owners pretend they're rulers of some tinpot dictatorship and treat everybody else like the terror-stricken peasants.

But let's think twice before we turn Latrell Sprewell into a scapegoat and symbol for the world's ills. Saddam Hussein he ain't.

When he choked and threatened to kill Golden State Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo December 1, the temperamental Sprewell may have crossed further into lunacy than even blue-ribbon bad boy Albert Belle could imagine. Or the most inventive miscreant of them all, Dennis Rodman.

But Sprewell, whose other misdeeds include going after a teammate with a two-by-four, isn't alone in his misbehavior. Not by a long shot. The arenas and playing fields, along with assorted locker rooms, boardrooms and police interrogation rooms, resound with enough sports-related tantrums, snits, contract holdouts, fistfights and face-spittings to furnish an entire century of social disorder. Bad-actor jocks (and their supporting casts in the media, the coach's office and the front office) are involved in sufficient drug arrests, public urinations, briberies, illicit copulations, trash-talking, insubordination, brawls, corporate extortions, egotistical demands, shady business deals and spirited wife-beatings that if some big bad cop in the sky were to throw a net over the wide world of sports and haul the entire thing off to the garbage dump, the planet might instantly be a better place.

Sad to say, Latrell Sprewell is a drop in the bucket. Sadder to say, we provided the bucket. A lot of us, anyway.

Exhibit A: Players Amok
By now, that ugly incident in which Baltimore Oriole Roberto Alomar spat in the face of an umpire may seem as remote as the Punic Wars. But the ugly incident in which Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski spat in the face of San Francisco 49er J.J. Stokes happened only a week ago Monday--in front of a national TV audience--and only a couple of weeks before that, Portland Trail Blazer Isaiah Rider spat on a fan.

Stokes's offense? He'd screamed at Romanowski--after Romanowski allegedly tried to rip Stokes's privates from their moorings while in a pile of players at Mile High Stadium. Romanowski was fined $7,500--the second time he's been dinged by the league this year--but don't be surprised if he also winds up on the All-Madden Team. "Old-fashioned" play--which is to say, outright thuggery--is not just winked at, it's romanticized by Neanderthals like John Madden, the Fox Network color man who's forever extolling the virtues of blood and guts.

Wonder if he's met our own beloved Claude Lemieux, who likes to punch out assorted Detroit Red Wings before the game even starts. Or L.A. Laker Nick Van Exel, who got a seven-game suspension in 1996 for pushing a referee into the scorer's table. How about Charles Barkley, a 34-year-old NBA star who should know better? In the wake of Sprewell's contract termination and one-year suspension, Barkley threatened to lead a boycott of the All-Star Game. Little matter that earlier in the year, Barkley had thrown a bar patron through a plate-glass window.

Need we dwell on the saga of Lawrence Phillips, the former University of Nebraska running back with a long record of drunken driving and assault? Released by the St. Louis Rams, he was picked up just two weeks later by the Miami Dolphins. That brings us back to Sprewell, of course: Five minutes after the Warriors cut him loose, no fewer than eight other NBA teams expressed interest in him. Clearly, they were far less concerned about their coaches' throats than they were about finishing last in their divisions.

Meanwhile, Washington Wizards Rod Strickland and Tracy Murray were punching each other at the team hotel.

There was a time in sports when Mike Tyson, convicted rapist and multiple ear-biter, might have been the undisputed heavyweight champion of bad behavior. No more. Tonya Harding (professional knee-capper) and Scottie Pippen (professional whiner) have seen to that, along with golfer Fuzzy Zoeller (professional bigmouth and possible bigot) and sore-armed Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen (Rockies fans remember good ol' Bret), who once threw a cup of bleach on an interviewer in the Mets' clubhouse.

As for the Boston Red Sox's former director of domestic bliss, Wil Cordero, he's apparently done more damage to his wife than he has to opposing pitchers.

Most coaches and social commentators claim that younger players, unfettered by the traditional social contract, are the ones causing all the trouble. That doesn't explain the several misdemeanors of Warren Moon, Jack McDowell or Magic Johnson, but the point is well-taken. You've heard about the two Arizona State basketball players caught point-shaving, haven't you?

Care to hear the voice of the new generation of overpaid superstar athletes? It just might belong to Allen Iverson, the cranky 22-year-old star of the Philadelphia 76ers. The veteran of a juvenile work farm, on probation for carrying a concealed gun, Iverson has this to say about his life and work: "I can do what I want to do. And that's what I think people should be able to do in this world--whatever they want to do."

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