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."

Last week Iverson was suspended again for missing a team practice.

Exhibit B: Leaders Gone Astray
Did it surprise anybody in the Lower 48 when Darrell Walker, coach of the hapless Toronto Raptors, recently gave a middle-finger salute to a Utah Jazz fan? Or that Barry Switzer, coach of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, recently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge after sticking a .38 revolver into his travel bag last August? Or that New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka, so often sentimentalized as a good, old-fashioned disciplinarian, can go ballistic at the press conference following every Saints loss and still be embraced for his rough charms?

Remember the Canadian youth-hockey coach convicted of molesting his young charges? How about our man Luis Rosa? He's the Latin American scout for the San Francisco Giants (and, previously, other teams) recently imprisoned on charges that he demanded sexual favors from fifteen Dominican minor-leaguers in exchange for playing time.

The team owners are another breed altogether. Between the Napoleonic imperialist George Steinbrenner (fearfully called "The Boss") and the unbridled dog owner and apparent neo-Nazi Marge Schott, there's not much to choose from. Right here on this very spot we've got Pat Bowlen, an unapologetic extortionist who says he'll take his ballclub and go elsewhere if the taxpayers don't build him a new stadium. After the grumbling, beaten-up Broncos get knocked off in the playoffs, the fans might feel like taking him up on that.

At last, we have the spectacle of Eddie DeBartolo. Latrell Sprewell may have threatened his coach ("Bitch, you're gonna trade me or I'm gonna kill you"), but the very next day DeBartolo threatened the integrity of one of this year's likely Super Bowl teams--the aforementioned San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers owner stepped down after he was named as a target in a federal investigation focused on former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards. Allegedly, DeBartolo paid Edwards $400,000 to become a "consultant" on a $194 million riverboat casino project planned for Bossier City, Louisiana. Edwards held no public office at the time, so DeBartolo cannot be charged with bribery. But the FBI remains very interested in the case, and the rumors that DeBartolo--head of one of pro sports' most successful franchises--is mobbed up have resurfaced.

The whole scene--spoiled kids, stained mentors and runaway egos--almost makes you nostalgic for the old days, when fighters took dives for lunch money and the White Sox busied themselves throwing the World Series but spit only in the dirt.

Your Denver Broncos are homeboys, all right. Over the last two seasons, Elway and his mates have put together a perfect 16-0 regular-season record at Mile High Stadium, capped off Sunday afternoon by their 38-3 demolition of the San Diego Chargers--despite the absence of star running back Terrell Davis. In sore need of a shot of adrenalin following consecutive losses at Pittsburgh and San Francisco, the Broncs got one Sunday. Home, sweet home.

Still, no one within a hundred miles of Pat Bowlen's ego can forget the one game the Broncos have lost at home. January 4, 1997: Jacksonville 30, Denver 27. Regarded as the biggest upset since David knocked off Goliath, it has eaten away at head coach Mike Shanahan and his stunned troops for a full year. The Jaguars' Natrone Means--a bruising, 242-pound running back in the style of, let's see here, Pittsburgh's bruising, 243-pound Jerome Bettis--shredded the Denver defense with 140 yards rushing. Scrambling Mark Brunell, a quarterback who's a younger version of, hmmmm, the 49ers' Steve Young, passed for 245 yards and two touchdowns.

Sound grim for the long-awaited rematch this Saturday afternoon?
Yes, it does. But don't expect the Jaguars to sneak up on a listless, distracted bunch of Donks this time around. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and the forecast, right out of the homeboys' freezer, is for temperatures in the 20s.