Benner/Sports and Opinion and Sports Business

BENNER: Athletes, like politicians, should dial down the rhetoric

January 22, 2011

It all seems so silly. Pointless. Childish.

Trash talk.

In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, many opined that we needed to set a more civil tone for political discourse. I’m all for that. I also believe the sports world could follow that lead.

These days, it seems, there is enough trash talk out there to load several landfills.

Why do (relatively) grown men feel compelled to run their mouths, whether to the media or on a tweet?

More important, could it precipitate a Tucson-like tragedy? I believe it’s a question worth considering.

Consider the potentially combustible combination of passion, bitter disappointment, booze and a hated opponent celebrating on your turf just a few yards away.

Remember, “fans” is short for fanatics.

So take the angry, perhaps inebriated New England Patriots fan who, in the immediate aftermath of his team’s agonizing loss to the New York Jets, is now watching members of the Jets celebrate on the Pats’ field by taunting him and all around him.

And say he has smuggled a loaded weapon into the stadium with him.

Unthinkable? Impossible?

Sorry, I don’t think anything is impossible or unthinkable anymore.

Anger, seething, loathing, disrespect—all in the name of playing a game—is becoming all too much the norm.

The buildup to the big Patriots-Jets AFC Divisional Playoff was all about that. It was the Jets’ Antonio Cromartie proclaiming Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to be, well, a term that sort of rhymes with “rat’s hole.” After the Jets’ victory, Cromartie dropped the “A-bomb” on Brady again.

It was Patriots receiver Wes Welker offering numerous references to “feet” and “toes” in assessing the Jets, a not-so-subtle shout-out to recent revelations that Jets coach Rex Ryan and his wife allegedly enjoy a certain part of the human anatomy.

The Jets said Welker’s words—which got him a one-offensive-series benching from Coach Bill Belichick—helped fuel their fire. Also gassing the Jets, according to linebacker Bart Scott, was talk in the media and elsewhere that the Jets were somehow disrespected.

The bombastic Ryan has become a media darling because he embodies the “more brash the better” concept. He’s a sound bite waiting to happen, the next lead item on SportsCenter.

By contrast, the poor Colts’ Jim Caldwell is dismissed for being a dial tone. He never offers colorful commentary. He always pays respect to the opponent. 

Egad. How dull.

Caldwell, like his predecessor, Tony Dungy, never fills an opponent’s bulletin board. Then again, I’ve never quite understood the need for bulletin board material, especially for athletes who make enormous sums to practice their craft.

To the NFL’s credit, it is trying to muzzle some of the rhetoric. The league recently threatened to fine playoff participants if their comments became too inflammatory.

But it seems powerless to bring any kind of order to the chaos that takes place once the games begin.

During NFL (and NBA) games, you’ll hear more woofing than you would in a kennel. It’s not just about merely beating your opponents. It’s about showing them up.

I almost think hockey is better. They simply settle their disputes by beating the crap out of one another.

Don’t think the atmosphere of disrespect doesn’t carry over into the stands. Or, in the case of the 8-year-old Jets fan who had hot dogs thrown at him and was tackled by a drunk before a game at Cleveland last fall, into the parking lots.

It’s not just everywhere else, either. It’s here in Indy.

Exiting Lucas Oil Stadium in the moments after the Colts lost to the Jets, the air was thick with profanity. The frustration over the outcome—combined with the loose-lips effect of booze—translated into a South Street carpet bombing with the F word. Never mind that there were dozens of youngsters within ear shot.

Hey, I’m no saint when it comes to the occasional vulgarity, as in, “What the #@$%* was I thinking when I tried to hit that @#$%&* 3-iron over that water?”

But when it comes to spectator sports, we might all consider a little civility upgrade, and it could well start with the athletes and coaches.

So, for that, I say thank you, Jim Caldwell. You never need apologize for being a gentleman.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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