Published Online: February 5, 1997

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Officials Blow The Whistle on Athletes' Antics

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On Jan. 7, the promising high school basketball career of a Philadelphia student ended with a hastily thrown punch.

Larry Nicholson, a 6-foot-4-inch senior forward at Murrell Dobbins Area Vocational Technical School, received two technical fouls during a game against the Girard Academic Music Program. Apparently unhappy with the calls, he allegedly punched the referee who assessed the technicals, according to published reports, sending the official to an emergency room for stitches.

The referee is pressing charges, and Mr. Nicholson, 17, left the South Philadelphia recreation center that afternoon with a police escort and in handcuffs. He was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, and reckless endangerment of another person and was scheduled to face a preliminary juvenile court hearing this week.

The incident shocked local educators, game officials, coaches, and students.

"We've never had a situation like this before," said Linda McGee, the director of athletics for the Philadelphia public schools. "Never."

But according to sports officials, what happened in Philadelphia last month was not an isolated occurrence in youth sports. Nationally, the number of young athletes who demonstrate through attitude or action that they have chips on their shoulders is on the rise, at least anecdotally.

Now a major portion of the athletic community is joining forces to figure out ways to curtail violence and unsportsmanlike behavior at all levels of competition. Last week, nine leading sports organizations--from the National Basketball Association to the federation of interscholastic-sports governing bodies--announced the formation of an alliance to address these and other pervasive problems.

"We have a sportsmanship problem in youth sports," said Art Taylor, the associate director of the Center for Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. "That said, we can't just cry in our beer. We've got to solve the problem.

"And that means teaching kids to respect themselves and each other and take responsibility for their actions," said Mr. Taylor, a sports psychologist who counsels coaches, parents, and local sports officials on the virtues of sportsmanship.

But, as he and others point out, the problems didn't start with young athletes. Rather, they say, the behavior of students on the courts and the fields reflects attitudes in the wider culture.

"These kids have come of age in a 'me first, everyone else last' era," Mr Taylor said. "The concepts of teamwork, of communication, don't come naturally to them. They need to be taught."

Terry Linton, who has spent 26 years as a football and basketball official in Albuquerque, N.M., said he is seeing more taunting, trash-talking, grandstanding, and fighting than ever. For him, the indecency hit a new low last winter when, after he officiated at a heated high school basketball game, a fan spit on him."It's a lack of respect for authority," Mr. Linton said. "And not just in sports. You see it everywhere today."

At the root of the problem, he said, is a tendency among athletes--from his 7-year-old daughter's soccer team to the pros--to shirk responsibility for their actions by blaming others: referees, coaches, other players.

"Kids and coaches aren't willing to accept failure," Mr. Linton said.

Few dispute that the widely publicized unsportsmanlike antics of professional athletes have had a corrosive effect on youth sports. Observers cite, among other incidents, Dennis Rodman of the Chicago Bulls basketball team kicking a photographer, and baseball's Roberto Alomar of the Baltimore Orioles spitting in an umpire's face.

"It's troubling,"said Allen Chin, the director of athletics for the District of Columbia public schools. "These are their heroes."

In professional sports, he said, it often seems as if unsportsmanlike conduct has little or no consequence for the offending players. But his school district's code is much different, Mr. Chin said. "We take an old-fashioned, zero-tolerance approach. If you're caught taunting or fighting, you'll be ejected from the game, and you'll sit out the next. Period."

New Alliance

Along with the NBA and the Kansas City, Mo.-based National Federation of State High School Associations, the groups that make up the umbrella organization formed last week represent a "who's who" of athletics in this country. They are Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, the National Junior College Athletic Association, and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The Citizenship Through Sports Alliance intends to promote the positive values that can be taught through sports.

Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for the Overland Park, Kan.-based NCAA, said that the alliance will launch an assortment of school-based and community-outreach programs to bolster sportsmanship in the coming months.

Experts believe that such off-the-field instruction is vital to restoring civility to youth sports.

"It's a complex problem to solve, but just teaching kids what's acceptable and what's not and that actions have consequences can make a world of difference," Mr. Linton said.

For Mr. Nicholson, the Philadelphia basketball player, the lessons may have come too late. Although school officials say that he has expressed remorse for what happened, he has been transferred to another school and must sit out the remainder of his high school days as a basketball player.

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