Bad Sports

March 01, 1997 4 min read

In January, the promising basketball career of a Philadelphia high school student ended with a hastily thrown punch.

Larry Nicholson, a six-foot, four-inch senior forward at Murrell Dobbins Area Vocational Technical School, was slapped with two technical fouls during a game against the Girard Academic Music Program. Unhappy with the technicals, he allegedly punched the referee who had called the fouls, sending the official to an emergency room for stitches.

Nicholson, 17, left the South Philadelphia recreation center that afternoon in handcuffs with a police escort. He was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, and reckless endangerment of another person.

The incident shocked local educators, game officials, coaches, and students. “We’ve never had a situation like this before,” says Linda McGee, director of athletics for the Philadelphia public schools. “Never.”

But according to sports officials, what happened in Philadelphia is not an isolated occurrence in interscholastic sports. Nationally, the number of young athletes who are surly, hostile, or even violent on the fields or courts is on the rise.

It has become such a problem that nine leading athletic organizations--from the National Basketball Association to the National Federation of State High School Associations--announced in late January that they were forming an alliance to figure out how to curtail violence and unsportsmanlike behavior in all levels of competition.

“We have a sportsmanship problem in youth sports,” says Art Taylor, 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.”

But as Taylor and others point out, the problems didn’t start with young athletes. Rather, the behavior of student-athletes today reflects attitudes in the wider culture. “These kids have come of age in a `me first, everyone else last’ era,” says Taylor, a sports psychologist who counsels coaches, parents, and local sports officials on sportsmanship. “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, New Mexico, says 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,” Linton says. “And not just in sports. You see it everywhere today.”

At the root of the problem, he says, is a tendency among athletes--from his 7-year-old daughter’s soccer team to the pros--to shirk responsibility and blame others: referees, coaches, and players. “Kids and coaches aren’t willing to accept failure,” Linton says.

Most people agree that the widely publicized unsportsmanlike antics of professional athletes have had a corrosive effect on youth sports. They point to the behavior of Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman, who recently kicked a courtside photographer, and baseball’s Roberto Alomar of the Baltimore Orioles, who last summer spat in an umpire’s face.

“It’s troubling,” said Allen Chin, director of athletics for the District of Columbia public schools. “These are their heroes.” In professional sports, he notes, it often appears that there are no consequences for unsportsmanlike conduct. But that’s not the case in his school district. “We take an old-fashioned, zero-tolerance approach,” he says. “If you’re caught taunting or fighting, you’ll be ejected from the game, and you’ll sit out the next. Period.”

In addition to the NBA and the federation of school athletic associations, the groups that make up the new Citizenship Through Sports Alliance 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.

Kathryn Reith, a spokeswoman for the NCAA, says the alliance will launch an assortment of school-based and community-outreach programs to bolster sportsmanship.

Many observers believe that such off-the-field instruction is vital to restoring civility to youth sports. “It’s a complex problem to solve,” Linton says, “but just teaching kids what’s acceptable and what’s not and that actions have consequences can make a world of difference.”

For Larry Nicholson, the Philadelphia basketball player charged with assaulting a referee, the lessons may have come too late. Although school officials say he has expressed remorse for what happened, they will not allow him to finish his high school basketball career.