Players from Georgetown University Men's basketball team and China's Bayi basketball team fight during a basketball friendly in Beijing.
Soccer Spotlight When Things Go All Wrong
U.S.-China Basketball Brawl Becomes an Inappropriate Metaphor - Dr. Rob Webb Shares His Views:
Violence in sports is like shark attacks: fortunately still rare.
Your chances of getting into an altercation as an athlete in America are about the same as being struck by lightning, or being attacked by a shark. Actually, that’s a misleading statistic, because everyone on Earth is at risk of being struck by lightning, but only a very tiny proportion of the human population ever goes in the ocean, thus putting them on the menu. So how likely are you to become embroiled in an altercation on a sports field in America? Seems more and more likely everyday, given the frequent reports of altercations on the field, on the court, on the diamond, and on the ice.
But, fortunately, fights are still rare.
What brought this to mind was the report recently of a fight between a Chinese basketball team and the Georgetown Hoyas, visiting China on an ambassador trip. You can see clips of it all over the Internet, so I won’t belabor the point. (If you haven't seen the incident, please see the clip below.)
However you want to slice it, not very ambassadorial to fight with your hosts. Equally bad, not very gracious to fight with your guests. I fault both teams and nobody is excused. John Thompson was right to want to take his team and walk off the court. He should have taken his team and gone home. Is there good news? Not sure, but the Chinese seem to emulate what we do, right down to the in-your-face taunting of other players and coaches, the throwing of chairs and the willingness to fight at the drop of a hat. I think everyone has seen the last couple of fights on the baseball diamond on TV. Of course, everyone knows I don’t think much of that sport, and found myself laughing actually: it seems very fortunate that most baseball players, in addition to not being in shape to run very well, can’t seem to throw a meaningful punch either. And, everyone has witnessed a fight in ice hockey, something that seems to happen during every game. Even arena soccer has it's share of fights.
I suppose that if people can fight during a golf match or even in a bowling alley, then maybe it’s not the sport that produces the ideal conditions for an altercation. Maybe it’s us.
So I thought I would describe an altercation I experienced on the soccer field a couple of weeks back in a tournament somewhere in California.
All I’m going to say about the tournament is that it was a couple of weeks ago. I was on the sideline as manager and assistant coach, (and parent). The scenario was ominous: we had won twice, were in first in our bracket, and already ‘going through’ to the playoff round, our opponent was in last place and done. The match started with hard tackles from their players, and progressed to a slapping contest between one of our players and an opponent. This was stopped by a mass confrontation of players attempting to prevent the opposing player from pummeling our player (he had already hit him 5 or 6 times).
The referee did the only thing he knew how to do: send off and red card to both players. Even as a seasoned referee, I thought this really unfair because our guy was simply defending himself.
From then on, it progressed to really hard fouls that the referee, to his credit, did eventually recognize as both reckless tackles and persistent infringement. The ref dealt with this by starting to send players off. Even so, I believe he should have abandoned the match.
Despite my pleas to the referees and to tournament officials to end the match, they continued to allow the play. One reckless tackle resulted in a concussion to one of our players. Yellow card.
Yellow card? The guy hit him so hard he was out cold!
Another of our players got a wrecked ankle from a cleats-up tackle. Red Card.
At this point, I’m still pleading with the referee to call the match. All of this culminated in an opposing player running off the pitch to strike my son twice in the face (he was standing on the sideline and not in the game), at which point a melee ensued which was eventually stopped by players and tournament officials restraining coaches and in particular, parents from the other team that had run onto the field.
So why am I describing this?
I’ve never been involved in one of these before.
As a referee, I’ve been close.
Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’d like to think it’s because I’ve always controlled the match and intervened before things got out of hand. Maybe it’s because I was hit 5 times.
Maybe because the opposing coach was seen striking one of our coaches, then running for the parking lot. (It probably occurred to him that if US Soccer got wind of that, his coaching days would be numbered).
Maybe because the head referee refused to file an incident report with US Soccer. When I asked him why not, he stated that ‘fights are not his problem, only players with numbers on their jerseys’. Wow.
The only postscript I can add is that the tournament officials did the right thing and disqualified the other team. The police were called, but took no action.
I blame the referee and particularly tournament management for not acting. In particular, I find the pusillanimous response from the referee coordinator to be particularly egregious. They saw the signs, even without me pointing it out to them, yet they did nothing.
But the damage was done. The other team and their coaches were upset about losing, and not going through. They knew what they were doing. They were out to prove a point, to hurt someone. Our players were visibly shaken by all this, and could not pull together a game for the next match.
OK, so now I don’t feel so bad about going in the ocean or playing golf in a thunderstorm. (Well, maybe not golf. Maybe riding a ski lift.) I clearly have not beaten the odds. I’m either the unluckiest guy in Southern California, or lighting really will have to strike twice for this to happen again. Why worry about it going forward?
Which actually brings me to the point of this op-ed: Why are there such incidents? If there is violence on the field, it reflects what is happening in our societies. The Romans threw people to the lions for sport, and in ancient Rome, professional athletes (gladiators) were paid or conscripted to fight to the death for public amusement. Our ancestors ran from lions, stole food from hyenas, and hunted animals with spears, so maybe all of this isn’t surprising. It’s in our genes.
Been to a hockey game recently? It’s a violent sport. (Don’t get defensive, I watched the Stanley Cup.) I’m in awe of the skating prowess of some of the players. Particularly the ability of players, while on skates, to absorb a hit, or fall down without having their skate end up in their rear end. But seeing a forward chased down by a defenseman and slammed into the board makes me cringe. I get the feeling that the fans like it that way. When I was in graduate school, the local farm hockey team had to clear the stadium seating for 20 rows behind the opposing team’s bench, because the local fans would throw beer on the opposing players. Seems that one visiting team didn’t like having to shampoo with beer, took exception to this, and went over the glass after the fans. That’s part of the game?
In baseball, the pitcher is a little over 60 feet away from the batter, and is throwing a ball at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. Occasionally the ball can hit an unwary batter. Sometimes the batter thinks the pitcher is trying to hit him on purpose. When that happens, the batter sometimes chases out to the mound to get the pitcher, emptying both dugouts. That’s part of the game?
In general, professional sports now take a dim view of fighting. Those players who do fight are ejected, disqualified or sent off, and often later fined by their respective leagues. In baseball, the home plate umpire is very likely to eject a pitcher for throwing a ball that hits a batter, even if it is the first incident. This approach can be traced to, among other things, a really ugly scene between Johnny Roseboro of the LA Dodgers and Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants August 22, 1965, that precipitated a dugout emptying brawl that left even legendary Dodger TV announcer Vin Scully speechless. His response was something like “This is not something we want our young people to see.” Well said. Never put a bat in the hand of a guy with a bad temper. I can say this because I was a kid at the time, and watched it as it was happening on TV. In basketball, the strong response to fighting can perhaps be traced to ‘the Punch’, Kermit Washington hitting Rudy Tomjanovich so hard during a basketball game that Tomjanovich almost died. I saw that one too. We like them to play hard. These guys are a minimum of 6 foot 8 and often 230 pounds plus. But fighting? Is that really entertaining?
The Internet is loaded with web pages, blogs, and scholarly works from prominent sports psychologists that all seem to point to the same thing. We live in a violent age, particularly post 9/11, where more and more people (and governments) are resorting to violence to settle their differences. Just take a drive home from work someday. You’ll see the violence expressed as ‘road rage’. Our economy is still fragile, some are without work, and people are understandably upset. Politics has become one pitched battle after another over ideology. We all have to believe what someone else believes; otherwise we’re ‘unpatriotic’. Congress is impotent. The debate has abandoned civility, and taken a very nasty turn. We aren’t nice to each other anymore. We’re upset, and we want to ‘stick it to somebody’.
You would think that sports are the escape, the relief valve, THE place to blow off steam. The original Olympian ideal is that sports should be immune from international politics and strife. Ladies and gentlemen walk on the field, play as adversaries, and walk off the field as ladies and gentlemen. Maybe I’m being naïve.
But, I’m the eternal optimist. I know, I know, mindless philosophy has its advantages, right? Sports are great. You see sports played by all ages, boys and girls, men and women, and when you see a good match, you feel good. If your team wins you’re elated, if they lose, hopefully you put it in perspective. And obviously, the majority of sports matches go off without a hitch. Soccer, as well as other sports, CAN be played without a fight breaking out. It happens the vast majority of the time.
But when things go wrong, things go all wrong.
I think next time, if I find myself involved with things going all wrong the way they did a couple weeks ago, I’ll check out, put on my ear buds, spool up iTunes, and go for a run. Because you never know: lightning could strike twice.
Dr. Rob reminds readers that opinions expressed in “Ask the Ref” or other articles are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, policies or rulings of any of the governing bodies in soccer, including but not limited to US Soccer, CalSouth or Presidio League. Dr. Rob is not an attorney, but if he were, he would remind readers that any opinions expressed shall not be used as advice on any topic, including but not limited to, the game of soccer, swimming, or travelling to the Cities of Lancaster, Palmdale, or New York City.
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