EDITORIALS

Men Behaving Badly

Posted Feb. 17, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.

Professional athletes are an easy target for anyone looking for evidence of the demise of Western civilization. They get paid too much. They take drugs to enhance their performance. They are egotistical, strutting and taunting after merely doing their jobs. And once they attain star status, many neglect their bodies and the competitive spirit that got them to the elite levels of their sport.

Another reason for people to shake their heads and cluck their disapproval at professional athletes is the in-game violence.

Yet on this count, leagues are changing course. The National Football League now requires evaluation of players who may have suffered concussions when being tackled or colliding with another player. Under a policy adopted a year ago, those who have suffered concussions cannot return to practice or games until they no longer exhibit any symptoms. And unnecessarily rough tacklers are penalized.

Former players now in their 50s, who played in the era when bodies got big, are suffering early dementia, very likely the result of multiple head injuries.

The National Basketball Association has taken great strides in curtailing on-court fights. If a player shoves an opponent after a tussle for the ball, a technical foul is assessed. Punches result in immediate ejection, fines and suspension from games. Players leaving their bench and venturing onto the court during such conflicts also face suspension. The NBA also has adopted a strict policy against complaining about foul calls. Technical fouls for profane language would be a welcome next step.

Dugout-emptying brawls still mar Major League Baseball games. The league does eject players for such fights, but it could adopt the NBA policy of doling out automatic suspensions if players cross the foul lines onto the field during conflicts.

And then there is the National Hockey League. A fight in the Feb. 11 game between the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins set a new low. The league responded with 346 penalty minutes and 10 ejections, and two players were suspended for nine and four games each.

A USA Today story tried to tie the brawl to an unwritten hockey rule, noting that the Penguins “understood the hockey code of justice demanded” retribution from the Islanders for an earlier fight.

Hall of Fame former player Mario Lemieux made more sense, arguing that the league should be less tolerant or risk irrelevancy. “Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty,” Mr. Lemieux said. “It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.”

Sports need to clean up their acts if they want to thrive as an entertainment product, because men playing a child’s game with such disregard for decorum and dignity wears thin quickly.

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