You’re fouled hard from behind by a notoriously aggressive basketball opponent. How do you react?
During a bench-clearing brawl, a drink flies from the stands and soaks you, the player. How do you react?
You’re a spectator watching the melee occurring only a few feet away. How do you react?
Ben Wallace went for Ron Artest’s throat. Artest went into the stands after the cup-flinger. Many players and spectators joined in, with one fan launching a chair into the fray.
These are the kind of responses that make sportsmanship advocates cringe. But they all occurred within a few frenzied moments this past Nov. 19, in the closing seconds of the National Basketball Association game between Wallace’s Detroit Pistons and Artest’s Indiana Pacers. The ugly incident at Detroit’s home arena, The Palace, spawned numerous fines and suspensions for players — most notably Artest’s suspension for the remainder of the 2004-05 season — as well as criminal charges against players and fans.
Think you could never become involved in such a situation? Consider this reply by Mike D’Aloisio, when asked what he would do if he’d been hit by a fan’s drink — as Artest was after he and Wallace had been separated.
“I probably would have gone (toward the stands). It’s the Italian in me,” he said after a brief pause.
D”Aloisio’s admission is significant because he lacks Artest’s reputation for volatile on-court behavior. D’Aloisio, by contrast, is the long-serving, well-respected head football and boys’ basketball coach at Elmira Notre Dame — not to mention the high school’s director of discipline.
D’Aloisio explained that angry impulses are universal in the competitive atmosphere of sporting events. “It’s a high fever pitch, and 90 percent of the players’ reaction is to retaliate,” he said.
On the other hand, he’s quite certain that he would have been restrained, or restrained himself, before reaching the beverage-throwing spectator. Being hit by a drink, he said, “never gives anybody a right to go up into the stands and whale away” as Artest did in Detroit.
Chuck Mitrano, commissioner of the collegiate Empire 8 Athletic Conference, also cited Artest for not controlling his emotions. “All that could have been avoided had that athlete had the proper response,” he commented.
Instead of violent retaliation, Mitrano suggested, it’s much more prudent to let a coach, referee or on-site security person attend to the matter. “If you feel you’re ever in an environment where you’re in harm’s way, you should let somebody know,” he said.
Maintaining civility in the heat of battle is a top priority for such sports figures as Mitrano and D’Aloisio. D’Aloisio said he assumes responsibility for crowd control by asking referees to penalize him if a Notre Dame fan becomes unruly. He also confers with the ND student cheering section, “The Crusader Crazies,” before games to gauge the appropriateness of chants they plan to use.
Meanwhile, Mitrano is passionate about player and coach sportsmanship in his role with the Empire 8, a conference of Division III schools. Mitrano has won national awards for his initiatives, such as the “conduct foul program” he created. This system has improved conduct by tracking each participating college team’s history of infractions, such as technical fouls in basketball and yellow and red cards in soccer.
Despite Mitrano’s best efforts, an on-court brawl occurred during a men’s basketball game this past February between Empire 8 rivals Nazareth and St. John Fisher. The fracas resulted in each school suspending two players, and Mitrano ordering St. John Fisher student fans — who did not join the fight, but whose taunts were cited for fueling the toxic environment — to be seated away from the opposing team’s bench.
Mitrano believes the fight was an isolated incident and not indicative of a growing problem in his conference. For his part, D’Aloisio doesn’t see any noticeable rise in high-school sports violence during his 25-plus years as a coach.
But D’Aloisio sees troubling trends in the professional ranks. And he noted that crowd control isn’t helped by arenas that have inadequate policies limiting the sale of liquor, or by huge NBA player salaries that might lead lawsuit-hungry fans to bait players.
Unfortunately in this regard, pro sports attract the widest audience. So what kind of a message did the night of Nov. 19 send to young sports fans? Consider the small boy — crying and cowering in fear — seen near the fracas in many follow-up news reports.
“That brought tears to my eyes,” D’Aloisio said.
If anything positive has come out of the NBA brawl, Mitrano said, it’s the opportunity to reflect. “Any time you have a situation that is pretty significant, you have to learn from it,” he said.
His suggestion: Start the learning process as early as possible.
“In youth sports, it’s important for coaches at that level to talk about ethics and civility. We hold the coaches and parents to the same standards,” Mitrano said.