For Love of Sports and Civility by Jim Tunney, former NFL referee

(The following appeared in the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS by Jim Tunney, Guest Columnist for Sunday Forum)

Alibi Ike. That’s what my dad called players who came off the field claiming a cleat got caught in the sod or his glove was too new. Dubbing these kids “Ike” was dad’s way of reminding them to take responsibility. He believed that every player had to take responsibility for his own level of play, and that competition is always a test against yourself.

Dad was a high school football coach, a director of parks and recreation in California, and officiated high school and college sports. There wasn’t a day of his adult life when he wasn’t involved in sports. His definition of sports? Simple: Sports is competition and fun.

That clarity is missing from sports today. As young as Pop Warner and Little League, some kids are adopting an in-your-face attitude, mimicking someone they’ve seen. The examples are many, and foolish. Atlantic Braves closer John Rocker’s bad-mouthing minorities. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss spitting on an official after a call didn’t go his way. Terrell Owens running to the 50-yard line after scoring a touchdown so he can celebrate on the Cowboys logo.

Debasing yourself and your team by uncivilized behavior (from showboating to taunting to violence) eclipses what sports is supposed to include – respect, teamwork, discipline, ethics and integrity. And it’s not just players. A recent poll by UsFans revealed that 25% of fans feel paying admission to a sporting event entitles them to do whatever they want to do, hostile or not. In all stadiums, the home team provides security by police officers and security guards. Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia has even hired a judge to be on duty so rowdy, drunk or violent fans can be fined or immediately confined.

As an NFL referee and crew chief, I insisted we act quickly to shut down situations between players. I could usually get it done with a simple command to the team captain – “You take care of your players, or I will” – but if it meant stepping between players heavier and stronger than me, I did. In 31 years with the NFL, I never feared being accosted. I was never spat on, or even jostled. I was recently discussing the seeming increase in volatility on the field with Sam Huff, Hall of Fame linebacker for the Giants and Washington Redskins. Huff played with as much intensity as any I’ve known. Huff said the standards have slipped. “We would never touch an official,” he said. “Argue sometimes, sure, but get physical? Never.”

I reminded Sam there was a rule against it. “Maybe there was a rule,” he said, “but you never had to enforce it, did ya? The officials aren’t the opponents.”

The question remains: why are players and fans letting themselves get out of control? If Dad were here, he’d say it starts with parents and continues up the chain of influence. Coaches used to have a more direct relationship with players, almost a parental role. Today, agents and lawyers erect barriers between players and team organizations. Agents who keep ethics and integrity foremost preserve the value of the old standards while bargaining for the new money. Not all agents abide these principles, and some players don’t want their agents to acknowledge any rule other than the rule of the coin.

When we forget what sports is supposed to be, the impulse of pride shifts from its bright side, the honor of sportsmanship, to the dark side of undeterred ego. Everyone in the chain is part of the problem and therefore essential to stemming the cascade of uncivilized behavior. Training in manners and civility starts in the home, continues through the values and limits set by coaches, and extends to team organizations, field officials, and league commissioners, and even to the judges in stadium basements. These are links in the chain of influence, but the ultimate responsibility stays with the individual. Behavior is always personal. Be firm with Alibi Ike the first time and every time.

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