Spit, fists and other acts of incivility
Nice lessons our favorite pro athletes are teaching America's kids these days!
There is something fundamentally weird about it, I admit. Watching replay after replay of Le'Ron McClain spitting in Channing Crowder's face during the Ravens-Dolphins game last weekend is no way to pass an afternoon. And yet it is difficult to turn away from something so obvious, so repugnant and -- do I really have to say this out loud? -- so symbolic of the current state of civility in pro sports.
McClain's special delivery arrived at roughly the same time as NASCAR minister of decorum Jeff Gordon's unhinged attack on Jeff Burton for knocking Gordon's car out of the race at Texas Motor Speedway. It came a couple of days after jockey Calvin Borel went collar-grabbing after Javier Castellano following a racing incident on the opening day of the Breeders' Cup.
This is the same America that peppers its airwaves with ads for erectile dysfunction and potential low-testosterone issues? Color the average sports fan confused.
In truth, the civility line in sports keeps getting erased, extended and redrawn, which is the only proper response, I suppose, when the damn thing is so constantly crossed. This is by no means the first time in sports history that people have lost their wits and acted stupidly; heck, we find it entertaining as often as not. But something is afoot here.
At the same time that the NFL cracks down on overly vicious hits, at the same time that the NBA tries to go technical-crazy on its players for uttering too many peeps, pro sports athletes themselves appear less reserved than ever when it comes to mano-a-mano conduct. The theory appears to be as follows: Let the spittle land where it may.
Ironically, Crowder would generally have it that way; he just draws the line at actual spit. The Dolphins' Crowder, you may remember, is the player who last month said of the NFL's attempt to curtail helmet-on-helmet collisions, "If they're going to keep making us go more and more like a feminine sport, we're going to wear pink every game, not just on the breast cancer months."
Sweet. But even Crowder, who also once famously noted that he wasn't aware people in London spoke English, has his limit -- and McClain crossed it. During a skirmish between the two, the Ravens fullback is clearly shown spitting into Crowder's face before he walks away. It's the old Romanowski treatment, for those keeping score at home.
Crowder went after McClain and later took off on a profanity-laced postgame tirade during which he referenced Stevie Wonder, Anne Frank (don't ask) and Helen Keller. Poor Stevie, constantly dragged into these lame conversations every time somebody decides he has to make a dramatic point. Can't a classic pop artist be left alone to pursue his craft?
McClain barely tried to cover his actions, and that was interesting, too. In general, athletes appear less apologetic than ever about making asses of themselves. In this case, McClain offered a half-hearted postgame denial; and then, when confronted with the video evidence, Tweeted his followers, "Video shows me arguing with the guy! Called him something and i guess a Lil spit got on him. Not on purpose but I have moved on to Atlanta."
Lil spit. If that's Stevie Wonder's next opening act, we have a problem. (Or perhaps a solid-gold idea.)
NASCAR fights used to occur somewhat more frequently than they do these days; but for some reason, people appeared to take great pleasure in watching the image-protective Gordon blow his stack in Texas. It probably had less to do with the actual event -- Burton clearly got into Gordon during a caution, even though Burton later strongly denied that he would ever intentionally ram a driver that way -- than it did with the spectacle of Gordon trying to shove somebody around.
Likewise, the video of the tiny Borel going after the tiny Castellano was received by many as good for a few cheap laughs. Cheap is certainly the operating word here. There is something fundamentally screwed up about a guy who can't keep it together during a weekend as spectacular and elite as the Breeders' Cup. Funny, sure -- jockeys going at it. But cheap, in the end.
That line of civility continues to be redrawn, moving the sporting eye just a bit farther away from the actual action itself. The attention goes just a bit more toward the sideshow, toward the openly pouting receiver or the spitting fullback or the jockey or driver who wants to throw down in front of God and everybody. Temper, temper. You're the pros, after all.
It almost makes a person wish for the cool decorum and distanced wisdom of Kevin Garnett. After all, provocateurs, these rash incidents of open-faced stupidity make you cancerous to your team and our league.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at email@example.com.