Know the old joke about going to a fight and a hockey game broke out? One sociologist says that these days when you go to almost any sporting event, a pro wrestling match is imminent.
The NBA playoffs are one big tug of war. A Lakers-Celtics game is always played to Dueling Elbows. The Mets were in a series of bench-clearing skirmishes on the way to the pennant last year--including a few in spring training--and the Reds and Braves had fisticuffs on successive days recently.
The big-time colleges aren't exempt either. UCLA's basketball team had more fights last season than Ray Leonard has had in five years. Georgetown's basketball ascension was accompanied by intimidating tactics as well as constant fights and shoving matches.
Now the problem has filtered down to the high schools, and many believe it's a result of prep players watching their idols punch each other on television.
A Diamond Bar vs. Pasadena high school football game was called in the fourth quarter last season after an on-field brawl.
The CIF 2-A basketball championship game last March between Woodbridge and Riverside Banning began with a fight between two players and escalated when a school booster entered the court and slugged a player.
A basketball game between Montebello and Santa Fe high schools that decided a playoff spot was ended early in the fourth quarter after a scuffle that included ejection of Santa Fe Coach Joe Mendoza.
The Grant High School girls' basketball team is on probation for the upcoming season after fighting with the North Hollywood team. And a Cerritos College woman basketball player had a fight with two opponents from College of the Sequoias in a hallway after the game, causing both locker rooms to empty.
The Palos Verdes and North Torrance high school baseball teams had a punch-out after a tense 1-0 game that included a controversial umpiring call. A local newspaper had a picture of a knockdown-in-progress the next day on the front sports page.
Harbor College's baseball team, smarting from a loss to San Bernardino, came out swinging two days later and had a fight with the same team--in the first inning.
Random incidents, mostly one of a kind for each school. But is there a pattern? Has the regularity and visibility of violence in professional and college games--seen almost daily on network and cable television--made fighting part of the status quo?
Hal Harkness, director of athletics for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said: "As long as they keep showing it on TV--and when was the last time you saw somebody kicked out of a basketball game on TV for fighting?--it's going to cause us tremendous problems on this level. . . . The kids see it on TV and seem to think it's part of the game."
Mike Neily, coach of the North Torrance baseball team, said he was embarrassed by the incident with P.V., his only one in eight years of coaching. He said: "Obviously the pros are the image-makers for the kids--it can't help but filter down." Neily said he was irritated by media coverage of the fight, which, he said, detracted from a well-played 1-0 game.
"The percentage (of incidents) is obviously low, but when it happens the media likes to get it," Neily said. "Having pictures in the paper didn't help. They should've had a picture of the pitcher who beat us 1-0."
Referring to fights by the pros, Neily said: "You know if you watch the news that night what you're going to see--the fight. I don't know if that means that's what we want to see or if that's what the media thinks we want to see. It concerns me, as a coach and an educator."
Montebello basketball coach Jeff Schwartz, whose team was involved in the incident with Santa Fe, said he's not convinced television is the culprit. "It's the only incident I've had in many years of coaching," he said. "I think basketball's become more physical, so there's that possibility (of confrontations). I'd rather see the refs call 30 fouls on each team than 'let 'em play,' as they say."
David Marple, a sociology professor who teaches a course in "The Sociology of Sports" at Loyola Marymount, lists other possible causes: increased emphasis on sports as entertainment and increased emphasis by coaches and parents on intense play, even in grade school.
"Television is certainly one factor, what we call a modeling effect," Marple said.
"The question is: Is sport sport anymore? We're seeing sport becoming more of a display spectacle, even at lower levels. We've got our society viewing even lower levels as entertainment. What's happening on the big level is filtering down. . . . If (violence) becomes more acceptable, it may be thought to be the normal course of experience."
Marple said the stress on increased intensity--an expression now almost a coach's cliche--has had a noticeable effect this decade.