Sports Violence

WRITING - Joe Bob's America


Now that Big Mike Tyson is going up on rape charges,

and three St. John's University athletes just barely escaped going to prison for rape, and it seems like athletes all across the U.S.A. are turning vicious on us, we're starting to hear from a lot of Angry Mamas who say it's the high school football coaches who are responsible for this stuff.

I know what they mean. I know some guys in Texas who, if they couldn't be football coaches, would have to become serial killers just to find a career path that they could stick with. As a class of people, football coaches are the Nazi torturers of peacetime.

I knew a coach in Little Rock, Arkansas, who required his players to run wind sprints until they threw up. This is how he judged that the "proper number" had been run.

This same guy used to talk affectionately about "the guys who love to hit." What he meant was the defensive players who derived actual pleasure from using their bodies as airborne missiles intended to bruise, wound and flatten somebody on the other team. He would show films of these Nuclear-Strength Tackles, with the camera lingering on the player who had been pancaked, bent, cracked or pounded. The way you could tell it was a good tackle is that the recipient of it wouldn't get up for a LONG time.

And then he would say, "That was a perfectly legal tackle."

This was very important to the coach, for some reason--that the whole ritual was "perfectly legal." One reason, I guess, is that, if it WASN'T "perfectly legal," then he'd have a 15-yard penalty on his hands. But I think he meant something more than that. It was like he was always saying, "This is the goal. This is the object of the game"--when, actually, when you think about it, the only goal of the game is to STOP the other player. You don't even have to tackle him. You can stop the ball-carrier while he's still standing up, and the referee will blow the whistle, and it counts just the same as a Nuclear-Strength Tackle. But, in this coach's mind, that wasn't the same as "ringing a guy's bell."

If you couldn't ring a guy's bell, then you were a wimp.

Of course, I sized this situation up immediately after one season as a center in the fifth grade. I turned in my uniform, went home and said, "Mom, football HURTS." And never played it again.

So, if it's true that success in sports leads to patterns of behavior in later life, then what I would suggest is pushing BASEBALL in the high schools instead of football.

Baseball--the LEAST popular team sport in the high schools--is the only game in which you can't overpower anybody. You can stand four-foot-eight and weigh 95 pounds and still be a great baseball player. You can have the hardest, fastest throwing arm in the world--and if you can't control it, everybody in the lineup will hit home runs off you. If you're violent, hot-tempered or impatient, you won't have the concentration it takes to stand around in the field for long periods waiting for the next play.

In fact, the only thing that gives you an edge in baseball is DECEPTION. You throw a slow pitch when the batter is expecting a fast one. You steal bases. You try to make the other team think you're going to hit away, when actually you're going to bunt. Baseball teaches you to win by being sneaky, instead of winning by hurting someone else. Baseball teaches you, in other words, to win with your mind.

More important, baseball doesn't hurt.

After I quit football, I took up baseball. I was a catcher, which meant I got to say witty things to the other ten-year-olds like "Hey, look, your shoe laces are untied!" (Sometimes this actually WORKS on ten-year-olds.) We were never encouraged to be physical or violent, but we WERE encouraged to be sly and deceitful. We relished the days when the manager would give us the "secret" base-stealing signs. I was secretly proud when it was time to trot out to the mound and tell the pitcher that if I signalled with one finger it meant a fast ball, two fingers for a changeup. (Ten-year-olds aren't allowed to throw curve balls, but we all WANTED to throw curves, because that was the ultimate "sneaky" pitch.) And we would yell things at each other like "This guy can't hit!" and "Weak batter!" and generally any demeaning thing the mind of a child can come up with. EVERYONE would do this, the whole team, but since I was the catcher, crouching three feet from the batter, I got to do the really fun part.

It started when I read a book by Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher, in which he listed many of the things he said to batters in order to break their concentration. (Sometimes the remarks involved the batter's wife, mother, heredity, sexual preference, or IQ--depending on the person.) And so, modeling myself on this sports legend, I invented epithets appropriate to ten-year-olds, always remembering Yogi's dicta that a) it's gotta be personal, and b) the only goal is to make the guy think about SOMETHING ELSE BESIDES HITTING THE BALL. It doesn't matter whether it makes him mad, or it makes him happy--you just have to CHANGE him right before the pitch is thrown.

It was SO EASY. A few of them I can remember:

"Your sister is fat."

"I wish your mother would shut up."

"I saw your family drive up in the stupidest car I've ever seen."

And, in most cases, I wasn't even sure the guy HAD a sister, and I NEVER saw the guy's car, and I wasn't even sure his mother was AT THE GAME. But they seemed to work on almost everybody. One guy turned around and wanted to slug me, he was so mad. And if the guy was a really powerful hitter, I would sometimes go the other way:

"That was a great home run last week against Porterfield Realty."

And the vain, immature guys would RELAX when you said stuff like that.

We were setting all-time strikeout records.

It lasted for three games. And then an umpire told me that, if I made another remark to a batter, he would kick me out of the game. Just like that. He didn't discuss it. He didn't give me a chance to defend myself. He made it very clear.

The guy never read Yogi's book, I guess.

He nipped my athletic career in the bud.

I could have made it to Wall Street by now.