Roberto Alomar of the Baltimore Orioles spits in the face of an umpire. Steve Spurrier, coach of college football's No. 1 team, insists his quarterback is the target of late hits. Dennis Rodman, the head-butting, trash-talking Chicago Bull, sinks to a new low when he kicks a courtside cameraman in the groin.
There is more. New York Giants fans pelt the gridiron with ice balls. Albert Belle plunks a photographer with a baseball. Basketball's Nick Van Exel shoves a referee and Robert Horry tosses a towel in the face of his coach.
Sportsmanship, it seems, has gone out of fashion. And with ever more cable networks vying for audiences, TV has turned outbursts of temper into entertainment, replaying and analyzing each tantrum as if it were the Zapruder film.
Two decades ago, showboating and postscore celebrations were all in good fun. In most cases, they still are harmless, if irritating, sideshows. The inflated egos of athletes, however, more and more are turning dunks and end-zone dances into mocking displays.
In a way, the same premise has led to an "above-the-law" mentality for athletes off the field, says Art Taylor, associate director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "Society now has less respect," Taylor says. "And in sports, there is a growing tendency for reduced respect for the coach, the ref, the opposition and even teammates. When you do see an example of respect and sportsmanship, it is an exception, where 20 years ago that wouldn't have been the case."
Eighty-six percent of the 51,286 respondents to a recent USA Weekend poll believe misbehavior by players on the field and off is the biggest problem plaguing sports today High ticket prices (11 percent) and owners who move their teams (3 percent) were a distant second and third.
But bad behavior cuts both ways, according to Washington Redskins backup quarterback Heath Shuler -- the object of a hail of boos from the home crowd when he entered a late-season game. "I turned around and there was this guy in the stands who was yelling at me and cussing me back and forth," Shuler recalls. "And right next to him was his son, who was doing the same thing. I'm thinking, 'Wait a second. What's wrong with this picture?' People should look around them and understand that this isn't just the way things are at a football game -- they might act the same way in the classroom, too."
In Taylor's opinion, free agency has exacerbated the trend toward poor sportsmanship. In the past, an athlete had a responsibility to his teammates, the owner and the fans in a particular city. Today, entire teams jump cities, leaving players accountable only to themselves. "We've gone through a stage of being very selfish," says Taylor.
Athletes learn that lesson at an early age, Taylor says. Pressure begins early to make the traveling team, and athletes in individual sports are urged to be prima donnas from the start. "Part of the problem is you have a lot of kids playing in the pros who haven't played in college," says Mike Jarvis, head basketball coach at George Washington University in the nation's capital. …