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Bigger crime needed to put sports in courts

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000

You wonder, with Marty McSorley's guilty verdict in a Canadian courthouse, having been sent to a different kind of penalty box, if overzealous athletes from many sports have new vulnerabilities in a less predictable world of judges and lawyers.

Television has aired the brutal video a thousand times, showing certifiable NHL goon McSorley, the Boston mangler, skating up from behind with a cocked hockey stick, going for a crushing cheap shot at Donald Brashear.

It was disgusting. A sickening shortage of sportsmanship. Don't even murmur that it's "part of the game." McSorley chose to be a role model for thugs. He deserved a long suspension, at least 25 games, maybe even a season. For now, he is suspended indefinitely.

Instead of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman having the ultimate word, this one went to real court. Real charges were filed, as though the Bruins fellow had bushwhacked the Vancouver guy in some alley.

If the blow had ended Brashear's career, it should've been left to him to personally consider legal action. If his concussion leads to further problems, McSorley still can be liable for a civil suit.

But, if possible, can we work at keeping sports judgments out of real court? Precedents are scary. It the word is to come from a geek with a gavel, let it be some commissioner.

I'm not sure where the line is drawn. Or should be. Must there be an attack with a solid object, like in the '60s when Giants pitcher Juan Marichal swung a baseball bat at Dodgers catcher John Roseboro? Should that have gone to real court?

What happens if it's a Dale Earnhardt or a Dale Jarrett going NASCAR nuts and trying to run Jeff Gordon into a wall at Martinsville or Dover? Or Shaq O'Neal purposely planting a gigantic elbow in the mouth of Allen Iverson?

Why am I chuckling?

Is it a criminal act for Pedro Martinez to throw a 98-mile-an-hour pitch at a batter's upper extremities? Are we talking, perhaps, a manslaughter charge if some NFL strong safety catches a wide receiver looking the other way as a pass is falling incomplete and uses shoulder pads, just as zebra whistles blow, in a steamy attempt to behead the enemy player?

What's the limit?

Hockey violence is waning. Fights, while still too frequent, occur far less than in the old NHL days. Phil Esposito says that Gordie Howe's elbows, in the 1960s, should have been registered as deadly weapons. Kidding, kind of.

Cheap shots are fewer now in pro football. When players know that videotapes are being checked, as they are at NFL headquarters every week, the incidents are fewer. Judgments have gotten tougher; ask Mark Carrier, the veteran safety, who has multiple suspensions.

No need for Superior Court.

Sports should be competent to police themselves. Now, if a berserk second baseman pulls a pistol on an umpire, then we're talking something beyond. Mirandize the guy. Cuff him. Book him. Set a court date. But the McSorley deal, however low in class, did not fit that category. Bettman should've been able to handle it.

Salty things had been going on between Brashear and the Bruins before the incident. McSorley wanted a fight. It was near game's end. Marty, with his goon mentality, was eager to trigger something before the squads headed for locker rooms. He went too far. McSorley should've wound up in Bettman's court. Should've been made to pay a major penalty. But the courtroom deal was too much.

"It's a little discouraging that a court of law stepped in," said Bruins defenseman Don Sweeney. A teammate, Joe Hulbig, said the Marty melee "happened in the heat of action and should be dealt with on the ice, not in a courtroom."

I'm not quite with that. Sounds like Hulbig wanted a war of fists. I know it's hockey tradition, but it's an attitude that stinks. Let's see Bettman get even tougher. His game is no brawnier than the NFL's. Set a tone that makes a chap think, as he considers raising a stick for an attack from the backside. Think about being suspended for a week, a month, or longer.

There is ample violence in many sports without ever breaking a rule or pushing the envelope. Jocks need not create extra ugliness. Suspensions are the answer, not fines. An athlete making $3-million is not intimidated by a $25,000 slap. McSorley would sooner have $100,000 extracted from his paycheck than to get drydocked for a half-dozen games.

Indeed, there must be limits, otherwise overhyped linebackers might soon be rolling hand grenades beneath a rival team's bench. Jocks are as answerable to real law as bricklayers, school teachers, journalists and belly dancers.

But until it becomes impossible, can we let the sports people handle their own judgments? As much as I semidistrust some at the commissioner level, it's even shakier to have jock shenanigans being blended in real court with all the murderers, drug dealers, bank robbers and spousal abusers.

Those are far uglier games.

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