COLUMBIA, SC — The realities of competitive athletics smacked me square in the face 11 years ago when I traveled on assignment with the Lexington High School boys basketball team to a game in Orangeburg.
The team and all fans who entered the gymnasium were required to pass through metal detectors at the door. Orangeburg-Wilkinson High was ahead of the curve. Today, such searches at the door are commonplace at all levels of sporting events, leading me to believe that athletic competition is a reflection of where we are as a society.
It used to be that sports provided a respite from the troubles of our daily lives. A fan could leave the problems of work and family at the office or at home to attend a game and support his or her favorite team. Winning or losing did not matter so much as being entertained.
That sentiment seems to have shifted. Now, fans often use sporting events to take out the frustrations of their home and workplace through unsportsmanlike behavior. Their actions spill over after the contests into parking lots and gathering places and onto Internet message boards and tweets.
What once was good-natured fun, particularly among rival schools, has morphed into acts vile in nature and founded on hatred for one another.
That belief was reinforced this past week when Da’Von Nathaniel Capers, a 17-year-old Dutch Fork High student, was stabbed to death in the parking lot of a Lexington fast-food restaurant. That the incident occurred following a Dutch Fork-Lexington basketball game only further brought to light the way society now deals with conflict, even surrounding sporting events.
Make no mistake, there are no innocent parties in the incident. Also understand that Lexington High and more-than-adequate security at the game did everything in their power to avoid any incidents. After poor fan behavior erupted at the teams’ previous two meetings, precautions were taken to make certain nothing unseemly happened again.
What Lexington High officials and police enforcement found is that they cannot control what happens beyond the game itself.
As one Midlands-area high school football coach told me this past week, it used to be that fans used their fists to solve differences. Now, he said, fans head to social media to engage in verbal confrontations or, as happened this past week, take to employing knives or guns to express their anger.
On-court fights and outright brawls have been a part of sports since the beginning of time. In writing a history of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball three decades ago, I was struck not so much by the league’s point-shaving scandal but more by the preponderance of fighting during games. During the 1960s, on-court altercations were as common as post-game handshakes. That probably was true in high school athletics as well.
If anything, those incidents have decreased over the years to the point that this year’s brawl during a boys high school basketball game between Gaffney and Boiling Springs is more the exception than the rule.
What has apparently deteriorated is sportsmanship. Taunting and finger-pointing and showing up an opponent appears to have filtered down from the professional ranks through college athletics and into high schools. The saturation of pro and college sports on TV has exacerbated the problem.
A high school coach can preach all he wants to players about respecting an opponent and behaving at all times in a sportsmanlike manner. Then the athlete turns on TV and watches as pro and college players stand over and stare down a fallen opponent, or pimp to the cameras and to their fans after a dunk.
George Glymph, the retired legendary boys basketball coach of yesteryear, says he has seen sportsmanship go the way of the two-hand set shot in high school sports. He said he learned a lesson early in his coaching career about caring and respecting opponents.
Glymph said his Eau Claire team had scored 90 points and six minutes remained in a game against Fairfield Central. The Eau Claire fans began chanting “We want a hundred! We want a hundred!”
During a timeout, one of the Fairfield Central players approached Glymph.
“Coach, please don’t bust a hundred on us,” Glymph recalls him saying.
“What are you talking about, son?” Glymph says he asked the young man.
“We played Sumter, they scored a hundred. We played Lower Richland, they scored a hundred. We go to school and they pick at us, so don’t bust a hundred on us.”
Glymph endured the anger of his own fans by ordering his players not to shoot the ball, except for free throws, and his team finished with 94 points.
Today, some coaches relish the chance to take mean-spirited jabs at opponents or to run up the score on the other team. It is a form of taunting and bullying that occurred this past season at the end of a Lexington High football playoff game at Byrnes.
Byrnes’ unnecessary late touchdown in an already lopsided outcome was bad enough. Worse was the message sent to Byrnes players and fans: Humiliating and embarrassing an opponent is acceptable behavior. Therefore, it must be OK for students and their parents to display the same behavior through texts and tweets and online message boards.
Or maybe, it is OK for those actions to spill into gymnasium parking lots or to nearby hangouts, where words can be supplanted by weapons.
“It’s sad to say, but our society is sick right now with some of the things going on,” Glymph says. “The guys, the players, the students are looking at what their parents are doing, and that’s sad. But that’s the way it is. You hate to say it.”
You would like to believe we can revert to a more civil time among fans in all sports. To believe that will happen means you probably have not listened to sports talk radio lately or visited a fan-based message board.
The kind of vile banter displayed there is not going away, no matter the resulting tragic event.