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Sports Violence Impacts US Society

A key question: Are superstars and professional teams becoming role models for mayhem? Experts say fans now hope to see a bit of violence in televised sports.

IN the pre-game TV promotion just before last week's Copper Bowl football game in Phoenix, four stars of the Kansas State team stepped off a train dressed like cowboys. All carried guns. Coming at them down the abandoned Western street were four stars from the Wyoming team, all dressed like cowboys with their guns ready.

Suddenly they opened fire, the screen filling with blazing guns and gun smoke. When the smoke cleared, the scene shifted to a packed football stadium at night. An emotional announcer said the shootout had begun.

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Football fans in the United States might call it a touch of harmless promotional theater. Critics of the growing violence in and around American sports would cite it as another example of the way violence and sports increasingly cross-pollinated each other in l993.

With the ultimate sports conflict, the Super Bowl, just a few weeks away, some people are asking if the level of violence in professional sports is influencing all levels of social behavior in US society? Are superstars and professional teams becoming role models for violence?

``Sports mirror society,'' says Albert Applin, vice chancellor of the United States Sports Academy in Daphne, Ala. ``In our achievement-oriented society there is the urge to be No. 1. And competitive sports mirror this, including the violence that can result from that urge. Until society resolves it's underlying problems, sports will reflect all of society's problems.''

But other observers say today's sports actually are contributing to violent behavior. ``I think the violence goes both ways,'' says Myriam Miedzian, author of the book, ``Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence.'' Her view is that violence in sports sets a negative example as well as being a reflection of societal problems.

According to some experts, a lot of society's enthusiasm for professional sports, particularly among youth gangs and young criminals, stems from the violence and dominance in today's sports, not from sportsmanship or love of the game.

In an extreme example, last year in Lakewood, Calif., a gang of teenagers, calling themselves the Spur Posse after the San Antonio Spurs pro basketball team, were charged with rape and other sexual crimes.

The teenagers were keeping score of their sexual conquests of girls. If a boy had 50 conquests, that equaled the number worn by Spurs player David Robinson. One of the boys' fathers told a reporter the boys were acting just like professional athletes, like Wilt Chamberlain in particular, who boasted in his autobiography that he had sex with 20,000 women.

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``There is trickle down in sports,'' Mr. Applin says. ``The highest level of pro sports sets the example for all the other levels. When former heavyweight fighter Mike Tyson talks about driving a guy's nose into his brain, that type of mentality is sure to trickle down to the next level. It happens in all sports. Fighting is now commonplace in baseball, and it wasn't 20 years ago. The epitome of violence today is hockey.''

Ms. Miedzian contends that violent games also have encouraged increased violence among spectators during the last 20 years or so. ``Young boys who grow up seeing big brawls after games begin to think it's normal behavior,'' she says. Experts say spectator violence is becoming more and more common at the high school level. For example:

During a high school basketball playoff game in West Virginia last year, a player had his ankle broken after a fight in the stands spilled onto the floor. The player was struck by a thrown chair.

After a high school soccer playoff game in Virginia, fans punched the referee and gashed his head. They threw stones at the linesman, who barely escaped.

At the pro level, in June, 1990, eight people were killed on the streets of Detroit celebrating after the Detroit Pistons won the National Basketball Association championship.

``The irony,'' Applin says, ``is that sports were introduced in the late 1800s to help violent juvenile delinquents because they had been alienated by the industrial revolution. Now it seems sports pushes some young people toward violence.''

Historically, the early days of college football were extremely violent with players killed and maimed because of lack of helmets and protection. After his son broke a leg in a Yale football game, President Theodore Roosevelt, already a critic of such violence, launched a sanctioning organization that became the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

``Today, violence is almost an acquired taste because we have an escalation of it in sports, and some people come to expect it,'' Miedzian says. ``But many people don't take their children to sports events anymore because of it. The attitude that anything goes in order to win has to stop,'' she says.

But the profitable relationship between sports and television, and huge player salaries continues. ``In TV programing,'' Applin says, ``violence sells and brings people back. It's the same in pro sports; violence adds a little something to the game and people hope to see it. I don't think it's necessarily good for people, but that's the way it is.''

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