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Respecting the Refs

IS it too much to expect a little social responsibility from highly paid professional athletes? After a spate of referee-abuse incidents in the National Basketball Association, one wonders.

Here are individuals, among the world's most gifted sportsmen, who get seven-figure paychecks and endless adulation from fans - fans from all over the globe as basketball, an American invention, expands in popularity. Young players take their cues from these paragons of "the game."

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Should those cues include head-butting, a la Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman? Or elbowing a ref into the scoring table, in the manner of Los Angeles Laker Nick Van Exel? Or a little (perhaps inadvertent) chest bumping, as revered star Magic Johnson allowed himself this past weekend?

The league did the necessary thing in all cases, instant ejection, and in the case of Rodman and Van Exel (by far the most flagrant offenders), multi-game suspensions and hefty fines. Van Exel will sit out the remaining few games of the regular season and a total (fines plus salary) of around $187,000. Maybe that's a bit more than pocket money even in the NBA. Stronger sanctions, such as banishment from play-off games, wouldn't have been out of line either.

Magic, at least, had the sense to publicly acknowledge he'd been at fault. He had, after all, been an outspoken critic of the other incidents.

It's not only the abysmal example for youngsters that's at stake, or bad PR for pro basketball. The integrity of the game itself is hurt when players lack the maturity to take a call without temper outbursts and attempted physical intimidation of the referees. Mastery of those impulses should be part of the character that athletics supposedly builds.

As countless moms and dads have tried to impress on their aspiring stars, the rules are there for a reason, and they have to be respected - as do the people who enforce them.

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