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ISSUE 118 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 4/29/2005

Fans should stay in stands

By Pat Bottini
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 29, 2005

I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I actually have to stand up for Gary Sheffield.

On April 14, the New York Yankees visited Fenway Park in Boston to complete the final matchup of a three-game series against the Red Sox. While the score resulted in a pleasing 8-5 Boston win, headlines across the sporting world projected an entirely different sentiment. “Sheffield Scuffles With Fan at Fenway,” ESPN pronounced, and Sports Illustrated proclaimed, “Sheffield-Fan Scuffle Sparks Investigation.”

As Sheffield, left fielder for the Yankees, went to field a ground ball along the left field wall, he was allegedly struck in the face by a Boston fan. He then shoved the fan back, threw the ball and turned around with a cocked fist before restraining himself. In other words, Sheffield did the right thing. No! Please, Gary – you can’t be right! Run up in the stands and bite his ear off! Tear him apart with your fists of steroid steel! Don’t do the right thing and make me agree with you!

Well, to my heartbroken disappointment, the latest incident in a recent string of player-fan altercations ended with admirable self-restraint on the part of the player: in this case, the otherwise despicable Sheffield. While Major League Baseball acted correctly by not disciplining Sheffield, sports writers, such as Sports Illustrated’s Jon Donovan, have demanded that actions be taken against him.

Many remember the Pacers-Pistons brawl in Detroit, Mich., last November. Pacers forward Ron Artest, who frequently leads the NBA in suspensions, sparked one of the worst player-fan altercations in American sports history when he retaliated violently after a fan bombarded him with a cup of beer. Images of the Pacers’ Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson roaming through the stands in search of blood are still vivid in the minds of many fans. Interestingly, the public tends to remember certain aspects of these altercations better than others. For example, Pacers center Jermaine O’Neal never left the court during the November brawl, yet footage shows that O’Neal threw a hefty punch at a heavy-set Pistons fan on the court.

In both Sheffield’s and O’Neal’s situations, the players did not leave the arenas of play at any time. The fact that they did not cross this boundary between players and fans should be reason for leniency in their cases. In fact, for the same reason that one should punish Artest for crossing that border, we should commend O’Neal for protecting himself and his teammates within those boundaries. In the same way I held my breath when Artest rushed the stands, I gladly exhaled when O’Neal dropped the obese man who ran onto the court feeling like a big man (no pun intended).

The player-fan boundary is something which must be enforced. However, it must be enforced and recognized from both sides. While there is security to keep a fan from entering the field, once the fan has made it past that boundary, players should be allowed to defend themselves. If Artest runs into the stands, he deserves to get mobbed by 20 drunken Pistons fans, and if a drunken Pistons fan wanders onto the court in search of a fight, he deserves to find just that with a 6’11’’, 260-pound behemoth like O’Neal.

We expect professional athletes to put up with fans’ heckles and often vulgar jeers. They are supposed to turn the other cheek when someone yells a personal insult, but they should not be expected to do so when they are threatened physically.

Swiping a player in the face as he fields a ground ball is a cowardly thing to do, and it should not be allowed to happen. Perhaps the worst part of these altercations is when a fan credits his violent actions to team loyalty. These fights have nothing to do with team loyalty; they are incited by gutless psychopaths who are trying to sneak in a sucker punch in the hopes of feeling important. Fans don’t interfere when there is an actual threat of immediate danger. When was the last time you saw a player-fan altercation at a heavyweight-boxing match or an archery contest? No one throws a beer at an opposing team member in a rifle marksman competition.

Therefore, to prevent future scuffles, we need simply to increase the sense of security and allow the players free reign on anyone who enters the field of play. Would you want to actually fight Gary Sheffield? I wouldn’t even take my chances with Earl Boykins. We should have a Ron Artest chained up in every sporting arena in the country! Come on the field, and they’ll let some slack off of the leash.

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