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Griner’s punch not about women’s sports, but sportsmanship in all college play

March 9, 2010 – 10:27 AM

By Laura Pappano

Here we go again. Baylor’s Brittney Griner’s outrageous act last Wednesday – the now-viral YouTube image of her socking Texas Tech’s Jordan Barncastle after the two jostled beneath the basket – has some wondering: What’s going on in women’s sports?

We had foul-mouthed Serena last summer, and then the pontytail pull in November. But instead of gasping and getting all whipped up over girls fighting, let’s look at what’s happening during college competition. (And why it may be a bigger problem in men’s college sports — did we already forget last year when Houston’s Aubrey Coleman foot-stomped Arizona’s Chase Budinger? video here).

Point One: Bad (and, yes, sometimes dangerous) behavior by college athletes occur at all levels of play — and starts in youth sports. (Read study abstract here or check out the story last month of the gym-clearing brawl involving 30 adults and children during a high school-level youth basketball game in Upstate NY). The NCAA Division III Annual Report for 2008-2009 records “conduct fouls,” and clearly shows this is a dramatically greater problem among male athletes.

— Average yellow cards issued to players was 18.35 per team for men compared with 3.89 for women; red cards issued to players (per team) was 0.98 for men; and 0.17 for women.

— In DIII basketball, men’s teams averaged 3.4 technical fouls per institution while women’s teams averaged less than a fifth as many at 0.64 per team.

— And in DIII ice hockey, men averaged 4.27 misconduct calls per institution, well above the women’s 0.45 misconduct calls by referees.

— Dr. Brian Crossman, ethics committee head for the National Soccer Coaches Association (representing 2,500 men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA plus NAIA, NCAA, and NJCAA) says there is a red card issued in one of every 10 soccer matches, and represents three consecutive years of increases. He sees “a growing disconnect between the severity and number of red card ejections and the standards of conduct” expected of players. Read his take here.

— NCAA data on DI women’s basketball technical and flagrant fouls shows unsportsmanlike conduct among players at its highest point in three years in 2008-2009 (306 called, up from 161 in 2006-2007, and 257 in 2007-2008). In the NJCAA, according to a recent report, last year there were 101 ejections in all of women’s sports with 37 identified as “violent” — while men’s sports tallied dramatically more with 648 ejections, 177 “violent.”

Point Two: College athlete conduct is troubling enough that some NCAA governing bodies are clamping down on bad behavior, including:

— Last month, the Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Rule Subcommittee decided to toughen penalties for rough play, increasing the length of suspensions from one to two games for those participating in a fight.

— The NCAA Football Rules Committee endorsed a proposal last month that would make unsportsmanlike behavior – including “a taunting gesture to an opponent on the way to scoring a touchdown” a live-ball foul that could nullify the TD and penalize the offenders from the spot of the foul.

— While we are on “taunting,” let’s recognize that Brittney Griner’s punch did not come out of the blue, but in an environment in which she’s been verbally and physically harangued on the court and from the stands.

Point Three: If we believe competitive sports teach lessons that matter as much off the field as on, then let’s not just sit back and hope lessons emerge. A 19-year-old freshman like Griner may not intuitively be able to handle the pressure (including expectations that she is the future of women’s basketball), without explicit support. If press reports are even half right, Griner will someday be both a superstar and a stand-up person. But players (especially those with targets on their uniforms) must be taught to shrug off trash talk and physical contact under the basket; not everyone is comes to college play with that skill.

College fight songs evoke battle. Just past the rally call of brass and bass drums, athletes push themselves to the edge of physical ability. Griner was absolutely wrong to throw the punch, but in the heat of intense competition she is not the only college athlete with troubling conduct.  She just happens to be the one we’re watching right now on YouTube.

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