Sports Could Use the Sound of Silence

Athletes should be seen and not heard


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in November 2006.

Kids' soccer games have grown so raucous that some leagues enforce a "silent Saturday," when parents are banned from cheering, yelling, booing, or swearing. It's a great idea that ought to be extended to professional sports—not to shut up fans, but to shut up players.

The National Basketball Association is moving in the direction of greater quiet. In 2006, it declared a policy against excessive complaining. The happy result is more technical fouls being called and more players being ejected.

Commissioner David Stern explained, with admirable understatement, that "we have the best athletes in the world, playing a spectacular game as well as it has ever been played. In my view, it detracts from it when a small handful of players spend their time negotiating and slowing the game down … by engaging in an enterprise which is not productive."

And how have the offending parties responded to the new policy? By vehemently disagreeing.

Former Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett said the rule is "almost like communism." Rasheed Wallace, who led the league in 2005 in technical fouls for the Detroit Pistons, said it was obviously aimed at punishing him. He set out to prove his point by getting tossed from the season opener. Players association President Billy Hunter was so aghast at this suffocating repression that he threatened to file an unfair labor practice complaint against the league.

To which any sports fan can only sigh and say: Boohoo. If professional athletes want to spend their time debating, they should run for office. Nobody goes to a game to see athletes run their mouths, but a lot of them operate as though they're being paid like freelance writers—by the word.

They do this even though, as Stern noted, their incessant griping serves no functional purpose. How many times have you seen a referee slap himself on the forehead, exclaim to the disputant, "By golly, you're right!" and reverse the call? All the grousing does is interfere with the game and make the complainers look like toddlers who missed naptime.

The NBA is hardly alone in the problem. In recent years, you would think a lot of major league baseball players had just graduated from law school and were looking for opportunities to practice objecting, pleading, and hair-splitting.

Any allegedly errant strike may elicit a round of grimacing, head-shaking, and eye-rolling by the aggrieved batter. Any close call at first base may induce one player or another (or his manager) to dash up to the umpire, hop up and down, wave his arms, stamp his feet, and strongly recommend professional eye care. Occasionally, umpires give the offender the heave-ho. More often, they simply indulge the histrionics.

The National Football League has its quota of professional whiners, particularly receivers who demand an interference call anytime a cornerback says, "Good afternoon." But many of the worst displays come from coaches who insist they can see things from 60 yards away that an official with a closeup view has inexplicably missed.

The college ranks are also not immune: South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier once speculated that his team had gotten some calls because the refs thought it would be fun to stick it to him, which suggests he spends too much time hanging out in Area 51.

It was not always thus. In the old days, the Dallas Cowboys had a coach named Tom Landry, whose expression and demeanor couldn't have varied less, win or lose, if he had been embalmed. One observer marveled that he contemplated the game as though he were admiring the paintings in an art museum.

Somewhere along the line, Landry must have gotten the idea that he couldn't accomplish anything by throwing tantrums. Or maybe that the referees were doing their best and, like players and coaches, were burdened by human fallibility. This weird maturity didn't keep him from taking the Cowboys to five Super Bowls.

Landry may have also recognized the wisdom of what another football coach, Lou Holtz, said during his time at Notre Dame: "Don't tell people your problems, because 90 percent don't care and the other 10 percent are glad you got them." That, of course, goes double when your audience is wearing a striped shirt.

Professional athletes and coaches wouldn't be where they are if they didn't have the capacity for extraordinary feats. So here's one some of them should try: Tie your tongue in a knot. Then go do your job.


NEXT: They Could Be Twins

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  1. Good Morning reason!

    If professional athletes want to spend their time debating, writes Steve Chapman, they should run for office.

    One I don’t ever remember saying anything political was Heath Shuler. Now he’s a Congressman.

    1. In his defense, the “athlete” thing didn’t work out too well for him.

  2. Thanks. An article from last decade and an image from last year.
    Next week: Britney Spears is a bad role model.

    1. With a picture of Lady Gaga.

      1. Nah. In a week she’ll be history too.

        1. I keep thinking that every week.

        2. Doubt that. Too many weirdos in this country.

  3. Who takes vacation at the beginning of the year?

  4. 10 prima donna genetic freaks running up and down a wooden floor for 48 minutes is “spectacular”? Sorry, in terms of interest, basketball is a distant fourth of the major team sports.

    1. right after Curling if i remember the list correctly.

    2. 4th to what? Second to American football, maybe, but who wants to watch 9 men stand around for half an hour waiting for a ball to fall out of the sky?

      1. Can we just go with “tied for last” and include them all?

  5. Poop Slinger is on vacation. This comment appeared in 1993.

  6. Why shouldn’t a player be able to object to a poorly made call by an official? The leagues have made sure of that excessive behavior is the only way for a player or coach to express dismay and the complainer knows he will face a fine.

    Control freaks like Stern want a scripted pro-wrestling choreography for their respective realms. They picture themselves as benign dictators not realizing what a phantom oxymoron that is.

    Stay on vacation Chapman and dream up some other areas where protestors can be silenced.

  7. “Former Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett”

    I didn’t see the 2006 by-line at first and assumed Chapman is just some kind of rabid Celtic hater.

  8. Listen, I hate the arguing and gesticulating and whining as much as the next guy (maybe more – the chief sport I follow [soccer] is plagued by it more than others, though there is some reason for that). However, as an athlete the main reason I argue calls is not necessarily to try to get the current call reversed, as Chapman erroneously argues the pros do. It’s to get the official to think about the NEXT call, and the one after that, and so on. It’s primarily to register displeasure and try to nudge them toward considering things differently in the future. Does it backfire? Occasionally. But sometimes, it at least SEEMS to work.

  9. Although private-sector sports leagues aren’t legally bound by the First Amendment, I’m inclined to allow the so-called whiners to have their say. As a general rule, I think those who like to say “quit whining” are motivated by a macho stoicism that really amounts to a kind of empty martyrdom. There is no inherent shame in operating under the principle that a squeaky wheel gets greased. Like it or not, problems tend to get solved when people persistently complain about them.

  10. steve,

    by your article im fairly certain you never played a team sport at a high level.

    specifically about the nba, the idea of shutting down the bitching is a sound one. In practice, however, it has become silly and capricious.

    the athletes care about the result of a game. if someone makes a mistake, they should be allowed to be upset, now matter who made that mistake. bitching players should not be allowed to interfere with the game, but slamming the ball down and catching it, staring at another player, loosing the occassional expletive, or laughing at a referee from the bench should not be ejectionable offenses.
    The problem with the crackdown on whining is that the referees get a stupid amount of discretion, and many abuse it. *cough*Joey Crawford*cough*

    seems to me that my opinion would be relatively common among libertarians.

    1. I think the libertarian opinion would be to let the professional sports organizations govern themselves how they see fit, since they are private businesses.

      You bring up a good point but where does one draw the line? In hockey they let guys wail on each other. Why doesn’t the NBA allow that?

  11. 2006? Come on, let’s have some fun. Surely he wrote something in, say, 1944? Give us a real ride in the time machine, folks.

  12. Fencing is the best spectator sport. It’s also the best sport. Ever.

  13. Is basketball the one with the puck? Or is that puckball? As I see it, the team that place the object into the net/hoop thingy more times than the other team wins some sort of prize or delicious beverage, not sure which (maybe both).

  14. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

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