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.