Extreme unsportsmanlike conduct by athletes

Unsportsmanlike conduct by an athlete during the course of a game might be attributed to the high level of passion and focus playing at the professional level requires. Players without passion for the game rarely succeed, but we expect athletes to play passionately within the boundaries of good sportsmanship.

Sometimes there's too much passion, or passion gets misdirected, gets focused on another person, and the result is never good. Some of the ugliest and most notorious incidents of unsportsmanlike conduct come when an athlete attacks another athlete during a game.

It's a shame when the behavior of an athlete crosses the line in this way, and each time it occurs, it raises questions about sports and athletes that shouldn't have to be asked. These four athletes, who used their considerable talents against an opponent, are among the worst offenders.

Marty McSorley

On February 21, 2000, McSorley was playing for the Boston Bruins when he hit Donald Brashear(notes) of the Vancouver Canucks in the head with his stick. A bleeding Brashear fell and hit his head on the ice and was unconscious for a brief time. McSorley apologized, saying he didn't mean to hurt Brashear, but did intend to provoke a fight.

The National Hockey League (NHL) suspended McSorley for the remaining 23 games of the season, and the Canadian judicial system found him guilty of assault with a weapon, but did not impose jail time. It did impose, however, a ban on participation in athletics for 18 months.

Was this simply a case of unsportsmanlike conduct—too much energy and not enough thinking in the heat of the game, or was it something else?

Todd Bertuzzi(notes)

On March 8, 2004, Vancouver Canucks player Bertuzzi assaulted Colorado Avalanche player Steve Moore on the ice, punching Moore in the head and then falling on top of him, causing a broken neck and facial cuts.

He, too, was suspended for the remainder of the season—20 games—and would have to attend a reinstatement hearing before playing in the NHL again. Like McSorley, Bertuzzi apologized, and went to court. In a plea arrangement, he pleaded guilty to assault causing bodily harm, and served no jail time. Neither will have a criminal record..

Albert Haynesworth

On October 1, 2006, Tennessee Titan Haynesworth stomped on the helmet-less head of Dallas Cowboy Andre Gurode, opening up a cut that required 30 stitches to close. There is no way this incident could be attributed to accidental contact.

Haynesworth's extreme case of unsportsmanlike conduct got him ejected from the game and garnered him a five-game suspension, the longest at that time for in-game behavior.

I was watching this game and was shocked, as was everyone else, to see this attack, and Haynesworth's attitude immediately after.

LeGarrette Blount

On September 3, 2009, Boise State's Byron Hout was punched in the jaw by Oregon running back Blount, who then tried to charge into the stands as he was being led off the field by security. He was suspended for 10 games.

Unsportsmanlike conduct by athletes isn't limited to attacks on other athletes during a game, as evidenced by the numerous athletes who have interacted with fans—throwing chairs, snowballs, or even themselves into the stands, like the free-for-all that took place in the stands at an Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons game in 2004.

Pushing and shoving among players turned into fans throwing things. It got really out of control when Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson went into the stands and began fighting with fans, an interaction that left several people injured, and ended the game with 45.9 seconds left on the clock.

In some cases, unsportsmanlike conduct by an athlete occurs totally outside the game environment, as in the case of Golden State Warriors player Latrell Sprewell, who threw coach P.J. Carlesimo to the ground, throttled, and threatened him with death in 1997. Sprewell was suspended (his suspension was later reduced), and his contract with the Warriors was terminated (he later sued for lost wages and damages).

There's a line between aggressive play and aggression, and sometimes athletes cross it. Does each incident of egregious unsportsmanlike conduct blur the line or make it more distinct? Should we be shocked when an athlete crosses it, or that more don't?

Sources:

NY Daily News, McSorley found guilty, won't serve jail time, by Sherry Ross

The New York Times, McSorley said he wanted to fight, not injure, by Tom Spousta
CBS News, Criminal Charge in Hockey Hit, by Lloyd de Vries
ESPN, Bertuzzi's case didn't belong in court, by Scott Burnside

ESPN, Haynesworth suspended for unprecedented 5 games

Huffington Post, Oregon Football Player Punches Out Byron Hout After Game

ESPN, Artest, Jackson charge Palace stands

Sports Illustrated, Centre of the Storm, by Phil Taylor

Los Angeles Times, Sprewell Sues the NBA, Warriors for $30 Million Over Suspension

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Updated Friday, Mar 4, 2011