Is there a Line? What does it mean to cross it?

22.04.08 - Paul Strauss: These questions surfaced again because of Bernard Hopkins' pre-fight antics leading up to his fight with Joe Calzaghe. When Hopkins employed bullying tactics, spewed insults, and most particularly made racist comments, some questioned whether he crossed the line? Larry Merchant made a telling comment when he said, "To Bernard, there is no line!."

Larry obviously was telling us there is a line, implying that Bernard refuses to recognize that fact. A little different interpretation might be there's no line if you decide there is no line? As the old saying goes, I sense we are impaled on the horns of a dilemma?

To remedy this dilemma, we have to start somewhere, so let's grab on to at least one horn, and agree there is a line! Who made the line, and who decides on its placement? Was it the salty language, beer swilling barfly? Maybe it was the high priced front row seat fan? Is loyalty to the sport a factor? Is involvement in the sport, either at the amateur or professional level a pre-requisite?

Then there's the question of why make the line? Is it important? Does success or winning change the location of the line? Are there other exceptions that could or should be made? If so, who should we make them for and why? Does race make a difference? Finally, how can we be sure the factors involved with the line, and the stepping over or the crossing of it are administered and applied fairly and equally?

Let's step back a bit to the first assumption that there is a line. We must agree that in order for this line to have any value, there has to be consequences for crossing it. Should one consequence simply mean falling into disfavor with fans and/or society for the offender? Maybe it is something more tangible, such as a suspension or fine.

Before we all end up with an Excedrin headache, let's jump ahead to the essence of these questions. For any group or society to function, I'm sure you agree, there have to be rules, laws, organization, and so forth. Boxing and sports in general, are no different. There are verbal agreements and promises, words that must be kept, written contracts and legal issues, all of which are important and necessary for the success of the sport.

You might ask, "So, what's the problem?" The problem surfaces when we get into crossing the invisible line. It usually occurs with the promotion, ballyhoo, psyching out of opponents, trash talking, and so forth.

We all agree there are acceptable tactics that don't cross the line. They are innocent, but effective strategies such as a champion making his challenger wait for an unusual length of time before entering the ring? Or maybe it's the technique John Wooden, the great basketball coach, used when strictly avoiding calling the first time out of the game. He wanted the opponents to be the first to admit they needed one. Bud Grant, the former Vikings coach, used to prohibit his players from using sideline heaters no matter how cold it was. Opponents would be freezing while looking to the Viking players without heaters, and many without jackets or long sleeves! Those are mind games.

What is or should be considered bad taste? What's unacceptable? There are as many opinions and answers to those questions as there are sports fans. Why shouldn't each opinion have equal value, and be equally important?

The word is chaos! Therefore, as with all things, the unwritten rules evolved over a long period of time, through generations of reasonable people, with common sense. They understood that basic morality and simple ethics are a necessary fact of life. The rules didn't come about through preaching. Rather, the rules are an innate part of human beings, and have been around long before you, me, Larry Merchant or Bernard Hopkins was even born.

Further, race and religion are not pre-requisites. Personal beliefs and preferences are always set aside for the good of all. We continue to understand that in order for boxing to be successful and to function properly, it like anything else has these innate values and rules, basic things like don't cheat, lie, or steal. Don't whine, complain or make excuses. Some people place less importance on these unwritten rules, and thereby create problems. They weaken boxing and sports in general. .

Of course there was great care (reasonableness & common sense) when the line was established and its standards were first determined. Our predecessors were wise, and left room for colorful unique characters, ones who spice up the life of the game. However, the often used quote, "It's better to have character than to be one." is true.

Another fact of life is celebrities and sports figures are role models whether they like it or not. Simply saying, “I am not”, doesn't make it so. It's also true that being a role model carries with it certain responsibilities, which are owed to the young and impressionable. Offenders can't just dismiss their poor behavior as part of the game, because it demeans the sport and crosses the line. The implied (reasonable) rules of the unwritten line include as unacceptable behavior such things as personal and insulting attacks, acting like a poor loser, or worse, a poor winner.

Teddy Atlas is correct in wanting a national (or international) boxing commission. That commission would be responsible for fairness and the integrity of boxing. It would protect boxers, and the commission could go one step further, and put into black and white that which constitutes crossing the line, a code of ethics so to speak

The need is there, because these poor excuses for role models aren't the ones who make the sport great, and reasonable people with common sense, as always, need to make sure they understand that fact. The goal should always be to elevate the sport, and to make it an example of which we can be proud.

The good news is we do have many worthy role models. Each of you can name several, I'm sure. For example, W. C. Heinz once said this about the great trainer Ray Arcel, "One of the most gentle, kind, and refined of men, he was concerned about the fighter as a person, more than anyone else I ever met. To him I would have entrusted a son." Jimmy Cannon, commenting on the great Joe Louis said, "He is a credit to his race......the human race!"

We don't have to just look back in time either. We have many current fighters, managers, trainers, and promoters who say and do the right thing, and demonstrate admirable qualities, worthy of imitation by our youth. Unfortunately, some of those getting the most publicity aren't worthy of imitation. For example, history will certainly recognize Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. as great fighters, but it is doubtful historians will be paying tribute to their behavior, and if you don't see that as a problem, then you are part of the problem. They, and those who excuse them, or worse, imitate them, cross the line!

Maybe Billy Conn said it best about what is needed in a fighter, "He (Joe Louis) ain't gentle, but he's a real gentleman." Amen to that.

(Quotations from Glenn Liebman's book titled, Boxing Shorts.)

Article posted on 22.04.2008

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