Accent on Living

THE critics who have been denouncing us as a nation of flabby spectators must be far out of touch with reality. True, our rather uncertain prospects in the Olympics may lend some color to the complaint that we have become soft, but let the blame for this be laid on the athletes, where it belongs, and not on the spectators. Indeed, the past year has seen in most college and professional sports events a degree of spectator participation quite without precedent. Never before have spectators entered into big-time sports with so much energy and in such great numbers. Even the high school games have attracted these new participants; long after the game has ended, the subways are jammed by high-spirited youngsters, still mauling and scuffling with each other and anyone else within reach.

In hockey, for example, where the quality of the contest is judged according to the number and severity of injuries to the players, great progress was reported in spectator achievement: more players were being injured by objects thrown by the spectators than by the rough-and-tumble of the game itself, so a roundup by one of the press associations reported. Injuries inflicted on each other by the spectators were not tabulated in this study, but they are believed to exceed those at other kinds of contest by a comfortable margin. Most authorities regard the professional hockey fan, while he is in training during the season and with his throwing arm limbered up, as the most formidable of the spectator categories.

The basketball season just past was similarly heartening. “The George - lown-Lafayette basketball game ended tonight,” according to an AP story from Washington, “in a wild fistswinging battle with spectators pummeling the Lafayette team.” About two hundred spectators, “mainly Georgetown students,” had the initiative and determination to get out of their seats and into the melee, and they got what they went after. Said George Davidson, the Lafayette coach, “We thought it best to discontinue the game, especially since only 35 seconds remained and Georgetown’s 9-point lead virtually assured it of victory.”

Basketball coaches are probably to be classified more as players than as spectators, but without becoming involved in such niceties, let us salute the coach of the Syracuse Nationals, who was fined $150 for his “scuffle” with a referee at a game in Madison Square Garden. The TV audience has long since been accustomed to the coach as a moody figure, pacing the side lines and scowling, grimacing, or waving his arms at the officials, as the situation may warrant. But the Syracuse coach was willing to take that all-important next step forward and show himself a man of action. No spectators, unhappily, seem to have joined his foray, but it must be remembered that the whole movement toward more non-player participation is still in its infancy. Given another season or two, such a coach could count, with confidence, on abundant physical support from the stands.

Perhaps the greatest stimulus to bring the spectators into their new and larger role was the professional football game between Cleveland and New York. Thousands of New Yorkers took to the field on this occasion, and the Cleveland team fled like rabbits to the relative safety of their dressing room, although the game was by no means over. The main action was “triggered by small boys,” according to the New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley. (Never underestimate the power of small boys.) “A couple of them ran out on the gridiron, snatched up a football and were pursued by the equivalent of a Mack Sennett cop. Then their elders began to crowd down to the fringes of the playing surface,” etc., etc.

The Daley column was captioned “Too Much Enthusiasm,” which is, of course, one way of looking at it. But this grudging acknowledgment of the crowd’s performance is at least preferable to the silent treatment the press had given only eight days earlier to the truly extraordinary feats of the spectators at the ArmyNavy game in Philadelphia.

As a one-time news reporter, I must say that it seemed to me news of considerable weight, lead material if you please, when a small crowd of teen-agers succeeded in tearing down the south goal posts while the two teams were struggling at midfield. All who watched the game on TV know of this, because the TV camera turned its eye on the proceedings. We had to take on trust, without benefit of camera, which stayed focused on the players, the announcer’s statement a moment later that there went the north goal posts too, and his melancholy afterthought, “It makes you wonder what would happen now, without any goal posts, if someone scored a touchdown and they tried to kick the goal.”It did indeed make me wonder.

Especially did I wonder how the next morning’s Sunday sports pages would hail the intrepid youth of Philadelphia. If anyone had told me in advance that a handful of spectators could bring down all goal posts at an Army-Navy game while both teams were still playing on the field, I should have doubted the possibility. Even more should I have doubted that the four men covering the game for the New York Times, the four from the Herald Tribune, and the two from the Boston Globe would ignore the whole episode in their stories the next morning, yet ignore it they did.

It is my impression that the press in general had little or nothing to say about the young Philadelphians. Arthur Daley, who had attended the Philadelphia game, asserted in his column eight days later that nothing comparable to the spectators’ outbreak at the Cleveland-New York game had occurred for the past forty-five years.

Now, with the baseball season before us, we look ahead to a larger and livelier spectator participation in the game, with the hope that this interesting new trend in sports will receive the attention it deserves.