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TELEVISED SPORTS BRAWLS PUT PARENTS ON THE SPOT

Televised sports used to be a family affair. Lately, it's more like a family problem for parents.

In the past month, football games have been marred by brawls (Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the pros; Clemson and South Carolina in college) and one National Basketball Association contest turned into a near riot between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons. It ended with players and fans fighting each other in the stands. Ron Artest of Indiana was suspended for the season for his role in the ugly incident, replayed countless times on television.

It leaves parents asking, "What do we say to the kids?"

"My kids are always watching ESPN and sports on television, and we have to talk about this," said Darcy Bailey, an East Aurora mother. Bailey, her husband Tim, and their sons, Timmy, 16, and twin boys Jared and Joel, 13, have turned sports talk into issues of moral conduct.

"Sports has changed for the players and the fans," Darcy Bailey said. "Some players think they can do anything and act any way they want. They don't care about who they hurt or what they do."

The lesson for her children is far different.

"I tell them there are consequences for their actions," Bailey said. "We talked about Ron Artest and what he did, and I explained to them why it was wrong. A player just can't go running into a crowd and start hitting people. Nobody should do that."

She also told her sons the fans who threw chairs, beer and other objects at players were wrong. "Those fans were just as bad as the players. People have to take responsibilities for their behavior whether they're in the game or in the stands."

Media has altered sports culture with influences of MTV, movies and edgy TV shows. Sports video games are often filled with vicious hits and showboating -- just like the games.

"Violence is part and parcel of American life and sports is a microcosm of that life," said Ross T. Runfola, an attorney and sports sociologist at Medaille College. "If you have a violent culture, you will have violence in sports."

Unlike music, movies or other television shows, the media offers no rating guidelines for sporting events.

"I think a parent should be with a younger child (under 10) when watching a sporting event," Runfola said. "Children have become desensitized to violence. They have to be told why it's wrong. A parent has to help a child decipher the difference between the violence in a sports video game and reality."

It becomes more difficult when attending a major sporting event in person.

"I would not take a small child to an NFL game," Runfola said. "Not because of what happens on the field, but because of what happens in the stands."

Rowdy crowd behavior has long been a part of big league sports. The media may be encouraging it by focusing on abhorrent behavior. Fans who paint their faces, take off their shirts in freezing weather are almost sure to be found by a camera, and scantily clad cheerleaders are part of the show.

"As a parent, I think this is all ridiculous," said Marian Whitcomb, a local mother of two teenagers. "I expect my son and daughter to know better and to act better. The media is a big part of the problem. "Did we really need to see all those replays of Ron Artest running into the stands? It helped ratings and publicity for the media, but what did it do to the kids who kept watching it?"

Whitcomb said parents must provide what televised sports lacks - a moral context.

"You have to put all this in context," Whitcomb said. "I'm tired of seeing the violence and the public degradation of women at sporting events. I tell my kids this is not right and this is not the way people are supposed to behave."

Some athletes still believe in role models. When Bills quarterback J.P. Losman was growing up, he wanted to be like Michael Jordan.

"Athletes are role models whether they like it or not," Losman said in a recent interview. A turning point for Losman came when he went to see Jordan play and after the game, got his autograph.

"He was extremely nice to me and I'll never forget it," Losman said, adding that he welcomes the role model responsibility. Media coverage and the antics of pro athletes takes on added meaning in the inner city, said Telly Forcucci, a physical education teacher at School 89 in Buffalo.

"These kids have it tough and they really look up to athletes," Forcucci said. "They know what Ron Artest did was wrong but a lot of them thought it was "cool.' We tell them that no matter how good you are on the court, or how much money you make, there are consequences for what you do.

"Artest is going to lose millions of dollars because he's suspended. We try to break it down in terms the kids can understand. He lost his job, his ability to make money. You got to talk these things over with kids and you've got to deal with reality."

Timmy Bailey, 16, understands.

"Everybody knows Artest was wrong and stupid to go into the stands," he said. "But a lot of kids don't see it as bad. They thought he was reacting to people throwing beer and going after him."

Somehow, in the name of advertising, hype and ratings, a new sports reality is thriving. Destructive, disrespectful behavior is part of the game - on and off the field. Athletes will do just about anything to make the Sports Center highlight reel.

"Sports is supposed to be fun, but everything gets blown out of proportion," said Carolyn Whitcomb, 17, of East Aurora. "The media makes sports bigger than life and the fans take it that way. They go to the game and a mob mentality takes over."

That's what happened between Indiana and Detroit. Some kids, though, learned a lesson that went beyond the media.

"Nobody," Timmy Bailey said, "wants to be like Ron Artest."

aviolanti@buffnews.com