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Fair game

Lawd knows sports arenas aren't places for soothing delicate sensibilities. Ever since the boo and the jeer were invented only moments after the Dawn of Man, stadiums have been filled with the kind of language and hair-raising antics that pinken Beelzebub's cheeks. That's only natural in places where inflamed tribal passions and John Barleycorn are mixed, shaken or stirred.

Natural, but unfortunate if you want to take young kids out to the old brawlgame -- assuming the kids in question aren't the kind who gleefully give the finger and shriek that particular players suck -- or if you are offended by salty language and derisive chants. On this last item, you may have heard about last week's New York Times report concerning gay hockey fans who complained about the choruses of "Ho-mo Lar-ry!" that regularly accompany the gyrations of Dancin' Larry at New York Rangers games.

I'm not excusing anything, nor am I the first to point out that hockey games, particularly those conducted at Madison Square Garden, have never been mistaken for monasteries. MSG's notorious blue seats have birthed and nurtured the timeless "Potvin sucks!" cry and darker variants, such as as "Beat your wife, Potvin, beat your wife!" down through the years. While MSG leatherlungs can be fiendishly clever, they remain fertile ground for the offensive. But you'd be hard-pressed to find any arena or stadium anywhere that hasn't hosted lusty roars of "A--hole! A--hole!" that often pour out of your TV's speakers while announcers try in vain to intone over them.

As it is, some Blueshirt partisans don't cotton to Larry Goodman's hoofing, which is shown on MSG's monitors. The gay fans in question sensed a certain mob mentality in the chant and asked the Rangers to take steps to ensure sensitivity and courtesy. The requests met with a response that some found a little less than satisfactory, but policing an arena is a huge task. No matter how many warnings are issued about watching one's language or behavior, or how many scowling bouncers are at the ready, there will always be offending loudmouths.

This incident, of course, inspired a prevailing "get over it" response among many fans -- not surprising as we're a society rapidly burning out on political correctness -- every group has a grievance, pal, line forms to the rear -- and sports is one of the citadels of homophobia. Those who seek an acceptable target besides the traditional umps, refs, coaches, slumping or slacking players, and cheats can take comfort in that it's still pretty much open season in our culture on gays, the portly, the elderly and the mentally impaired. Drop a gays-like-showtunes crack in public and you likely won't pay a price the way you will if you sling a racial cliche.

As the civil and women's rights movements have shown, changing attitudes takes a whole lotta time and persistence. In cases like the Larry thing, the spirit of communal fun can be too much to resist -- and more than a few Rangers fans have pointed out that the chant is not arena-wide and not meant to be malicious. Even so, it has to take a certain amount of courage for gay fans to attend events where aspersions on players' sexuality are as common as peanut shells on the floor and not feel threatened, even if the crowd is just goofing.

No matter who is on the receiving end of barbs and chants, sports fans often zealously reserve the right to be as blunt and vulgar as they wanna be, especially when they're paying through the bulb nose for the privilege of parking their carcasses in a $100 seat. But Constitutionally-guaranteed free speech runs headlong into the cold reality that a privately-owned arena has the legal right to kick your loud, crude carcass the hell out or confiscate an offending sign. (Not surprising, then, that signs criticizing inept management are often among the first to go.)

My pet theory is that public crudity is largely an age thing. When you're young and proud and fired up, you relish these sort of brazen monkeyshines. I surely engaged in my share of unseemly hoots back in the daze, and as SI's Grant Wahl recently reported, colleges are hotbeds of absolutely bloodcurdling behavior that makes you fear for the future of the human race.

Hopefully, as one grows older, one grows wiser, mellower and kinder. In the meantime, if you're not into the abuse game, earplugs and a thick skin are still required for an outing at your not-so-friendly neighborhood arena.

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