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Zero Tolerance

Feb. 13, 2006
Feb. 13, 2006

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Feb. 13, 2006

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Zero Tolerance

No one is saying 'Oops, they did it again' anymore. Athletes who break the rules, or just get annoying, are paying a steep price

A 24-year-oldBrowns fan named Nathan Mallett sat in a Cleveland jail on Super Bowl Sunday,sentenced by a judge to miss the big game. On Christmas Eve, Mallett, fueled byan intense hatred of the Steelers (and an estimated 20 beers), ran onto thefield at Cleveland Browns Stadium in what he later said was an effort to fireup the crowd while the home team was getting pounded by Pittsburgh. He wasslammed to the turf by Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who held Mallettuntil the police came and carted him off. Last month Judge Joan Synenberg,saying she wanted to "send a message," handed down her sentence:Mallett would spend Super Bowl weekend behind bars, with no TV or radioaccess.

This is an article from the Feb. 13, 2006 issue Original Layout

Welcome, Mr.Mallett, to a new time in sports, when coddling has turned to cudgeling and noone gets away with any nonsense. Blue Jackets defenseman Bryan Berard recentlybecame the first NHL player to test positive for a banned substance and wassuspended from international competition. Redskins safety Sean Taylor was fined$17,000 for spitting at Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman. Florida Statecoach Bobby Bowden just bounced two players for conduct detrimental to theteam. Back in Cleveland, Judge Synenberg sent the same message that coaches,owners and commissioners have been broadcasting to obnoxious athletes forweeks: Basta! We're fed up. You're outta here. Even if it hurts the team or theleague.

This isn't about"colorful behavior" and the "eccentrics" sports used toindulge. This is about authority figures bringing the hammer down, hard, onathletes who push beyond the now sharply defined limits. Think of the Vikings'shipping Randy Moss's butt to Oakland after he thrust it in the faces ofPackers fans. Think also of the Vikings' infamous boat party, which led tomisdemeanor charges against four players, including quarterback DaunteCulpepper.

The trend ofjackass-intolerance accelerated on Nov. 5, when the Eagles essentially firedTerrell Owens, perhaps the premier receiver in the game, after he had spentseveral months moaning about his contract and his quarterback. A week laterreigning Nextel Cup champ Kurt Busch was axed by Roush Racing with two racesleft in the season following a traffic stop during which he became belligerentto the cops who pulled him over.

Previously bothOwens and Busch had done as they pleased because of their talent. Busch, thoughless famous, has inexpertly walked the line between feisty and annoying sincehe was a rookie in 2001. He's been slammed (driver Kevin Harvick called him"an arrogant punk"), censured (NASCAR gave him a rare two-lap penaltyfor refusing to listen to officials during a race) and punched in the nose (byJimmy Spencer, whom Busch had called a "decrepit old has-been").Through it all Roush stuck with him. But not this time. Said team presidentGeoff Smith, "It's the last straw.... We're officially retiring as KurtBusch's apologists, effective today."

Nobody wants tohear excuses these days. On Jan. 7, Virginia Tech bounced junior Marcus Vick,after he'd had repeated run-ins with the law and stomped on a Louisvilleplayer's leg in the Gator Bowl. "Our agreement was that there would be nomore infractions of the law," said school president Charles Steger. Theagreement itself was not remarkable; adhering to it at the price of a blue-chipQB was.

Patience isrunning particularly thin in the NBA, where commissioner David Stern suspendedRon Artest for 73 games and the playoffs after the Pacer ran into the standsand started a brawl with Pistons fans in November 2004. Stern's subsequentdress code was probably more about showing authority than it was about clothes.In December the Pacers deactivated Artest because he told a newspaper he wantedto be traded before he told the team. Never mind that sitting Artest strippedthe Pacers of an All-Star player and any leverage they might have had in atrade. "We stuck by Ron, and then he said he didn't want to be here,"said Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal. "That was the last straw."

Sometimes,though, the first straw is enough. Chris Andersen of the Hornets was tossedfrom the NBA for at least two years under the league'sone-strike-and-you're-out substance abuse policy. Nuggets coach George Karl gotsmacked with a two-game ban (which cost him about $80,000) and the team wasfined $100,000 when he criticized the officiating in a November game. AntonioDavis, the president of the NBA players union, got five games (at a cost of$630,000) for calmly walking into the crowd to check on his wife. Kobe Bryantgot two games ($289,000) for throwing a retaliatory elbow at Memphis guard MikeMiller. And last month Morris Peterson of the Raptors was ejected for slappingformer teammate Vince Carter. It didn't matter that Peterson was responding toCarter's playful slap, and that Carter pleaded for mercy from the refs for hisfriend. It's just a bad time to be a bad boy. And if you don't like it, take ahike.

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ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO