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Civility sidelined as poor sports show bad behavior

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was not one of my prouder moments, but it was, I swear, out of character for me, even as a teenager.

On a heated Saturday night in March 1974, the Pit vibrated with hormones and hubris as high school fans gathered for the big AAAA state basketball championship.

For the second year in a row, it was Albuquerque High Bulldogs vs. Manzano Monarchs, a grudge match for us on the AHS side, still stinging from a heartbreaking 59-58 loss in the finals the year before.

I was a junior at AHS then, and this was the Bulldogs’ fifth consecutive trip to state, though in three of the last four years we had to settle for second place.

Basketball wasn’t just a sport at AHS; it was a religion. It was something we were good at, something we were proud of at a school with a lot of heritage but a heck of a lot more hard knocks. In the 1970s, people called us the ghetto school. Manzano was the rich kid school in the Heights. Basketball was the great equalizer.

That night, we lost again, 65-55. So aggravating was the defeat that seconds before the last buzzer sounded someone in the stands threw a glass bottle on the court, sending shattered glass flying. More debris was thrown, cutting short the Monarchs’ celebration on the floor.

Outside it was worse. People were crying, swearing, mad, crazy.

I was, too. Typically, I was a mild-mannered word nerd, but that night I was a madwoman, swinging my purse at people dressed in Manzano purple and grabbing a pom-pom from a Manzano cheerleader, tearing the tissue paper into confetti before a biting cloud of teargas enveloped us and sent us screaming, eyes on fire, to our cars.

I didn’t know it at the time, but what was happening on the other side of The Pit was uglier than a torn-up pom-pom.

News accounts reported that Albuquerque and campus police had to disperse an estimated crowd of 300 with tear gas. Two teens were beaten with 2-by-4s, steel pipes, hands and feet by 15 to 20 people, sending one of the teens to the hospital with severe fractures. A girl suffered a dislocated hip after she was struck by a car as it tried to flee a mob smashing the car windows with rocks.

In all, seven people were injured, two seriously. Auto glass covered parking lots like glitter. No arrests were made, and I don’t recall so much as a stern lecture from school officials.

I mentioned this story on social media and was asked to do a column on it after last Saturday’s frustrating and poorly refereed soccer match between New Mexico United and Loudoun United led to reports of inappropriate behavior among some home team fans, including allegations of verbal racial abuse toward a Loudoun player and a hurled beer can at the ref.

I wasn’t there (I watched it, gasping and grumbling, on livestream), but family members there said they didn’t hear any racist retorts but noted that the mood was “pretty aggressive.” Boos and chants seem a fairly typical level of passion, especially at soccer games and especially when a ref’s calls are so dubious (because in the NM/Loudoun game they were).

Racist shouts or tossed objects aren’t cool, though, and NM United did the right thing by issuing a statement the next day condemning those actions, announcing an investigation and warning that “strict punishment” will be meted out against the offending fans.

As that 1974 high school game indicates, poor sportsmanship has long been an issue that crops up from time to time. But as my Journal colleague Kevin Hendricks points out, fan hooliganism and overblown aggrievement such as throwing bottles, dumping popcorn on players’ heads, spitting and brawling in the bleachers are more intense and common these days as sporting events have reopened under relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.

One wonders whether we’ve been away from civilization so long that we’ve forgotten how to be civil.

This rage also appears to be an unfortunate slop-over from our already divisive politics. On Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s reelection launch was drowned out by a loud group of protesters, some who angrily confronted reporters and the governor’s supporters with Nazi salutes outside the Albuquerque Museum amphitheater.

On Tuesday, Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales III’s mayoral campaign speech was interrupted by an infamous flying faux phallus hovering overhead by way of a drone.

Such protests were called childish, rude, embarrassing, disruptive and immature, and they are. They are also increasingly typical and are coming from both sides.

That, in large part, is because many Americans are just plain angry for myriad reasons they’d be more than happy to share if you ask – and even if you don’t.

Sporting events are fun, and they have always been an outlet for pent-up emotions, good and bad. And lord knows many of us have been pent up for a long time. My hope is that eventually the emotional excess will ease and calmer heads will prevail as we continue to lope toward normalcy.

As for my own moment of poor sportsmanship 47 years ago, I apologize to that cheerleader with one less pom-pom. I’m still a passionate fan, though not a violent one and only a momentarily angry one when a ref makes a bad call. I have tried to be a better fan because I grew up, found other ways to deal with anger and remembered that it’s only a game.

Maybe we could all do a little more of that.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column.