One of the most distressing aspects of contemporary athletics is the way unsportsmanlike behavior has gone mainstream. In our "Sports Center" culture, taunting of opponents is not only commonplace but more vicious than ever.
So it is hardly surprising to learn that youngsters raised in such an atmosphere would emulate the worst examples set by major league players. And though "trash talk" between opponents is as old as the hills, it is equally unsurprising that the trading of such insults can easily lead to utterances or writings that would be deemed "hate speech" in any other context and that this misbehavior has been facilitated by the freewheeling world of the Internet.
The vicious insults exchanged on the Facebook Web site between supporters of Lower Merion High School's soccer team and its rival Strath Haven High School in Wallingford do no credit to either school. What may have started as harmless Internet "bench jockeying" prior to a game turned nasty as Lower Merion's kids and/or alumni allegedly taunted their opponents as "white trash" while their opponents allegedly responded with anti-Semitic remarks invoking the Holocaust. Both schools are investigating the incident, which raises some number of troubling issues.
Do the free-speech rights of students allow them to engage in such behavior with impunity since their acts took place on the net rather than on school grounds? Should a free Facebook account give teenagers a license to say anything and to have it published in a way that will make the harm more damaging than any graffiti scrawl on a playground wall?
And how can coaches, educators and parents teach kids that unsportsmanlike behavior of all kinds, let alone hate speech, is not part of a healthy competitive sports experience when everything they see and hear on TV and the Internet tells them the opposite?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But however it started, there are no acceptable forms of hate. Anti-Semitic insults are awful. But if they have been precipitated or answered by prejudicial comments based on socio-economic status uttered by Jews, than this is not a case of hatemongers and victims, but one of two guilty groups that both deserve punishment.