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Sports talk without the usual smack

This wan't your normal sports talk program. Nobody was shouting "Scoreboard!" or calling the other person a "moron." There wasn't a beer commercial to be heard.

All in all, it was as civilized as a discussion on sports can get, unless you're talking about polo.As a point of reference, this one happened to be in a quiet corner of the Salt Lake Art Center, tucked away amid paintings and photos depicting things like the human soul and soaring thoughts. The air conditioner was quiet. The floors were quiet. Even the discussion was quiet.

Somehow it was hard to believe it was only a couple of blocks from where Bear revs his Harley and they set off fireworks just to start a basketball game.

Instead of a unshaven guys wearing replica NFL jerseys -- in other words, your typical sports gathering -- it was a small group wearing just the right blend of casual and brainy: cotton slacks, linen shirts, walking shorts, open collars, soft leather loafers and sandals. The sort of get-together where people interlock their fingers and use words like "premise" and "cadre" and "collectively."

The occasion was a Wednesday panel discussion on this subject: "Role Models: Athletes and Celebrity -- Should They be Our Heroes?"

A seriously deep subject.

A seriously deep panel.

The event was sponsored by the Salt Lake Art Center, the Children's Media Workshop, the Salt Lake City Futures Commission and the Utah Humanities Council. In other words, a group of well-intentioned organizations that appeal to well-educated, civilized people. Maybe that's why, when the session began, there were exactly six people in the audience and five on the panel. Oh well. If civilized discussions on sports were a big draw, there wouldn't be such thing as Jim Rome and the Sports Babe.

Not surprisingly, the hour-long session didn't solve any societal problems, but it was more interesting than two guys on radio blabbing about Karl Malone's nasty elbows.

The panel consisted of University of Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill; Judge Memorial High women's basketball coach Mary Chris Yerkovich; Utah Jazz General Manager Tim Howells; Utah Valley State College ethicist Dr. Karen Mizell; and Primary Children's Medical Center social service worker Nick Papastamos. Not a steroid user in the bunch.

Although several are actually employed in athletics, and all have considerable experience in the field, not a single person said, "You just have to take it one game at a time," or yelled "Face!" after making a good point.

A "no smack-talk" ban was in force.

All panelists agreed there is a problem in the way society and sports reflect one another, and that young people are choosing poor role models at an alarming rate. One reason, Mizell pointed out, is that "we tend to equate success with moral heroes." If Mike Tyson is the heavyweight champion, he gets to be the role model. Case closed.

The panel agreed that in sports, winning tends to supersede any- thing, often at any cost. As Hill noted, you can attend a play or a ballet and consider the performance "good," but if you attend a football game, there is no "good" unless your team is the winner.

Papastamos, who deals with high risk youth at PCMC, said they usually pick poor role models because that's what they're familiar with. They typically grow up in abusive, violent circumstances, and choose heroes who represent the same. They'll mimic the player who spent time in jail without hesitation.

One of the more sobering observations was made by Mizell, who said even fans are going overboard. "What we tolerate will happen," she said.

Her final recommendation: "You have to draw a line in the sand" on what society will tolerate.

The short session didn't produce many other answers. New York Knicks' guard Latrell Sprewell was still employed in the end, as were pro wrestlers Goldberg and The Undertaker. Violence and antisocial behavior in sports remained alive and well. The problem is way too big for a dozen people meeting in a quiet room. All agreed there is a problem with discipline and standards, especially among young people. Unfortunately, there was nobody under the age of 30 in the building. Which was too bad. They may have discovered someone better to emulate.