NEXT TO THE tragic death of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock, it was the most significant sports story of the weekend.

But because it happened half a world away and in a sport we consider secondary, it was relegated to a note in the sports briefs.

But it's not hard to envision what happened after a soccer match in France easily happening here.

Former French World Cup champion goalie Fabien Barthez left his professional team after being confronted by angry fans for playing poorly in a loss.

While he was leaving the stadium after his club, Nantes, lost at home, 2-0, Barthez' car reportedly was surrounded by five or six Nantes fans.

According to Nantes president Rudi Roussillon, Barthez was insulted, had his car kicked and had to stop one fan from pulling him out of the car.

Barthez, who was the goalie for France when it won the 1998 World Cup, left the city and said he would not return.

"I'm not going to play again with Nantes," Barthez, who has been criticized all season by Nantes fans, told France

Info radio. "[Those fans] were there to rub me out, as they said.

"To whistle me throughout the match, I accept that's part of the atmosphere . . . But [attacking him in the parking lot] goes beyond the realm of sports."

The problem is the atmosphere surrounding sports has become so negative and hostile.

Booing and whistling always have been a part of the game, but if you look at what's going on in sports today, it's way beyond that.

There is a real anger in the reaction of many fans. It's a release of venom that goes way beyond being upset at the results of a sporting event.

We applaud NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and players union president Gene Upshaw for working out a "get-tough" policy for players who habitually run into troubles that bring embarrassment to the league.

We constantly gripe about the bad images that athletes present and how they should do better.

What about fans?

What role have fans played in the gradual breakdown of courtesy in sports?

Just look at the some of the other nastiness that has happened over the past few days.

In Miami, new Dolphins coach Cam Cameron was nearly run out of the team's practice facility on Saturday when the Dolphins had the audacity to draft Ohio State wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. instead of fan-favorite quarterback Brady Quinn, of Notre Dame.

Sure, it's OK to express disappointment, but the level of acceptable discourse has been kicked so high that it borders on a complete lack of civility.

Turn on any sports talk show in any city and you'll quickly see how many of the attacks on athletes, coaches, general managers, etc., are mean-spirited and personal.

Dissatisfaction with a team or player has become a viable excuse for just about any reaction - no matter how extreme.

It's understood that Jeff Gordon is not the most popular racer in NASCAR. It's also accepted that the late Dale Earnhardt holds iconic status.

So it surprised no one that many NASCAR fans were perturbed about Gordon passing Earnhardt on the all-time victory list.

But what happened at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway on Sunday was criminal and could have turned tragic.

Fans showered Gordon's car with beer cans and other debris as he crossed the finish line for his 77th victory.

"I never caused a riot before winning," Gordon said, laughing things off after the race.

There wasn't anything funny about it.

Fortunately, Gordon was at cruising speed because the race finished under a caution flag, but imagine if he were going at full speed.

What would have happened if a full beer can or some other hard object smashed into his windshield when he was pushing the pedal near 200 mph?

The result could have been disastrous, if not deadly.

People will say that wouldn't happen - that if the cars were racing full-throttle, no one would have thrown anything.

I'd say those people are naive. It's just a matter of time.

To throw a beer can at a speeding automobile or to throw a battery at a baseball player standing in the outfield or to attack a goalkeeper for playing poorly demonstrates a clear disregard for safety.

Think about how much built-up vitriol must exist for someone to react in that manner.

That's blind rage - the kind that doesn't consider the boundaries of civil behavior.

I could spend an entire day listing the number of dangerous situations that have been created by fans feeling that it's their right to display their displeasure in overly aggressive ways.

Worst of all, a lot people think that's a normal part of the game.

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Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/smallwood.