Late in a recent nationally televised college basketball game, a UCLA player thundered down the middle for a bodacious basket. After dunking the ball, he retrieved it and threw it at an Arizona defender lying on the floor. It was a terrible, taunting gesture, one we have seen all too frequently lately in almost any sport you care to mention.

Dick Vitale, ABC's exuberant color man, stepped out of his usual role as the hysterical hypemaster of hoops to deliver a stinging rebuke to the UCLA player, Don MacLean, who was properly assessed a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.

"Bush-league move, flat-out second-rate move," Vitale said. "There's no need for that. He could cost {UCLA} a chance to win the Pac-10 if they lose this game. Very poor play by Don MacLean."

Play-by-play man Keith Jackson, who has been broadcasting college sports wearing blinders most of his career, tried to give the kid an out, saying, "Well, he's got a temper. It flashes."

Vitale: "Aaah, that's just immaturity. . . . He's too experienced, he's too talented."

As it turned out, justice prevailed. Arizona made one of the two technical free throws, sent the game into overtime with a last-second basket and pulled away for a victory that may well cost the Bruins a conference title.

MacLean's display was by no means an isolated incident, just the latest in a series of boorish moves by pro and college athletes over the last few years. And all of us have heard the horror stories of poor sportsmanship creeping down into the high schools and youth soccer and Little League fields as children emulate what they watch on television.

In Miami, they are still debating the University of Miami's reprehensible performance in a lopsided Cotton Bowl victory over Texas that included four penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct and five more for personal fouls. Miami won, 46-3, but the far more significant number was the team's 202 yards in penalties.

The national media pointed its own taunting finger at Miami, including a rebuke in The Washington Post by Arthur Ashe, who wrote, "I was quite distressed about the penalties and taunting." Miami Herald columnists Ed Pope and Bob Rubin both came down hard on the hometown Hurricanes, Rubin writing, "As a Miamian, I was angry and embarrassed." The Herald ran an editorial describing Miami's performance as "disgraceful" and "intolerable."

One month later, Tropic, the paper's Sunday magazine, ran a cover story on the issue, asking the question, "Did Miami's Cotton Bowl antics threaten sport itself, or just the white men who dominate our culture?" The story went on to say that perhaps Miami's performance was "a black thing -- you wouldn't understand." S.L. Price, a white Herald staffer, wrote, "What really riled what Tom Wolfe calls 'the Victorian Gents' in the mostly white middle-class press box was the taunting, the finger-pointing, the sight of strong young black men rushing to rudely greet Texas as it ran onto the field, overrunning Saturday's America like a street gang loosed upon a church picnic."

And you thought it was just a football game. Still, not everyone held that view.

Ashe told Newsday's Stan Isaacs: "I'll admit that most of my black friends in Miami thought it was no big deal, but I don't agree. I don't think the black community would favor that kind of behavior. It's not something you would want to see your kids do."

George Young, the former history teacher now general manager of the New York Giants, points out that white players such as Mark Gastineau and Brian Bosworth, among many others, have been known to woof and taunt the opposition.

"I don't think race has anything to do with it," Young said. "You sell people short when you say things like that. Sport is to prove you're better than the other guy, and it used to be the worst thing you could is taunt an opponent. Joe DiMaggio once told me he never wanted to do anything to upset the opposing pitcher after he hit one out. All he'd ever do was put his hand up to his cap as he ran into the dugout. He believed the opponent was to be respected, not embarrassed.

"This taunting stuff is ridiculous. It's gotten out of hand. . . . It's a matter of discipline, not race. You make it known you won't tolerate it, and it stops. . . . I think some of it is that you've got some TV people who think it's good. You've got guys who focus in on that. . . . If they don't put the cameras on it, it won't be done."

Sandy Grossman, the lead director on NFL games for CBS, said he has no problem with "any legitimate celebrating, jumping up and down, genuine emotion, that kind of thing. It's the premeditated stuff I don't like."

Grossman also pointed out that the viewing public seems to prefer hot-dog pizazz to ho-hum professionalism: "For years all you ever heard about Ivan Lendl is that people don't enjoy watching him. Why? Because there's no emotion. That's amazing. All he does is win, but because he's a poker face, we don't treat him like a McEnroe. We don't accept the professionalism we're trying to push for."

Are the taunting, the finger-pointing, the sack dances and silly sideline shuffles a product of television?

"I wouldn't doubt it," said Grossman. "People in this society like to take bows and curtain calls, I can't deny that. It's hard to make an editorial statement on it. Maybe we shouldn't show it, but if it becomes part of the story, like the Cotton Bowl, you have to cover it. For a while there, when we had streaking, we wouldn't show it. We don't show fights in the crowd because we don't want to give people notoriety to encourage it. Maybe there are times we shouldn't show it. If television didn't show it, would people still do it? I don't know."

Maybe it's time to find out.