As Newcastle footballers Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer face further punishment for brawling in front of thousands of fans, Chief Football Writer Scott Wilson looks at the link between bad behaviour on the pitch and in our schools.

FOR a sport that has marketed itself as "the beautiful game", football has begun to look decidedly ugly. This season has already seen a succession of sordid sex scandals, the imprisonment of Arsenal midfielder Jermaine Pennant for drink-driving, and the relentless foul-mouthed rantings of Wayne Rooney, a player regularly lauded as the "future" of the English game.

But, even by the amoral standards of a sport that has lost all semblance of self-respect, Saturday's events at St James' Park still marked a new low.

The sight of two team-mates brawling with each other shocked even the most hardened of fans but, in a society that remains obsessed with the round ball, the actions of Newcastle midfielders Lee Bowyer and Kieron Dyer could have far longer-lasting repercussions.

It is often asserted that what happens on a Premiership football field is repeated in school playgrounds up and down the country the following day. That hasn't been the case with this incident - the Easter holidays have seen to that - but it is a fair bet that, when most children return to school next week, the memory of two England internationals trading blows will still be fresh in the mind.

Those children will be returning to an educational environment that is already more unstable than ever.

A recent Ofsted report revealed that only 68 per cent of secondary schools judge behaviour to be "good or better" - a fall of almost ten per cent from the time the question was last asked in 1997.

Last month, Martin Ward, deputy leader of the Secondary Heads Association, linked the indiscipline of Premiership footballers to the decline in behavioural standards he was experiencing in his school.

"Violence, verbal abuse, foul language, cheating and defiance of authority occur sometimes in schools," Ward told the SHA's annual conference in Brighton.

"They also occur much more frequently outside school and, in particular, in professional football, often without the player even being cautioned.

"Football should only be shown after 9pm. If it isn't, then not at all would be better."

Goodness knows what Ward would have made of Saturday's scenes but, while most fans would scoff at his suggestions for a TV ban, there is plenty of academic research to back up his assertion of a link between footballing role model and wide-eyed child.

Dr Robert Hollands is a specialist in youth transition and cultural identity in the sociology department of Newcastle University and, after watching Saturday's scuffle on television, he is in no doubt that damage has been done.

"There's no doubt that children look up to these players and aspire to emulate them," says Dr Hollands. "There's been a lot of recent research into the cultural identity of David Beckham and, with the general emergence of a celebrity culture that we've seen, footballers are probably more high-profile today than ever.

"Young people are very closely tied in with that culture and, because of that, sporting figures need to take much more responsibility for the image they project.

"They have a big fan base and a lot of young people make a huge emotional and financial investment into what they are doing. That's not to say they'll simply copy what they do, but they will be aware of it and may be tempted to act accordingly," Dr Hollands says.

"Research in America has looked at the drug taking and sexual activities that have been rife in American football and shown there is an impact on society at large. I think people in Britain are starting to think very seriously about the images that are being projected every day."

Children are not passive observers though and, with the media underlining the unacceptability of Bowyer's and Dyer's actions, Dr Hollands is keen to stress that most will conclude that their behaviour was wrong.

Dave Scott helps to run Darlington Spraire Lads and Lasses, a series of youth teams for boys and girls aged seven to 18. He is aware of just how malleable youngsters can be, but insists that coaches and managers can help to negate the impact of incidents such as last weekend's.

'Our players will have watched what happened on Saturday and they'll have taken it in," says Mr Scott. There's been a change in the professional game over the last few years - there's no doubt about that. Misbehaviour seems to be more common than ever, although maybe that's partly because every little thing is picked up by the TV.

"That presents us with a challenge. We've got to use the positive aspects of people like Alan Shearer, because players like that get kids into football in the first place, but educate them about the downside that other players show as well.

"We're very pro-active about discipline and I think that helps. We have our own disciplinary committee and players will be called in front of that for very low-level things. Often that's enough to stop them getting out of hand."

The problem is that low-level things are generally overlooked in the professional game. Rooney's recent four-letter tirade at referee Graham Poll went utterly unpunished, whereas the same misdemeanour on a Saturday morning could see one of Spraire's players handed a 35-day ban.

"If anything's going to change in the professional game, the punishment needs to fit the crime," says Mr Scott.

"Stricter penalties might make a difference. A couple of weeks wages or a two-match ban isn't going to affect someone like Lee Bowyer.

"In our league, swearing at the referee or making a really bad tackle might lead to a player missing nine or ten games. That's a real incentive to clean up your act.

"Players need to think about the way in which their behaviour affects kids. But they can't be expected to change by themselves."

As far as Mr Scott is concerned, the change needs to come from the top and, within both the Football Association and the Government, there is a growing acceptance that the moral guardians of the game need to be asserting themselves far more strongly.

Sports minister Richard Caborn has written to every Premiership chairman, urging them to remind their staff of their "corporate and social responsibilities".

Sir Trevor Brooking has also embarked on a series of talks aimed at promoting the undoubtedly valuable community work undertaken by the country's professional clubs.

"The power of football is massively underused," says the FA ambassador. "It can be a power for good in society. The popularity of football means that it can influence kids. Football is a great educational vehicle and we should use it."

Yet, before footballers can educate others, they need to educate themselves.

Newcastle's decision to stand by both Dyer and Bowyer is commercially understandable but symbolically disappointing. The club had the opportunity to draw a line in the sand but, instead, opted to give further ammunition to those decrying football's moral decay.

Thousands of youngsters will watch the two miscreants when they next pull on a Newcastle shirt, tacitly accepting that bad behaviour counts for little in the end.

But, if that behaviour continues to spread to the schools, society might not get off so lightly.