16 October, 2006

Miami - Florida International...One unfortunate event or a snapshot of todays society?

Vegging out in front the tube after a day with the family on Saturday, I caught the late Sportscenter before I headed off for a couple of hours of shut-eye. The announcers threw out out one of those wonderful "teasers" before the break about another ugly University of Miami incident (okay, I'll admit it, I bit and hung on through 2 and a half minutes of late-night advertising).

What they showed over the next couple of minutes was the sporting equivalent of a train wreck. Players for both teams slugging it out like it was a scene from some Scottish battlefield...all that was missing was a blue face-painted William Wallace to come charging out out of the bleachers, broadsword in hand. It was not pretty to say the least. But then that little voice in my head (the one that always seems to get me into trouble) started to whisper into my subconcious..."C'mon, it was the heat of the moment. There's a lot of adrenaline out there. What happens on the field isn't the same as real life."

But is that the truth? Does one's actions depend on the situation you're in? Do circumstances absolve us of our responsibility to do the right thing?

The phrase "perfect storm" refers to the simultaneous occurrence of events that taken individually would be far less powerful than the result of their chance combination. Such occurrences are rare by their very nature, so that even a slight change in any one event contributing to the perfect storm would lessen its overall impact.

The melee that erupted in the third quarter of the Florida International-Miami game Saturday was a perfect storm. A complex matrix of factors was involved and is being trumpeted across the sports and educational landscape: The campuses of the two teams are nine miles apart, the Miami team is in a frustrating period, Miami coach Larry Coker is under fire, the Canes' reputation for thuggery seems to be returning, and the weaker opponent started the fight. The debacle is the subject of much evaluation and moralizing. It has evoked heartfelt apologies from FIU and Miami coaches and officials, and disciplinary action from each school and conference.

The aftermath is predictable except for one aspect. We are acting as if we are surprised. How could rational thinkers possibly be surprised? The surprise should be that we do not have more unbridled violence in our sports. We live in a culture that celebrates belligerence like we once celebrated religious holidays. We live in a culture in which a large percentage of fathers have abdicated responsibility to raise their children. We live in a culture in which many parents would rather be friends with their children than disciplinarians of their children.

Our kids play video games that make the FIU-Miami brawl look like a Sunday school picnic. We pack huge arenas to watch grotesque actors impersonate competitive athletes while bashing each other with metal folding chairs and throwing referees out of the rings. We allow our children to listen to song lyrics that call into question the most basic attributes of human decency. We pay millions of dollars to radio talk hawks like Howard Stern, who pound away at the fabric of reason and diplomacy. Football fans believe it is their absolute right to scream obscenities into the faces of coaches, coaches' families, players and players' families. No one is pressing for the solution to this growing menace. No one is putting it into context. "The coach must take responsibility," pontificates the former coach. "Fire the coach!" scream the boosters (who, by the way, always scream, "Fire the coach!"). "I wish the coach would teach my son how to behave," exclaim the parents.

The quasi-disciplinary response reminds me of an old story of a community in the North Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains. The twists and turns in the two-lane roads around the secluded village were so severe that cars periodically slid off the pavement and rolled down the mountainside with disastrous consequences. The astute town government met, and over a few mason jars of a locally produced beverage, made a landmark decision. "We gonna do something about this problem with our roads," stated the mayor. "We gonna build a hospital at the bottom of the hill where most of them cars end up."

It has been a while since I was in the middle of one of these fights, but once one has been there, one never forgets the fear and adrenaline rush. When you watch the films, it is hard to convince yourself that you actually did the things you did. You watch normally staid, reserved men, including yourself, going absolutely berserk, and you begin to question the whole premise of violent sports. Then you evaluate, take a hard look at yourself, and realize the truth. This kind of behavior lurks just beneath the surface of competitive athletes -- all the time.

Strong coaches and mature team leaders must come together, discuss their behavior, decide what must be done with the team, get it done, and go on about the business of playing hard and fair. The pitiful penalties will accomplish nothing. If they worked, the Clemson-South Carolina fiasco of 2004 would have been our last such incident.

There are two pains in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. You choose. I choose. At times like this, the entire leadership cadre of organized sport chooses. We are at a crucial juncture. How we choose here will make all the difference in the potential perfect storms to come.