The Miami-Florida International University brawl Saturday night has set off an avalanche of criticism, most of it focused on the “out-of-control” Miami football program and, especially in the past two days, on the perception that Miami’s administration imposed insufficient punishment on the players involved in the brawl. Especially noteworthy is that FIU dismissed two players from the team and indefinitely suspended sixteen more, while Miami didn’t dismiss any player, and only Hurricane was indefinitely suspended.
While the hometown paper, the Miami Herald, headlined its account of the Tuesday press conference of University of Miami President Donna Shalala, “Shalala Contrite,” the diminutive former cabinet official sparked the ire of several sports pundits. Mike and Mike got on her yesterday for having told a Tuesday afternoon press conference that she had not yet viewed the tape of the brawl (she was at the game) but telling Mike and Mike that “we” viewed the tape frame by frame, before deciding on the punishments (later in the morning, ESPN confirmed that Shalala was using the royal “we” and had still not seen the tape itself). Mike and Mike, like most of their viewers, were furious at this “disgusting” and “despicable” incident, and incensed that Shalala had let the players off the hook so easily.
Selena Roberts, in yesterday’s New York Times (http://select.nytimes.com/2006/10/18/sports/ncaafootball/18roberts.html?ref=sports), also criticized Shalala. The Miami President told the Tuesday press conference that as concerned as she was about player behavior, she was also upset by what she saw as the overreaction of the national media:
“It’s time for the feeding frenzy to stop,” Shalala said. “These young men made a stupid, terrible, horrible mistake, and they are being punished. They are students and we are an educational institution and we will act like an educational institution, not like a P.R. machine that’s trying to spin and restore its image that we worked so hard to put in place.”
“I believe they did something awful, but I want them to continue at the University of Miami…It’s time for me to say to the community and to those who have been sending me e-mails that this university will be firm and punish people who do bad things, but it will not throw any student under the bus for instant restoration of our image or our reputation. I will not hang them in a public square.”
Roberts was unimpressed with these comments:
“Suddenly, she is sensitive to ridicule? She spoke of a new “zero-tolerance” standard for the football team even though this year the Hurricanes had already stomped on the logo at Louisville to hone their mocking skills.
It’s as if Shalala has discovered her dreamboat job as Miami president has big football as a flotation device. Money matters. Duke officials canceled the lacrosse season when rape allegations illuminated a history of reckless entitlement last year, but acting half as punitively against football could cost millions in lost revenue.
A conscience can be bedeviling to the bottom line. Why else would a respected educator like Shalala become an enabler to the culture of derision in college football?”
Roberts is certainly right about the corrupting nature of money in big time college athletics, but I am not sure a fight on a football field, no matter how crazy, is comparable to a serious rape allegation. In my entry on T.O. a couple of weeks ago, I noted the sports media’s disturbing inability to distinguish bad acts. More on that in a moment.
The Miami Herald surveyed some of the angry national reaction (http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/sports/15784650.htm):
“University of Miami president Donna Shalala said Tuesday that it was ''time for the feeding frenzy to stop'' after the Hurricanes' brawl with Florida International on Saturday.
But there was far too much shouting going on around the country for many people to hear her.
''The U has hit rock bottom again, and it's time to blow that thing up again,'' Jim Rome said on his ESPN show Rome is Burning.
''There are thugs on that football team that are tearing down the Miami program,'' Monday Night Football commentator Joe Theisman said on 790 The Ticket.
''It's all about Donna Shalala,'' Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke said on ESPN's Around The Horn. ``She's afraid of everybody down there, a very weak president of a very poor university.''
Some of the public reaction has been to the brawl. In particular, the images of safety Anthony Reddick turning his helmet into a weapon and of safety Brandon Meriweather stomping on an FIU player left many viewers stunned and outraged.”
There is no doubt that those two images – the helmet-wielding Reddick and the foot-stomping Meriweather helped catapult this brawl from merely a one-night story into a feeding frenzy. Miami’s past reputation as a “thug” program, though having receded into the background in recent years, has also contributed to the current revulsion.
But, as I mentioned above, it’s as if there is an almost palpable need to find some black-and-white bad act on which to vent our collective frustration at a world gone mad, in which not only is bad behavior unpunished and often rewarded, but that we no longer even have the moral categories to come to a consensus on what behavior we should condemn. The result has been a kind of relativizing leveling of misconduct, where O.J. Simpson’s crime and T. O’s crimes could actually be mentioned in the same breath. Or, in the case of Roberts above, where an on-field brawl that resulted in no injuries of any note, could be compared to a serious rape allegation.
SI.com’s Stewart Mandel is one writer who is getting sick of the story and prepared to defend a program that has made great improvements off the field over the past decade (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2006/writers/stewart_mandel/10/18/mandel.bag/index.html):
“For me, the incident itself wasn't nearly as stunning as what I've watched transpire in the days since: prominent media figures calling for Miami to receive the death penalty, fans writing in to my blog and Mailbag calling the Hurricanes "a gang of criminals" and "a penal-league team," repeated use of the phrase "Thug U."
Reading and listening to such virulent backlash, you would think Miami is the only program in the country that's ever experienced disciplinary problems.
Look, what happened at the Orange Bowl on Saturday night was horrific; no one can deny that. It's one thing to defend your scrawny holder after he's just been jumped on by the other team; it's another thing entirely to empty the bench, swing helmets, stomp on people, etc. But to use the incident as Exhibit A in the case for Miami being "Thug U" is not only unfair, it's downright hypocritical unless you know for a fact that your own favorite program is 100 percent skeleton-free.
You might not believe this -- you might not want to believe this -- but over the past decade, Miami has had fewer player arrests or NCAA-related incidents than almost any other major program in the country. Miami has not had 20-plus incidents involving shoplifting, assault, gun charges and failed drug tests over the past two years, as Tennessee has. Miami has not had to dismiss a star player for earning money through a phony job, as Oklahoma has. Miami has not had a star linebacker accused of sexual assault on the eve of its bowl game as Florida State did last year. And Miami's most recent Academic Progress Rate (956) placed it in the top 20 to 30 percent of all Division I football programs.”
Mandel’s the only commentator I’ve seen so far to attempt some proportional context.
Speaking of context, the always interesting Bill Curry had a novel take on the brawl and Shalala’s response to it. He told Mike and Mike yesterday after Shalala was on that he considered her a decent and honorable president, and mentioned the high praise that Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin coach, had for her when she was President of that great institution. But, just as Curry suggested in a column on ESPN.com this week that the fight was a predictable out-growth of an out-of-control, video-game saturated culture that glorifies violence, so too was Shalala’s lack of due diligence a product of a prevalent leadership culture:
“she comes from a political infrastructure where our top leaders brag about the fact that they don’t read books or look at details…”
Shalala, of course, was a member of Bill Clinton’s cabinet. There is little doubt that Clinton, a man of many appetites, has a voracious one for reading and learning and, partly as a consequence, developed a reputation for being a “wonk” that is, someone obsessed with the minutiae of policy that would make most people suicidal with boredom. If this is a knock at the current President, who has proudly worn his anti-intellectualism, it’s appropriate. Identifying Shalala with this inclination is both fascinating and bizarre.
In any event, Curry was clearly groping for the larger meaning of it all, and struck much closer to home when he told Mike and Mike:
“this is an egregious case of the tail wagging the dog…it’s not the major purpose of our institutions of higher learning to have football teams, good or bad….It’s not in the mission statement of these universities to compete with the NFL and NBA for the entertainment dollars, but that’s what’s happening.”
The fight Saturday night was a bad one, but the reaction to it has been catalyzed by factors beyond the brawl itself. One is the reputation of Miami U, a program with a very bad, very Black image stretching back two decades that, despite its better recent record off the field, clearly continues to invoke easily triggered images of menace in the popular imagination. Another is the general culture of moral outrage that is so central to contemporary sports commentary. And, another, I think, is the presence of Shalala at the center of this controversy. As a woman in a male world, and a high profile former Clinton official in a very conservative world, Shalala’s actions have often drawn more attention than have other university presidents in similar positions. Three years ago, when the ACC decided to expand to augment itself as a football league, Miami was central to that process. Tim Brando, on Sporting News radio, repeatedly decried that move and regularly attacked Shalala for the greed that was driving expansion, as if the Boston College and Virginia Tech Presidents, not to mention the existing ACC schools, had nothing to do with it. This was the same Tim Brando who often mocked Shalala’s support for Title IX, which Brando argued hurt football, something Shalala, Brando asserted, knew nothing about. Mike Greenberg must have repeated a dozen times yesterday that he respected Shalala’s position and that she should do her job however she saw fit but, methinks he and Golic protested too much. A strong insinuation ran through the broadcast: that this woman didn’t really understand football and was allowing her decision-making to be compromised by priorities other than imposing proper order and discipline on the program. A woman of authority in a man’s world, trading in moral ambiguity. A bad combination for the sports commentariat.