Picking Splinters: U Stands for ‘Ugly’

October 18, 2006 5:04 PM0 comments

Believe it or not the Redskins’ loss to the Tennessee Titans was not the ugliest spectacle on a football field last weekend. That honor goes to the heinous brawl between the University of Miami and Florida International at the Orange Bowl last Saturday, a melee that saw fists, cleats, helmets and even crutches used as weapons.

At what point do we say this is messed up? When do we observe that the University of Miami football program just isn’t working?

Unseemly behavior is not atypical of Miami players — far from it — as Comcast Sports Southeast’s Lamar Thomas, a veteran of “The U” himself, demonstrated with his in-game commentary on the melee.

“Now, that’s what I’m talking about,” Thomas said from his perch in the broadcast booth as order began to be restored. “You come into our house, you should get your behind kicked. You don’t come into the OB* [*That’s the “Orange Bowl” for the uninitiated] playing that stuff. You’re across the ocean over there. You’re across the city. You can’t come over to our place talking noise like that. You’ll get your butt beat. I was about to go down the elevator to get in that thing.”

That’s how Lamar rolls. He keeps it real. Has all his life. In fact, according to Thomas’s rap sheet on Deadspin.com, when Thomas’s pregnant fiancée was getting on his nerves, he assaulted her with a deadly weapon. He later did another stint in the slammer for choking his fiancée in front of his six-month-old son.

Thomas, who has since been fired by Comcast, is just another example of why I don’t believe the short-sighted, Tom Osborne argument that football is helping these troubled youths. Football did not help former Ohio State back Maurice Clarett, who will be in prison for at least the next three-and-a-half years. Nor did it help Lawrence Phillips, Osborne’s former Nebraska running back, who dragged his former girlfriend down a flight of steps by her hair. Presently Phillips is facing 20 years behind bars as he awaits sentencing for driving his car into three teenagers after a dispute in a pickup football game.

On the other hand, while the structure of their respective football programs did not help these individuals, Clarett and Phillips did help their teams win a national championship, and with it, millions of dollars in licensing, ticket sales and bowl game-related revenues.

Even if football programs aren’t outright exploiting these kids, they are not helping them. Nevertheless the pattern, particularly at Miami, is the same. A player steps out of line, but the coach and the program, because they’re such altruistic types, continue to support their player … at least until such a stance becomes completely untenable due to pressure, usually applied by the media.

Still, it was mind boggling to hear Miami Head Coach Larry Coker’s post-game statements Saturday: “I think that it will affect the image of our program greatly, but in a positive way. I think that when they see the video they will be impressed with our players.” Impressed with what exactly, Larry? The impressive force with which your players can swing a helmet?

To be fair, Coker later said that he overstated his players’ roles as peacemakers during the fracas, but that’s still missing the point. He should have been contrite and apologetic and said simply and unequivocally that brawling has no place in the game of football and that he and his staff will be the ones handing out severe punishments to those involved.

The cycle of off-field mischief and on-field antics continues to perpetuate itself thanks, in part, to enabling coaches like Coker and administrations like Miami’s that believe the situation is either out of their hands or not as bad as it seems. After the player suspensions were doled out, the University said that the discipline handed down by the Atlantic Coast Conference was punishment enough. Wrong.

This is not a problem that can be cured by suspensions and slaps on the wrist. The problem begins and ends with the kind of athletes that the University of Miami allows onto its campus.

In a Sept. 2005 Associated Press article, University of Miami President Donna Shalala said she believes sport to be important because “It reflects the standards of the university, its integrity and its commitment to ethical behavior.” If she expects anyone to ever read that statement without laughing, then she and the board of trustees must make it clear that behavior such as this will not be tolerated.

All of these “I feel so bad about what happened” phone calls to trustees and University presidents are weak. Accepting short suspensions as an effective form of punishment is weak. If Shalala ever meant what she said in September of 2005, she ought to gut the Miami football program and start over.

At this time, the University of Miami has an opportunity. It has an opportunity to become a leader in collegiate athletics and make a statement that developing student athletes is about more than pursuing national championships and polishing NFL resumes. It can make that statement by reforming its recruiting practices and raising its bar for admission.

It’s no secret that Miami has tried to rid itself of the thuggish image that has followed its football program, and put an end to those awkward, apologetic phone calls. However, if Shalala and the board of trustees don’t find the guts to try to truly fix this problem, then they’ll really have something to be embarrassed about.

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