Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Opinion and College Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: Respect shouldn't be a college-football novelty

September 12, 2009

On the night of Sept. 3, in Indiana University’s Memorial Stadium, I watched as the players and coaches on the teams from IU and opponent Eastern Kentucky University lined up across from one another a few minutes before kickoff, then met at midfield and shook hands.

It was a nice gesture that received a warm round of applause. It was part of a sportsmanship initiative being forwarded by the American Football Coaches Association and the NCAA called “Respect Weekend.”

“This is a symbolic initiative that says to the football world, our fans, our students, our players and our athletics departments that sportsmanship is a vital part of the successful football programs we have in this country,” said AFCA Executive Director Grant Teaff. “We wanted to show sportsmanship in a clear way.”

Clearly, the message didn’t reach everyone.

Later that evening, having just arrived home, I flipped on the television to ESPN’s SportsCenter, which wasn’t reporting on handshakes or sportsmanship, but a decided lack thereof. At the conclusion of the University of Oregon/Boise State University game, an Oregon player, LeGarrette Blount, had sucker-punched an opponent squarely in the jaw, then had to be restrained by coaches and teammates from going into the stands to confront Boise State fans.

Of course, I had a momentary flashback to Malice in the Palace at Auburn Hills and Ron Artest’s journey into the seats, from which the Indiana Pacers still haven’t fully recovered.

Just as it’s probably unwise to make too much nice out of a pre-game handshake, it’s also over the top to paint with too broad a brush the unfortunate incident that occurred at Boise State. Indeed, the next day, Oregon coach Chip Kelly suspended Blount for the season. Since he’s a senior, it effectively ended his college career. Blount was a thousand-yard rusher as a junior, and it will remain to be seen how much the suspension might harm his chances for an NFL career. One analyst was quoted as saying Blount had gone from a potential second- or third-round choice to becoming “undraftable.”

That’s a mighty stiff penalty.

Not that there’s any defense for Blount’s actions, the extenuating circumstance is that he was responding to a taunt issued by Boise State defensive end Byron Hout, who supposedly was countering derogatory comments about Boise State that Blount had made in the days leading up to the game.

Again, no excuses, but maybe Hout could have been more gracious in victory. What’s more difficult to explain is that Boise State has said it will not discipline its player for his role as provocateur.

Also exacerbating the situation was someone’s decision to show the video replay of the incident on the stadium screen, which inflamed the Boise State fans and, in particular, students sitting near where the teams exited the field.

Sadly, in the aftermath, I read repeatedly where the incident had overshadowed college football’s opening weekend. Some perspective, please. This was one incident across the spectrum of hundreds of games played throughout the NCAA’s four divisions, as well as the NAIA ranks.

For sure, football is an adrenalin-filled, aggressive, emotional game. But far more often than not, those emotions are kept in check.

And that’s why I don’t see why “respect weekend” was limited to just the opening weekend. Some coaches, mostly the major-college variety, have said they can’t trust their student-athletes, worked up to a frenzy in the moments before kickoff, to line up politely and shake the hands of their opponents.

Coaches especially fear it wouldn’t work in rival games, like an Indiana/Purdue. Or even a DePauw/Wabash, I suppose.

Perhaps those coaches need to teach their student-athletes a higher level of expectation. You will shake your opponent’s hand. You will treat him with respect. And then you can go knock his block off.

Or maybe the whole thing is just a wasted effort. For example, college basketball has gone to alternate introductions of starting fives, with the opposing players meeting at center court to shake hands. Only the shake has become little more than a bare tap with the knuckles.

I’m thinking if I wanted to really unsettle my opponent, I might go the reverse psyche route on him. You know, give him a big man-hug, then step back and say, “I wish you well in today’s game and may the best team win.”

And then you go knock his block off.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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