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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
then you go knock his block off.•
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.