A little leeway on brawl — this time
I love sports.
But I’ve never followed college sports very closely, perhaps because I attended a college where sports were not a very big deal. Much as I love basketball, I’ve always found it difficult to drum up much interest in March Madness and the big-time hoops schools that dominate the tournament. I’ll root for local teams, such as Siena College and the University at Albany, but why should the fates of Kansas and Kentucky and Duke and Memphis be of any particular concern to me?
There’s also my discomfort with college sports in general.
Last year, the sports website Deadspin created
a map of the United States’ best-paid public employees. In 27 states, it’s a football coach and in 13 states a basketball coach. I don’t know what this says about our priorities as a nation — perhaps nothing! — but I suspect nothing good. It seems most schools would rather spend millions of dollars on coaches than pay their adjunct professors a living wage. (In New York, the highest-paid public employee is a medical school department chair; the map doesn’t specify a school.)
That said, college sports can be a lot of fun.
I’ve enjoyed the occasional Siena-University at Albany game, and I’ve been to a few Union College hockey games, too. The atmosphere at these events is generally fun and upbeat, and none of the fans ever seem to take things too seriously.
That’s in marked contrast to schools such as the University of Alabama, whose fans have taken to putting bumper stickers that simply say “The Coach” and feature a large S in honor of Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, on their vehicles. I appreciate that Alabama fans are passionate, but the level of cultish devotion on display last year when I visited the state was beyond my comprehension.
Because I view college sports with such skepticism, I was fully prepared to write a scathing diatribe about last weekend’s Union College-RPI men’s hockey game, which ended in a brawl, with numerous players punching and grabbing each other on the ice. The low point was the behavior of Union coach Rick Bennett, who went berserk, charging after RPI coach Seth Appert. He had to be restrained by the referees.
Union suspended Bennett for two games without pay, which seems appropriate to me. Some people have said the suspension should have been longer — perhaps five games — but it is a first-time offense. I’d feel differently if he had a track record of this type of behavior. He also, according to my colleague Ken Schott, apologized profusely during his post-game press conference and appeared sincere. I think that counts for something, and I would hope that a second incident would result in a more severe punishment. After all, Schott also wrote that the game left “a very disgusting taste in the mouth.”
I watched the video of the fracas posted on YouTube and I wasn’t particularly appalled.
But I think this is because I watch a lot of professional sports, where a certain level of bad behavior is par for the course and even regarded as desirable. It’s no accident that the photograph depicted on the cover of the Stephen King/Stewart O’Nan book “Faithful,” which chronicles the Red Sox’s 2004 World Series win, depicts Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek shoving his mitt in A-Rod’s face, which sparked a benches-clearing brawl. I saw this brawl when it happened and it was fantastic. Should I be ashamed of my gleefulness? Am I part of the problem?
I do draw a distinction between college sports and professional sports, but it’s not always clear to me that the rest of the world does, and I think the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurred. At many schools, sports are serious business and winning is the most important — if not the only — thing. If fighting is OK in the NHL, should we really be surprised when amateur athletes emulate the pros? And what message does it send when coaches can’t control their tempers?
Bruce Svare is a psychology professor at the University at Albany who heads the National Institute for Sports Reform, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the culture around sports. To Svare, the Union College brawl is symptomatic of a larger problem: the hyper-competitiveness of youth and college sports.
“Winning has become so important,” he said. “It dominates everything.” Coaches who lose risk being fired, he noted. He said that when he heard about the Union-RPI brawl, he yawned. “We’ve seen this sort of thing before and it’s going to keep happening,” he said. “It’s the inevitable byproduct of the culture of college hockey.”
I swung by a local deli for lunch and asked the employees what they thought of the brawl. “It was great,” said one employee. “Good old-fashioned hockey,” said another.
Which just goes to show that one person’s disgusting brawl is another person’s exciting entertainment.
And I have to admit, I see both sides.
Yes, fighting is wrong, and the hockey players and Union coach are rightly being punished. But there’s a reason the YouTube video of the brawl is getting so many hits. And it’s not because people are disturbed. It’s because, by and large, they like what they see.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.