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The Thin (White) Line between Ballers and Brawlers

Critics of the Miami-FIU fight are condemning the same kind of antagonism, machismo, and mayhem that is regularly reinforced as integral to football as a sport.

"Shameless". "A disgrace". "Outrageous". "Oh, the humanity!" With the exception of the last, the reactions to the recent fracas between the University of Miami and Florida International University football teams have been tossed about in the ensuing week with wild but predictable abandon. Of course, the volume and intensity of such criticism is nothing new. Even casual sports fans by now must realize that high-minded moral indignation and the modern athlete go together like "freedom hating" and "evil doers" -- with the same logical fallacies embedded in both associations. Frequently, the dim judgments handed down about the character of athletes are preconceived notions formulated well in advance. Commentators simply sit back and wait for the players to stumble into the right infraction before springing the pre-loaded trap: usually a melodramatic gnashing of the teeth followed by a spate of dire pronouncements about the moral fiber of our culture.

Just consider this latest disaster. The fight has ballooned into an ethical Hindenburg, sending sports writers and commentators into a paroxysm of fear and disbelief. "A line was crossed Saturday night. Crossed, and cleared by a terrifying mile," wrote ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski (who we might imagine tucked away under his quivering bedsheets). And USA Today's Jon Saraceno lamented, "our institutions of higher learning once again have failed to teach our young people anything of real consequence." Apparently, now, it's football players who are to blame for our country's education crisis. What, a fearful nation dares to ask, could be so terrible as to rend the very fabric of our existence asunder with such vile, unspeakable obscenity?

A fight. To be fair, it was a pretty rowdy fight, one that interrupted a game that was billed as the start of a new rivalry in college football. Both schools are located in the Miami area -- the University of Miami a perennial football powerhouse, FIU a relative newcomer on the scene -- and as a result both teams were especially energized for competition. This energy, however, translated into taunting that went back and forth between the teams during the first half until tensions finally spilled over in the third quarter. Taking exception to a Miami player's celebratory bow after scoring a touchdown, some FIU players began pushing and shoving during the extra point attempt, kicking off a melee that cleared both team benches, drew police onto the field, and set off copycat squabbles in the stands at the Orange Bowl where the game was held. One Miami player, Anthony Reddick, was captured on video swinging his helmet about like a club.

Quickly, the mass of tangled bodies, thrown punches, and helmets-cum-hand weapons paraded across TV and computer screens around the country and beyond. And such images were invariably accompanied by commentary demonizing the players for their heinous behavior and calling for the coaches' heads for their failure to control their teams. But this groundswell of indignant outcry really just amounts to the journalistic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. It's beyond obvious to say that the players were in the wrong. Their actions embarrassed their schools, their families, and could have resulted in serious injuries (none were reported). And, accordingly, they've been punished. Miami suspended 13 players (Reddick is out indefinitely) and FIU suspended 18 (kicking two off the team completely). The heads (and jobs) of both coaches, however, remain intact as of this writing.

Still, the furor around the fight continues to surge, as the punishments handed out are now seen as insufficient to fit such a terrible crime. Sportswriter Mike Lopresti sees the suspensions as "Strong words followed by feeble action", while others have suggested that expulsions and jail time are the only way to deal with those involved. The call for harsher punishment was so intense, in fact, that University of Miami President Donna Shalala was forced to publicly defend the extent to which the players were disciplined. In doing so, she scolded the media for their overaggressive zeal for persecuting the fighters: "It's time for the feeding frenzy to stop. These young men made a stupid, terrible, horrible mistake and they are being punished." She went on to rule out what, for some, might be the only way to restorative justice: "I will not hang them in a public square." (At this, one can easily imagine the slow, disappointed dispersal of the reporters in attendance, forced to douse their torches and retire their pitchforks until the next opportunity for a public lynching.)

Shalala's level-headedness in dealing with the fight's aftermath is commendable, but in her shaming of the howling mob, she stopped short of asking just what it was about this particular fight that could inspire such a sustained and uniform outpouring of anger. For some, the outrage seems to stem from Reddick's used of a helmet to threaten others. More than one commentator has suggested that he face criminal charges for such an action. The implication of such a claim, though, is that it's perfectly alright to use your helmet to break bones, batter bodies, and cause concussions if it happens to be fastened to your head. The minute you try the same with the helmet in your hand, however, things become illegal.

In fact, it's this kind of fine-lining that's responsible for a good deal of the outrage directed at the fight. It's OK, the thinking goes, to bloody a quarterback's face with your shoulder pad, but not with your fist. And wrestling an opponent to the ground is positively encouraged. That is, unless it happens after the referee's whistle, ending the play. The whistles, of course, are key in all of this. It's the presence of officials and the enforcement of rules that allow us to call an activity that routinely features gruesome injuries and increasingly frequent paralysis a "game". The reality, however, is that the exact same kind of antagonism, machismo, and mayhem on display during the fight is regularly reinforced as integral to football as a sport.

But don't mention this too loudly. Doing so has cost Miami commentator Lamar Thomas his job. During the melee, he enthusiastically cheered on the home team, asserting "(if) you come into our house, you should get your behind kicked". Interestingly, Thomas' comments would have been perfectly acceptable had he been discussing a particularly brutal tackle. Since they were in reaction to the fight, however, Thomas failed to fall in immediately with the national outrage condemning the extra-legal violence, the sanctioned likes of which everyone was there to see in the first place. To make amends for such an embarrassing, though obvious, equivocation, he, too, has been punished.

The truth of the matter, though, is that the thousands of fans and dozens of media members watching at the Orange Bowl that night were not there to see a game of checkers. The lure of spectacular violence is a prime factor in the unprecedented popularity of both collegiate and professional football. How else could you explain segments like "Jacked Up!", ESPN's montage of players suffering horrific trauma on the field, only to be taunted by commentators for getting clobbered? Not to be outdone, Fox Sports Network's Best Damn Sports Show, Period has recently run a special program, delicately entitled, "The Top 50 Most Devastating Hits in Sports History", which dedicated a good portion of its programming to the sport of football. That's because football, in essence, is violence, and fans of football (sports writers and pundits included) are fans of violence.

An important distinction to note, however, is that football is a particularly organized form of violence. If the outrage can be understood at all, it's best understood as directed at the break with form that this fight represents. What's most galling, then, is the chaos of the fight and not its brutality. Without regulation, the violence of the sport degenerates into what more than one writer has labeled "thuggery", and it's at this point that the ever-present specter of race rises to the fore.

The image of dozens of young men involved in an uncontrolled skirmish, the majority of whom are African American, activates age old stereotypes of lawlessness and brutality in black males. Compounding this issue is the very public record of Miami's football team, which has fielded a great many successful, brash, black players who have attracted attention over the years with their physical domination. Among these is former wideout Michael Irvin, defensive lineman Warren Sapp, and, yes, recently fired commentator Lamar Thomas. Even Miami's white players, such as tight end Jeremy Shockey, have more recently come to inherit the intimidating swagger that these earlier players affected. As a result, Miami's football program has been a lightning rod for controversy, causing writers like Fox Sports' Michael Rosenberg to conclude "The culture around the Miami football program is one that embraces thuggery".

Mr. Rosenberg, however, fails to specify the source of this "culture" which, somehow, just happens to linger "around" the school and its team. But how did this "thuggery" get there? And why does it stay? Tellingly, these questions are left unanswered. What has been around at Miami, we can say with certainty, are a number of extraordinarily talented black players who have made little effort to hide their superior abilities. Given this history of bravado and visibility among its black stars, then, it's clear that Miami's team (which has taken the lion's share of the public whipping) is predisposed to being singled out for its lack of discipline, immoral behavior, and antisocial tendencies -- all defects that have historically accompanied stereotypes of black, male, hyper-aggressive physicality.

And in a sport predicated on violence, stereotypes like these are all too prevalent. This explains the need for constant regulation of the game's participants. By placing rules around football's violence, fans and commentators are able to rationalize their attraction to its brutality as a "love of the game". What's more, these rules work to keep players themselves inside the sport's regulatory boundaries. Their violent behavior on the field, then, becomes palatable. However, should something occur like the Miami-FIU fight (even though fighting is simply refiguring the physicality upon which the game is founded), the cry for punishment goes up as the only way to restore the original (and artificial) order of things. That order, it turns out, is maintained only through the most blinding hypocrisy: we're shocked when players act in ways that we would otherwise pay to see, and outraged when their behavior confirms our basest, most reductive suspicions.

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