Few things in life are as much fun as carrying a harmless grudge or feeling morally superior. So I'm sure all Pitt fans and Big East devotees got a Jerry Falwell-sized dose of self-righteousness when the University of Miami football players behaved just as we expect them to in a game against their cross-state rivals, Florida International. And for the school that's produced such moral luminaries as Michael Irvin and Ray Lewis, the fun didn't end with the on-field stomping or helmet-swinging.
It got even better when Donna Shalala, the University of Miami president, responded to the melee by saying she would protect her student-athletes from those looking to vilify them for their actions. Shalala acted as though "the U" (as it's called by its more famous alums) hadn't earned its reputation as the world leader in thuggery, a hotbed of the kind of grandstanding, chest-thumping and strutting that led to the fracas.
I settled in for a good long nose-thumbing at the Atlantic Coast Conference -- which, in its greed-driven play for the University of Miami revenue stream, forgot that it came with the whole University of Miami package. Then news hit of a strikingly similar incident at the Holy Cross-Dartmouth football game. Difference is, this was the Ivys and it wasn't televised. But if it can happen at Dartmouth, then Miami must not be so bad, right?
Think again. The schools have more in common than it might appear at first blush; in many ways, Dartmouth is to the Ivys what Miami is to the ACC. Dartmouth has long had the reputation of housing the most entitled bullies in a conference full of entitlement. For instance, in 1986, the writers of the Dartmouth Review student newspaper destroyed a political art exhibit constructed on the campus green to promote divestment from South Africa. Writers did that; I shudder to think what the jocks might do.
After last month's Holy Cross altercation, Dartmouth Athletic Director Josie Harper released a statement saying that she "told the Dartmouth players and staff that this type of behavior is unacceptable." Well, I'm glad she told them. Isn't that kind of like grounding your teen-ager while tossing him the keys to the family car?
Shalala's hypocrisy was more transparent. Though she reportedly attended the game, she later said that she wouldn't watch the film of the five-minute orgy of violence. (She wouldn't want something like the facts interfering with her decision.) Shalala went on to say that "she would not crucify these young people." Rather, she would "hit them hard and pick them back up."
What kind of hard hit did she deliver? Canceling the season? Announcing that, were the University of Miami offered a bowl bid, it would not accept, as the University of South Carolina did in the Lou Holtz era?
Not even close. Shalala simply suspended 13 players for one game.
As for picking them back up? You got me. If there are no consequences for this behavior, there are no consequences. How does this help her players?
While the above two melees occurred at the most likely programs, one has to wonder: What if it happened here?
According to Greg Hotchkiss, of the Pitt Media Relations Office, Pitt's football team regularly uses a sports psychologist to help prevent just such incidents, and all Pitt athletes have sports psychologists available to them.
But why not take it a step further, and lead the way by requiring mandatory anger-management programs for Pitt's athletes? The training would provide behavioral tools for dealing with provocations, while at the same time stressing what price would be paid for inappropriately violent behavior.
"Aggression is contagious. ... If one player walked away (no matter how angry he was), then the situation could have been defused," according to Sandra P. Thomas, a University of Tennessee expert in anger management with whom I corresponded via e-mail about the incidents.
What if those Miami players or Dartmouth players had received that kind of training and it enabled just one or two of them to walk away and discharge the aggression elsewhere? Or if a few had walked away because they realized that punching somebody wasn't worth the consequences?
We expect a lot from these young men. The irony is that aggression is a requirement of their sport. Couple that with the climate of big-time college athletics and its attendant pressures, and all schools -- the University of Miami and the University of Pittsburgh alike -- should be proactive. Anger-management training could help. Do it now.
It might sound like coddling, but it's completely pragmatic and empathetic. It's one thing to set the bar high; it's another to provide student-athletes with the tools to reach that bar. Considering all the money that pours into colleges and universities because of athletics, the schools owe their athletes that much.