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Melee in Miami

October 17, 2006

For weeks, officials at Florida International University had been trumpeting their football team's matchup with the established cross-town powerhouse, the University of Miami. The game represented two football programs at very different levels of maturation. Florida International has been playing football for just five years, and is in only its second season in Division I-A, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's top level. Miami has been one of the country's most visible and successful programs over the last two decades, winning five national championships since 1983. Florida International has eyed the Miami program's wins and popularity with envy.

“We have watched the University of Miami for a number of years and know that they are one of the elite programs in the country,” Florida International's coach, Don Strock, said in the days before the game. “I have great respect for them.... This will be a true test for our football team to see how it measures up.”

Florida International proved every bit Miami's equal on Saturday night, but not in the way anyone at either university would have wanted. In its first real visibility on the national stage, Florida International's football program matched not Miami's reputation for football excellence, but its two-decade-old image as the bad boys of big-time college football.

In a chilling three minutes in the game's third quarter, the two teams engaged in a free-for-all brawl in which players not only threw punches and tackled each other to the ground, but swung helmets (and, in the case of one previously injured player, a crutch) and even stomped on those who lay on the ground.

Perhaps the most troubling moment came once the melee had ended, after police officers had driven the teams back to their respective sidelines. There, as the referees decided what penalties to mete out and the two teams' coaches tried to restore peace, the Miami players huddled en masse and began jumping with their helmets aloft, in apparent celebration. After what had just unfolded, what they were celebrating was not clear.

Referees ejected 13 players from the game, 8 from Florida International and 5 from Miami. Coaches and administrators from both universities apologized to each other and to the public. And Sunday night, after consultation with officials from the two universities, the Atlantic Coast Conference (in which Miami plays) suspended 13 of its players for next Saturday's game against Duke University, and the Sun Belt Conference, Florida International's league, announced that 18 Golden Panthers would miss their next game, a week from Saturday against the University of Alabama.

As video of the ugly brawl was replayed repeatedly on sports television and across the Internet, commentators across the country clamored for harsher penalties -- longer suspensions for players, punishments for coaches, or even forfeiture of games. A statement from the NCAA noted that it would take no action, because "[r]egular season misconduct issues are addressed by the member institutions and conferences involved. However, this behavior is wholly unacceptable for student-athletes and the athletic programs they represent. There is no place for this in intercollegiate athletics and it is hoped that the actions taken by Miami, FIU and the conferences will send a message that such behavior is not tolerated."

Early Monday, Donna E. Shalala, the university's president, suggested that it would impose no additional penalties beyond those the conference recommended Sunday. In a letter to the campus, she said that the players' behavior was "outrageous" and "embarrassing," and that "the University of Miami simply will not tolerate or condone this type of behavior. Period."

Yet Shalala's note went on to say that the university was "satisfied" with the Atlantic Coast Conference's independent review and its one-game suspensions for the 13 players, which she said were consistent with the league's "rigorous behavioral and academic standards for student-athletes." A spokeswoman said that neither Shalala nor other university administrators would comment further.

Miami officials have long been accused of treating the football program with kid gloves; in 1995, a Sports Illustrated cover article entitled "Why the University of Miami Should Drop Football" urged the university's then-president, Edward T. Foote II, to do just that, citing a pattern of lawlessness and drug use. Needless to say, it did not happen.

Stephen Sapp, a professor of religious studies who heads Miami's Faculty Senate, said he personally believed the one-game punishments were "too light." Sapp said he was particularly disturbed by the incident, which he called "reprehensible" and "indefensible," because he believed the Miami program had actually made strides from its bad-boy days of a decade or two ago. "What's really sad about this -- and this is going to sound like utter defensiveness -- is that the program really has changed," said Sapp, who has been at Miami for 26 years. "We really did crack down and clean up and change things, and yet this takes us right back" to the old days. "It was just really disappointing to see young men wearing my school's uniform doing the things they were doing."

Monday evening, Miami released a statement saying that "after further consultation" with the Atlantic Coast Conference, the university had decided to indefinitely suspend Anthony Reddick, the player who had wielded his helmet as a weapon, and that "additional disciplinary measures will be taken for all involved players, including community service and other unspecified actions."

The statement added: "The athletic department has re-emphasized to the football coaching staff the university's commitment to the principles of sportsmanship and their responsibility to communicate this principle to the student-athletes. The coaches will be held accountable for any violation of this principle. Any further action by a student-athlete that violates these principles will not be tolerated by the university. With respect to fighting, any future violation will subject student-athletes to seasonal or permanent suspensions."

Newcomer to the Spotlight

Universities like Florida International -- a fast-growing and ambitious public university in a rapidly expanding region -- often decide to play big time athletics at least in part because they think doing so will give them the kind of publicity that money can't buy. And they are sometimes right, but as often as not, that's a double-edged sword.

"Here you have a school that has made the kind of tremendous investment that, given the economic realities today, probably isn't a very good one, in large part justified on the visibility it'll get the school," said John Gerdy, a former associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference who has written several books about college sports, most recently Air Ball: American Education's Failed Experiment with Elite Athletics. "Five years down the road, the thing that Florida International is going to be associated with and remembered by is this fight."

That possibility troubled some faculty members at Florida International. "The one time we get national attention, and this is what it's for," said Howard Rock, a professor of history who is vice chair of the Faculty Senate. Rock said he was "outraged" at seeing his university splashed across the newspapers and television screens in such a "disgraceful" way, and he proposed that professors at the institution review whether underlying factors, such as how athletes are recruited, may have contributed to the incident.

The chairman of the Faculty Senate, Bruce Hauptli, said he would be surprised if critics of the university's foray into big-time sports did not "point to this and say 'I told you so,' and believe that this is the inevitable result of the move to Division I football." Hauptli, a professor of philosophy, said that he initially opposed the move to Division I five years ago but had been largely won over by the fact that the university had "managed the transition" to the big time "very, very well over all" -- "the events of last weekend aside." Faculty members have kept a close eye on the sports program, he said, and the program has stayed within budget and athletes have performed relatively well academically.

But Saturday's brawl, Hauptli said, "certainly is a dark day and a stain on our reputation." He said he was confident that the university would take more aggressive action, but noted that it would probably act cautiously, in part, because of an unfortunate quirk of timing: Monday marked the first day on the job for Florida International's new athletics director, Pete Garcia, whose appointment was announced on the fly last week. Garcia comes, of all places, from the University of Miami, where he was senior associate athletics director.

But by Monday evening, Garcia had announced that he and Strock, the football coach, had decided to dismiss two players from the team entirely and suspend 16 others indefinitely. All 18 players will also go through the university's student judicial process and must undergo 10 hours of anger management counseling and engage in 50 hours of community service "intended to educate South Florida youth on appropriate behavior at athletic competitions."

In an interview, Garcia said the actions proved that Florida International "will do things the right way." He noted that the university committed to honoring the scholarships of all the dismissed and suspended players, to "do everything in our power to make sure we supply them with the resources to get them graduated." And by forcing the players (and coaches) to do community service with young people in Miami, he said, the university wanted to send a message to them that "the images and pictures that were seen both in our stadium and around the country represented inappropriate behavior that was a mistake. "We want to try to educate the youth of this community that you make choices in life, and then you've got consequences for those choices."

Reverberations Beyond Florida

Not surprisingly, the ugly brawl in Miami raised concerns among those who keep an eye on the role of college sports in American society. Gerdy said the fact that some commentators had described the Miami violence as "stupidity, and nothing more," meant that big-time college sports had lost its ability to shock. "It's gotten to the point where an event like that happens, and you don't even raise your eyebrows any more," he said. "When abhorrent things occur again and again and no longer shock, to me that means that you can no longer make a credible case that these are isolated incidents, and that higher education has to confront the debate about whether the system [of big-time college sports] is a good one."

Peter Roby, director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, and his predecessor, Richard E. Lapchick, director of the sports business management program at the University of Central Florida (another recent Division I-A climber), had more practical concerns. Roby said he was deeply concerned about the messages the Miami incident would send to young people, and wondered whether local officials would consider pressing assault charges against any of the athletes involved, as has happened in professional ice hockey and other sports. "If you're swinging a helmet around, that's a dangerous weapon," he said. "Whether anybody wants to press charges or not, I don't know, but I would think the D.A. has the right to say, 'We can't allow this type of thing to happen just because it's on the field of play."

Lapchick speculated that athletics directors at other institutions were probably talking to their coaches and players today about their own expectations. "I suspect this might scare the heck out of a lot of A.D.'s, who might not have thought things could get so out of control and might be quite concerned that it would happen on their campuses," Lapchick said.

Besides the various players and coaches whose reputations may long be tarnished by last weekend's melee in Miami, one other person paid a very dear price for his behavior. Lamar Thomas, who played on the University of Miami football teams in the 1990s that were often criticized for their thuggishness, was an analyst on the television broadcast of the brawl-marred game. As the brawl unfolded, Thomas could be heard telling viewers that he was tempted to go "down in the elevator" to join the action.

Later, Thomas added, "Why don't they just meet outside in the tunnel after the ballgame and get it on some more? You don't come into the [Orange Bowl], don't come in here talking smack, not in our house."

On Monday, Comcast Sports Southeast fired Thomas for his cheerleading for Miami's brawlers.

 

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