Commentary: Finding Peace in Brawl Aftermath

by - Correspondent -
The Brawl.
The Brawl.

Finding Peace in Brawl Aftermath

I guess at some point, everybody moves on. I should move on, and I know that.

However, it is still very easy to be bitter at the way the 2004 football season ended. The blame that was so poignant almost six months ago has since been crystallized in some cases and exonerated altogether in others.

The Sunday and Monday after the 29-7 win over South Carolina should have been the two most joyous days of the year for Clemson fans that once again had the chance to savor a brutal whipping of their archrival. As we all know, those two days ended up being far from joyous and in many cases downright bitter as Clemson University officials put the skid marks on the 2004 season by removing the school's name from bowl consideration. It was a move to quiet the critics who had sensationalized the ordeal while at the same time bringing closure to the uneasy publicity that the football program was thrust into. And, of course, it really did neither as we look back in hindsight.

The Brawl Itself

Fans and media alike have analyzed the actual fight repeatedly, so rehashing the actual events at this date and time seems irrelevant at best. The bottom line of the fight can be summarized in one single sentence: No players, fans, or security personnel were hurt or arrested.

I was embarrassed that it happened, and the players at fault (on both sides) should have received punishment. This article is not to defend the fight in any way but simply to put it in a more proper perspective. My problem lies in that the punishment was given to an entire team, its coaching staff, and its fans instead of punishing the very few that were directly involved in thuggish behavior. Which leads to my frustration...still six months later.

This whole story would be over if I could let it go...but it keeps gnawing at me the way all of it went down and I guess I have to put the following into words to try to rid myself of the lingering frustration.

The Perfect Storm

To get from the fight to the bowl ban by my account took a "perfect storm" of events. The leading catalyst was most certainly the events that took place the Friday before the Clemson/South Carolina game in the NBA game between Detroit and Indiana. The media reaction that Saturday and Sunday in regards to the terrible imagery from that game was justified because of the brutality and chaos of that situation in addition to the fact that it involved fans.

The fight in the Clemson game, while nowhere near the severity or destructiveness of the NBA fight the night before, was nonetheless lumped into that same category because of the timing of the two separate events. The defining moment of the Clemson/USC fight was the infamous picture of Yusef Kelly kicking the South Carolina player while he was on the ground. It was an ugly picture?much uglier than the actual kick itself. But it was indeed ugly. In addition, that one single picture correlated the Clemson/USC brawl with the Detroit/Indiana debacle?all in one single snap shot. The national media portrayed the two in similar lights, even running highlights of the two incidents back to back to try and show some type of correlation to the decline of sportsmanship across all sport's boundaries. It was an unfair comparison from the start, but it was the first match lit that would eventually turn into the blaze that ended the bowl hopes of Clemson and South Carolina.

Also lining up against the Clemson football team was a local media that gratified itself by taking a "holier than thou" approach to the situation with little to no regard for the impact that they were having. The irony of the state media (print and some web sites) was in the fact that they did not talk about bowl bans in their articles about the game for the Sunday morning papers. If you go back and look at the Sunday papers and web headlines from across the state, there is little to no mention of bowl bans. There were no calls for Clemson and South Carolina to ?do the right thing? by removing their names from bowl consideration. And there were no characterizations of the fight as some type of world-altering fiasco.

All that changed by Monday morning. Editorial writers from this state's print media outlets who wrote nothing of bowl bans in the aftermath of the game on Saturday had a change of tune by late Sunday night. In the Monday editions of the papers, there were public calls for Clemson and South Carolina to remove themselves from consideration of playing in a bowl. What changed between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning to prompt this new credo? The reality is that nothing changed at all. What happened is that these writers decided to create and then ride the wave of sensationalism of the whole event. The local media spent all day Sunday watching the replays on ESPN and they read the articles from the national media and finally they decided that they needed to jump on while the jumping is good. It was reactionary journalism at its best?something that these people swear they do not do because it goes against the journalism ?morals? they were taught from day one.

The easy thing for the writers in this state to do was to pounce on Terry Don Phillips and Mike McGee. The national media was devoting air space to the fight, paving the way for this state's media to follow easily in the wake. The difficult thing would have been to stand up for your state. The difficult thing to write about would be to paint the fight in the truest colors that is was?a bad thing where several players deserved punishment. Finally, the difficult thing to do would be to go against what the prime time journalist (national media) were saying and create an honest opinion of your own without bias.

You see, it takes intellect, backbone, and heart to stand up for your state and to stand up to the sensationalism that this event turned into when in the hands of the national media. And our local media, by and large, showed they did not have those traits. They took the easy way out?the road most traveled. And the fuel that they decided to add 48 hours after the actual fight was enough to set the whole situation ablaze.

The final pieces to The Perfect Storm came from Columbia. Mike McGee, South Carolina's outgoing Athletic Director, was in a pickle. He had done about as poorly as you can do in keeping the hiring of Steve Spurrier quiet until after the season. The speculation obviously hurt the Gamecocks in their preparation, and their play on that Saturday certainly was below the level that they were capable of. It was obvious that this public relations nightmare weighed heavily on the Gamecocks, and it was probably a catalyst to some of the behavior that went on before, during and after the game.

But McGee's bigger problem the Sunday after the game was not the fight. It was his lame duck coach, Lou Holtz. Holtz could not be allowed to coach the bowl game because it would impede Spurrier's recruiting efforts and the hiring of assistant coaches. Spurrier was ill prepared to take over the team and coach them in a bowl game and by all accounts Spurrier wanted nothing to do with coaching in a bowl game in that short amount of time. With all the turmoil that any coaching change is going to have, worrying about preparing for a Music City Bowl seemed far down on McGee's priority list?and rightfully so.

Feeling the heat from the national media on Sunday and then the added pressure from his local media on Monday, McGee saw his out. He will take the high road and remove his team from bowl consideration, or at least that is the way he was going to portray it. In doing so McGee solved his problem with Lou and the problems that the bowl game would have caused in Spurrier's staff assembly and recruiting efforts. But in (probably) a non-intentional way, McGee would also force the hand of Clemson.

Dr. Phillips and President Barker knew that McGee in Columbia was pulling the plug on their bowl participation and were left with no other choice but to follow suit. How could Clemson go to a bowl game while their rivals voluntarily pulled out of theirs? A media that already was unfairly portraying Clemson and its head football coach certainly would crucify and then bury Clemson University if they took another route on handling the situation. It was clearly a no-win situation for Dr. Phillips and President Barker, who obviously decided that enough damage had been done and an end to the ordeal was probably in everybody's best interest. While it may be a stretch to say USC forced Clemson's hand, it would have been very interesting to see if the bowl ban would have been the decision for Clemson had South Carolina gone another route on their end.

What Did All This Prove?

The bowl ban crystallized some things while leaving other things unsolved. We now clearly know where our local media stands in regards to Clemson University and its football program. The local media does not care one red cent if the Clemson football program wins, loses, does things the right way, or does things the wrong way. They simply do not care. Their ambivalence lies in the fact that they have no emotional attachment to this state or to Clemson University.

They aim for a story that sells papers. They aim for credibility from the folks who they envy at a national level. They aim to speak to us from a pulpit.

But they do not aim to speak as the voice of the people who buy their papers. And they are most certainly not speaking for us; the football fans in this great state.

They do not aim to write for us possibly because they really cannot relate to us on any fundamental level. These editorial writers are not South Carolinians by birth and in many cases are not even southerners. They have been piped in from all over the country to speak as a voice of the subscribers of their papers. Yet they have no basis or background to be able to do that?so they let their own values condemn our own. It would be like me writing that Colorado should shut down their football program for five years because of their indiscretions the past few years. I do not care about Colorado football, their coaches, their University, or their fans. It would be EASY for me to preach to them. I have no stake in that state or that football program and therefore I can easily rip into them without any guilt. That similar situation resides here in this state with the writers for our newspapers.

They will counter that point by saying their goal is to be unbiased and write the truth. Yet in hiding behind that veil of being unbiased, they actually show their bias. If it were simply the truth they were writing that weekend, it would not have included the sensationalism that it did.

The writers will also say that they had no hand in actually deciding on the bowl ban. They'll say that decision rested in the hands of President Barker and Dr. Phillips. They are correct in that assumption, if you take the assumption only at face value.

If a car pulls out in front of you and you swerve, miss the car, and slam into a tree you could make the argument that the car that pulled out was not to blame. You did not strike that car, you chose to veer off the road and it caused you to hit a tree. Don't blame the car that pulled out, blame yourself because you should have swerved the other direction. Right?

Of course that is not right. The media directly influenced this outcome by placing an undo obstruction to the process. Had the media looked at the fight logically and in context without being condemning and critical, Clemson very well may have played in a bowl game.

What is clear, however, is exactly where these writers stand when it comes to representing their readers. That clarity can be summed up by understanding that they do not strive to be a voice for you. They are not interested in writing to us?but only at us. At the end of the day, they have bigger aspirations than to write in this state and for these newspapers. There is nothing wrong with that, it is certainly the American Dream. But I miss and long for the days where writers made a career out of writing in this state. What we have now are folks that are using this state as their stepping stone?not worrying whether they submerge the stone when they take their step. And that is a shame.

I do not want writers that polish off the ugly of Clemson and portray us in a favorable way in everything that they write. We have a great sports information department that does that. I also, however, do not want writers to dramatize the blemishes for the sake of their careers at the expense of those who love this state and these football programs.

As much fuel the local media added to the fire, they could have just as easily had doused it. Had they stood up and rationalized the ramifications of punishing everybody for the actions of a few, they could have possibly turned the sensationalistic tide. To put it in their terms, should we have punished all of CBS's anchors when Dan Rather screwed up? Should we have shut down evening news for a week to make a statement that this behavior is unacceptable?

Of course not. But we punished two entire football programs for the stupid behavior of ten or so individuals.

Clemson fans deserved better than what they got that fateful week. The Clemson coaches deserved better than what they go that week. And, most importantly, those Tiger seniors deserved a better fate than they got that week.

I can't blame Dr. Phillips and President Barker because, in the end, their hands were tied. So I'll blame this state's media, which of course will get me nowhere.

What you did learn, though, was who is in your corner when the chips are down and who is not. You and I both know exactly whom I am talking about.

I, for one, will not forget. This article helps remove the bitterness, but I will not forget.

I am now at peace...I suppose.

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