Miami’s Swagger Bowl: Self-Fulfilling Disgrace

A month ago this column bemoaned the fact that many members of the media had pointed to a loss of “swagger” as a reason why the University of Miami football team was not winning as before. More to the point, there was considerable sentiment in favor of UM regaining that very dubious quality. As if a strutting, obnoxious, insolent air was a reasonable enough price to pay to get good again. As if “swagger” meant confident.

Umbrage was even taken by some to the quote that “watching Miami with swagger was like looking at looters.” At least I didn’t yield to the temptation to apologize to looters.

Now fast forward a fortnight from then – to that notorious UM-Florida International University football game that devolved into a helmet-swinging, sucker-punching, foot-stomping brawl. Before the melee broke out, the “Swagger Bowl” had been punctuated by the usual unsportsmanlike antics – crude “trash talking” and boorish gestures intended to show-off for fans and show-up the opposition. It kept ratcheting – and eventually erupted.

Because of all the exposure and notoriety, there was pressure to do something dramatic and, indeed, collectively there were 29 player suspensions, two dismissals — and one TV-analyst firing. Former Miami receiver Lamar Thomas lost his commentator job when he suggested that the teams meet afterward to finish the fight. But the player penalties should be seen for what they are – quick fixes to appease the outraged and mitigate embarrassing publicity. In reality, only ugly symptoms were addressed.

“There is no place in higher education for the type of conduct exhibited,” grossly understated Wright Water, commissioner of the (FIU-affiliated) Sun Belt Conference.

A better way of putting it would have been: “Higher education and competitive intercollegiate athletics are not incompatible, but we can no longer prostitute ourselves for the sake of big time, money-making basketball and football programs. And for those who think the status quo is beyond repair, well, just watch as we stuff that genie of Hessian jocks back into the bottle of legitimate university priorities.”

That quote, of course, could never come from a commissioner of an athletic conference, unless that person wanted to be content with presiding over a bunch of non-revenue sports played by real student-athletes. There’s no academic artifice, thuggish behavior or recruiting scandals associated with cross country.

A meaningful place to start, arguably, is with university presidents, many of whom are selected, quite candidly, for their fund-raising skills. But filling a stadium or an arena is not the same as outfitting laboratories or building classrooms.

At some point UM President Donna Shalala (as well as her FIU counterpart Modesto Maidique) has to step up and, in effect, say: “We are first and foremost a university. Scholarship should refer more to academic pursuits than pro-prepping internships. We are about learning – not yearning to get to a BCS bowl game.

“And, yes, we are also a community, and to quote the late Coach Bear Bryant, ‘It’s tough to rally around the math department.’ We agree. But having said that, we need to better examine exactly who we are bringing in to ‘represent’ us in athletics and what, if any, standards we are holding them to.”

Instead, she said: “This university will be firm and punish people who do bad things. But we will not throw any student under the bus for instant restoration of our image or our reputation. I will not hang them in a public square. I will not eliminate their participation at the university. I will not take away their scholarships.”

Standards at issue

Obviously Shalala had more help on her spin management than Sen. George Allen did with “macaca.” But it’s obvious she was deflecting attention from core causes and reminding outsiders she wasn’t about to do the merely expedient for image “restoration,” nor was she about to abandon those who had simply done “bad things.” The “hanging in a public square” metaphor was vintage, liberal campus-speak – given that the players involved are black.

Shalala addressed an incident, however repellent, but not an endemic, shameless, hypocritical condition, one that has existed since Miami made its Faustian deal for better players in the 1970s. (It has won five national championships after coming close to folding the program when the Dolphins came to town.) She still doesn’t get it – or want to acknowledge (getting it) in a politically correct, college-sports universe.

And she’s not alone, of course.

But here’s what needs to be addressed. Too many schools with big time athletic programs (read: football and basketball) – with big time expectations, budgets and alumni pressure – are overly reliant on oxymoronic student-athletes. It’s not exactly stop-the-presses news. Miami isn’t unique, just uniquely notorious for its gangsta reputation.

University administrators will tell you that they have flexible admission criteria for all kinds of uniquely talented prospects. They’d love for you to equate the All State wide out (with 4.3 40-yard speed, rap sheet history, awful SATs and a friendly-teacher-skewed GPA) with the budding violinist learning English as a second language.

Often, a majority of these high-profile-sport student-athletes are poor, inner city and black – and academic allowances are made for disadvantaged backgrounds and societal passes handed out for street-culture mores at odds with quaint concepts such as sportsmanship. The process of compromised standards is further muddied by the legitimate, ongoing issue of pro-active, minority recruiting and the political axe that is affirmative action advocacy.

It’s up to college presidents to say enough of the sham. This isn’t “hire” education. There’s no disgrace in a high school athlete, who’s probably been lionized and enabled by coaches and teachers since junior high, not being ready for prime time as a student-student. That’s what community colleges, remediation courses and semi-pro leagues are for.

But somebody has to say enough of the double standards and enough of the swagger-culture resignation – let alone encouragement. Commissioners, athletic directors and coaches won’t. Their jobs are sports – and winning.

That’s why it’s the province of the presidents. But you don’t start by waiting for a disgusting incident and then deciding who might have to be thrown under the team bus. You start by reiterating and re-enforcing what a university is and who actually belongs in one. You acknowledge the difference between a half back and a harpist.

Miami is not the only institution of higher education that has to de-swagger itself. Would that it were.

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