Let’s Hope March Madness Isn’t So Mad

I am watching a bandana-wearing fan of the Utah Valley University basketball team throw a wicked punch at a New Mexico State player. And while trying to grasp the who, what, when, where and why of Utah Valley University and how exactly it wound up in the Western Athletic Conference — the campus is in Orem, self-monikered “Family City USA” — I realize March Madness could become too mad if we’re not careful.

Once the most joyful month on the sports calendar, as the stage for the ever-endearing NCAA tournament and Final Four, March will have to avoid landmines this time. Too much anger is in the air, the flames of rising tensions between players and fans. First, it was Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart, responding to a taunt by a Texas Tech fan — Smart said it was a racial slur; the fan said he called Smart a “piece of crap” — with a firm two-handed shove that earned him a three-game suspension last month. Now, it’s the sad convergence of Utah Valley students storming the court after an overtime victory while the team’s players were dodging punches and a basketball hurled by New Mexico State players.

What was happening between the teams was disturbing enough. Apparently upset with a heat-of-battle comment by Utah Valley guard Holton Hunsaker, New Mexico State guard K.C. Ross-Miller fired the basketball — dodgeball-style — at Hunsaker as time expired. That set off a brawl in which New Mexico State’s DK Eldridge fired a punch. Meanwhile, students were pouring onto the court, creating clashing images of jubiliation and fisticuffs. But what put this episode over the edge, triggering vague images of the Malice at the Palace melee 10 years ago, was the sight of our Utah Valley Bandana Guy swinging at New Mexico State’s Daniel Mullings, who was forcibly pulled from the scene and led away by members of the team’s support crew.

When the interaction between players and fans turns physical, that is reason for considerable alarm. And while we could debate assorted factors, including the proximity of fans to the court, I’m laying much of this on social media. The Internet, if you haven’t noticed, allows trolls with no lives to have semi-lives. Cowards who feel empowered by the ability to vent on a message board now think they can carry that cyber pulpit into arenas. And athletes who have to read this garbage are on edge. You’d love to advise a 19-year-old athlete to stay off Twitter, Facebook and the rest, but good luck with that. The social lives of kids revolve around social media. They find approval, respect and even love on those sites, but sometimes, they also find hatred.

The coaches are helpless. “I’m a social media basher. I hate it,” said Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, one of the most respected voices in the coaching profession. “There isn’t any question that everything has changed the last three years. These kids never get away from it. … We used to be able to go to a game and have a bad game, leave the game and you never heard about it. You go down to Ann Arbor and you get maligned, and you get on the bus and it’s over. Now, it’s never over. If I called any one of you (media people) what they get called 24-7, 365 days a year, you’d be fighting, you’d be upset, you’d be bummed out.”

Why do they read it? Izzo asks them the question, only to receive blank stares. “Telling a kid not to read (social media) is telling a kid not to breathe,” he said. “I think it’s created a whole new problem. I don’t think fans are much different than they were, except maybe they’re so ignorant on Twitter that now they figure they can do a little more face-to-face. But most love hiding behind a keyboard. If you read anything into this, it talks about how (a player) was getting killed on Twitter: `That pressure got to him.’ ”

Ohio State’s Thad Matta pleads for the obvious: Athletic directors and coaches should strive to create less combative settings. “There has to be more of a precaution,” he said, “because it can be downright brutal.” So why is the culture more volatile by the day? Maybe because ADs are too busy counting their football-generated millions to care.

Rick Pitino, coach of defending national champion Louisville, went so far to question the sanity of players — including his own star, Russ (Russdiculous) Smith — who indulge in social media. “I think anybody who reads social media who’s in sports is not all there. I’m being very serious when I say that,” Pitino said. “It’s a form of cowardice. It’s anonymous people. To me, it’s the great class of underachievers who live on the Internet with social media. I think it’s people that just waste their time — and underachieve because of it because they’re not paying attention to what they should be achieving. So it’s a waste of time. I don’t know why people do it. So Russ is wasting his time. And he does waste his time, and so does Chris Jones. They waste their time when they could be spending it reading valuable things. So I think it’s not that I’m against certain facets of social media, because I’m not, but what you’re talking about, what Russ Smith is doing, is a total waste of energy, time. It’s insulting, intellectually, to be on it.

“Why not go in a smoke-filled room and just inhale all of that if you’re healthy? That’s what you’re doing, aren’t you? What would you get out of it? It’s insulting to one’s intellect to read that stuff. So why would Russ do that?”

Even after Smart apologized and vowed to learn his lesson, he was right back on Twitter as his suspension was ending, castigating a fan for being critical of the team. The Oklahoma State coach, Travis Ford, has been accused of not being tough enough with Smart, once a potential No. 1 pick in the NBA draft before his stock plummeted this season. Lost in the Smart incident was an episode the same night in Tempe, Ariz., where Oregon assistants said an Arizona State student spit on them and Ducks guard Jason Calliste engaged in a verbal one-on-one with another student.

“A lot of times you just smile it off,” Syracuse forward C.J. Fair told the Associated Press. “You want to say you shouldn’t lose your cool, but it’s hard when you’re in that moment.”

The New Mexico State coach, Marvin Menzies, took responsibility for his team’s actions and suspended Ross-Miller. “”No matter what provoked K.C., what he did was inexcusable — hence, the suspension,” Menzies said. “It is an honor and a privilege to wear an Aggie uniform, and a responsibility comes with that privilege. I want to apologize for K.C.’s actions. … I don’t know what provoked it. Hunsaker’s a little chippy himself, so he may have said something or done something, but you just can’t respond. We showed (our players) plenty of clips where (Utah Valley players) do things that can get underneath your skin a little bit, and you’ve got to be tougher than that mentally. I’m just upset that he did that.”

So here we are again, watching sports in America morph into a social workship. So many important conversations are converging at once in the second decade of the 21st century — Jason Collins and Michael Sam, use of the N-word, the Richie Incognito bullying debacle — that it seemed inevitable another topic would surface.

But this is one is bubbling with poison. An emotional month awaits, and if you’re trying to pick a national champion, choose the team with the fewest Twitter accounts.

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