The players in the Texas locker room were not that upset. That was what struck me. The Miami Hurricanes had not just beaten them by 43 points, but also abused them verbally and physically, piling taunts on top of late hits. A few Texas players said they were offended, but their admissions were uninspired, rote. To me, it seemed most of them actually admired the Hurricanes for the way they had taken over the game.
It was enough to make you think twice. CBS' announcers for Tuesday's Cotton Bowl pulled on their solemn faces and proclaimed that Miami, with 200 yards in penalties, had "disgraced" itself. Assenting columns ran in the local papers the next day. Yesterday, the president of the school agreed that the Hurricanes, the bad boys of college football, had gone too far. But the Texas players -- hmmm -- were not that offended.
Stan Thomas, a Texas lineman who disparaged the Hurricanes before the game -- and as a reward was the recipient of three personal fouls -- could only shrug. "Give them credit: They backed it all up," he said. Over in Miami's locker room, a smiling cornerback named Robert Bailey said, "Stan Thomas would be our best friend if he was on our team." Everyone said it was nothing personal after a game that had gotten very personal.
This is what occurred to me: We don't understand. We being the sporting public. You and me. We moan about the absence of humility in football, but we don't understand that the game has taken an evolutionary spin, that trash-talking and peacock strutting are now a fundamental part of a sport that used to be gentlemanly in its rough way, players just doing their jobs fuss-free. That doesn't happen anymore, at least not much. We should get used to it.
If there was a message in the great mass of football that was New Year's Day, that was it. Everyone was doing it. Talking trash. Celebrating after routine plays. Trying to intimidate. It wasn't just the self-professed "renegades" such as Miami -- receiver Randal Hill used the term -- but the goody-goodies. Notre Dame was doing it. Chris Zorich, the Irish All-American, celebrated each tackle as though he'd won an Academy Award.
We complain about it because we want our athletes humble, because we remember the old days when a Hall of Fame monster such as the Steelers' Jack Lambert would hammer runners and just get up and go back to the huddle, his play speaking louder than any words or celebration could. That was beautiful. But the game just isn't played that way anymore, and it isn't going back. We can complain and complain, but after a while it's just stale whine.
The choice is elemental: Get used to it, or get offended and turn the channel. Before getting offended, though, try readjusting your vision. That's what the Cotton Bowl made me do. It had long been clear that trash-talking and intimidation were popular art forms among today's players. But never before had it struck me how universally accepted it was in locker rooms, that most players everywhere understood the unwritten rules.
Fans and reporters and school presidents get upset because it isn't
sporting to call your opponent a weenie (phrase edited) and maybe hit him once when he isn't looking, but players seem to recognize that you can call your man a weenie and hit him once when he isn't looking and still shake hands with him later. An ungentlemanly agreement, if you will. And it's their game, their bodies on the line. If they understand, I should. We should.
It's all a byproduct of the "I'm No. 1" psyche, which is occasionally nothing more than self-promotion (see: Deion Sanders), but mostly just a modern vehicle for inspiration. If it were still the selfish '80s, we could blame it on the times. That's too easy. It's just evolution. Football is more a players' game than it used to be. You don't see many autocratic coaches anymore.
In every college or pro game these days, trash is talked and the thin line between intimidation and penalty is walked. As Miami coach Dennis Erickson said, "This isn't tennis." True enough. He who intimidates often wins. It doesn't mean that the players aren't going to class, or that they're criminals. That's unfair. It's a game, not life. Hey, five of Miami's starters in Tuesday's game already had their diplomas.
Sure, sometimes it gets ridiculous. This is not intended as a defense of the Hurricanes' performance Tuesday. They went much too far, and they knew it. "We were way out of control," Bailey said. They hit to hurt, and there's no place for that. The school president had a right to condemn. As wonderfully as the Hurricanes played -- they were the best team in the nation by a couple of touchdowns on Jan. 1 -- they still resembled a collection of punks.
The message, however, is not to overreact, that the Hurricanes aren't an aberration, but an extreme example -- very extreme -- of today's norm. They talk trash. Everyone does. They try to intimidate. Everyone does. They did go too far, but in the end the Texas players mostly were impressed at how Miami had just walked into their back yard and taken the game. They weren't angry. They just wished they had those players on their team. You bet they did.