On values, 'Canes, not UNC, are real heels

October 24, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

It was a little moment that spoke volumes. During warm-ups before the Virginia-North Carolina game last week, Carolina coach John Bunting reportedly spotted one of his players, linebacker Garrett White, gesturing inappropriately to Virginia fans. After angrily confronting the player on the field, Bunting sacked White for the night. White watched the game from the sideline, in street clothes.

"I won't tolerate that type of behavior," Bunting said after the game. He added later: "You've got to show some restraint. That's part of growing up."

Can you imagine the University of Miami responding that way?

White's gesture was a relatively minor indiscretion compared with the nasty brawl between players from Miami and Florida International on Oct. 14 at the Orange Bowl, but you can bet you won't see Tar Heels stomping on opponents or swinging their helmets as weapons anytime soon.

The Tar Heels might not have a top-caliber program that routinely competes for national titles, as the Hurricanes do, but Bunting's players know their limits. So do the players at many schools.

It's up to the head coach and school administrators to establish those controls, and, well, either those people have the right values or they don't.

Bunting is out of a job after being told over the weekend that Carolina would hire a new coach after this season. The Heels are 1-6 in 2006 and 25-41 overall under him. But make no mistake, he has the right values.

So does Florida International, if the school's response to this incident is any indication. In the wake of the brawl, which included behavior that could get a person arrested, the school suspended 16 players indefinitely and dismissed two from the team.

Meanwhile, at Miami, 12 of the 13 players who were suspended for brawling are back on the field starting this week. They had to sit out just one game. What does that say about the Miami program?

Coach Larry Coker and the school's president, Donna Shalala, vigorously defended their tepid response as entirely just. Shalala said, a little too late, that the school would now enforce a zero-tolerance policy toward fighting. She also said she wouldn't bow to national criticism and throw students under the bus.

But since when does suspending athletes for part of a season constitute throwing them under the bus? They're students. What they do on a playing field should have no bearing on their academic careers. Let them continue going to class. Just don't let them play for the rest of the season.

Show them where their limits are, that swinging helmets and stomping on opponents just can't happen.

Unfortunately, what you do at such a moment is a lot more important than what you say, and Miami failed to promote the values any school should.

By allowing most of the players who took part in the brawl to come back so soon, Coker and Shalala essentially said it wasn't a big deal. But it was. Yes, football is a physical game, the players get amped up and fights are inevitable, but it's still a game and assaulting opponents in such a fashion is way over the line of what's acceptable.

When you're dealing with college players, young people, you need to clearly mark their limits. And you have to believe in those limits.

Television cameras happened to catch Bunting rebuking White on the field during warm-ups last week, but the opening kickoff was still a long way away and he didn't know he was being watched. He was just doing what he thought was right, what came naturally.

Suspending the brawling Hurricanes for the rest of the season would have sent that same message. But it's too late now. After barely beating winless Duke with a suspension-depleted squad last week, the Hurricanes are back at full strength for the rest of the season, which includes a Nov. 11 visit to Maryland and then probably a bowl appearance.

Isn't that swell? The Miami players didn't get thrown under any bus. They're driving the bus.

Miami is a fine private school with sharp teachers and students; commentators who complained about the school after the brawl were way off base. But the football program has a long history of unseemly on-field and off-field behavior. I covered the January 1987 Fiesta Bowl, when the Hurricanes showed up for a dinner in military fatigues. I covered the January 1991 Cotton Bowl, when they were flagged for nine unsportsmanlike conduct calls.

That history is why the brawl made headlines, which Shalala appropriately complained about. Today's players shouldn't be punished for what happened more than a decade ago. But they should be punished for what they did themselves.

Miami coaches and administrators say they have gone to great lengths to improve their players' behavior, but their tepid response illustrates why unfortunate incidents continue to occur.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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