I find times of trial and tribulation like the one UM is going through right now as moments that define character. Having the eyes of the nation fixated on this brawl the last few days has been interesting to say the least. I've found myself observing the situation not only as a journalist, but as a native South Floridian.
Let me start off by saying I'm not going to get into things like 'Was the discipline UM handed down enough? Or, 'Does the University of Miami need a new coach and was this another sign of a program out of control or whatever?' That's a whole 'nother topic. No, this blog about the way I feel the national media has mishandled this situation.
As a journalist, I can understand why this is a big story. One of the country's top college football programs that has been tail spinning of late gets into an ugly fight with a crosstown rival and it all gets caught on tape with a hometown announcer and former player egging it on. Juicy. Just the kind of fodder that makes for eye-grabbing TV replays that draw viewers, hot radio talk that draws callers, and enough of a hot topic for columnists to feel holier than thou and say all the things they're expected to say and more and have their mailboxes flooded with emails.
And some have already said plenty of stupid things like: "Give the program the death penalty"; "These players have always been and always will be nothing but thugs."
There's nothing wrong with having opinions. Journalists, TV and radio hosts get paid to have them. And there certainly is nothing wrong with condemning a bench-clearing brawl between college football players. I'm not condoning anything UM or FIU did Saturday as right. But when journalists attack the character of individuals they've only seen on tape and never spoken to in their lives, much less made the effort to hear their side of the story, I find something morally and journalistically wrong with it.
Tuesday morning there were more than a dozen TV crews at the University of Miami and other journalists I had never seen attend a UM press conference. On most Tuesdays, the only people at a UM press conference are your local media -- basically beat writers from local papers and a few TV cameras. Ultimately, it's not the new interested parties around UM I'm disappointed in as a journalist. They're trying to do a job and at least making the effort to go out and ask questions. It's the other guys who don't always do their jobs responsibly.
Like the out-of-town radio show hosts (who shall remain nameless) who asked me to go on their show then ripped me and called me a homer because I disagreed with their opinion about UM players being thugs. Or the national TV network that asked me to come in and talk about the way the University of Miami "has lost control again and is being overrun with thugs."
As a South Floridian who has gotten to know and written plenty about most of the players on both teams that were involved in the brawl Saturday (I was a high school writer for five-plus years), I can say I was disappointed by their actions. It hurt me to see a guy like Anthony Reddick, a guy whose high school coach at St. Thomas Aquinas has always had nothing but great things to say about him, swing a helmet at another player. It stunk to see a guy like FIU receiver Chandler Williams, a kid from Miami High, swing and kick and take a cheap shot at Carol City's Kenny Phillips.
But one bad night, one gigantic moment of stupidity that got way out of control shouldn't define who these kids are. I'm not an apologist. I just think more needs to be said. What FIU and UM did was wrong and stupid. Derrick Morse didn't need to body slam an FIU player. Amod Ned didn't need to come out swinging with his crutches. And Brandon Meriweather didn't need to stomp on anybody. But, last I checked, how many of you were ever in a scuffle as a teenager or in your early 20s and thought to yourself as it was going on: 'Well, I'm not going to kick the guy who just tried to attack me and my boys because I'll do 5 to 10; I'll just push him away and go back home.' When did you have the restraint to take a verbal and physical beating from somebody for 2-3 hours and just turn the other cheek? Would you honestly have let a guy slam a teammate, a guy like Matt Perrelli (who looks a bit helpless), to the turf and not run to his defense and try and return the favor?
Somewhere in all this, I think we forgot a few things. Like, one this is football, a violent sport where brawls have happened before (if this type of violence broke out at a golf or tennis match then it would be incredible). Two, in a heated moment when you try to defend somebody or fight them off, you aren't exactly thinking about how not to fight. And three, these 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22-year old gladiators who kicked, punched and acted the fool for five minutes Saturday night are the same 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22-year old gladiators who have worked, bled and done what it takes to earn those uniforms and scholarships. They've done what's been asked of them in the classroom and out of it.
When I think of the word thug, I picture a person who doesn't work hard, a guy who carries a gun, sells drugs, steals, cheats and lies to get ahead in life. Most of these kids at UM and FIU survived neighborhoods with all those elements to get where they are now. Could some of these kids end up reverting to those bad things? Yes. But most of them will not. Just like everywhere else in this country.
The University of Miami has had its share of "bad boys" in the past -- and present. But the fact is the number of thugs pales in comparison to the successful student-athletes this university and town has produced. I think I can count on my hands the number of guys from UM who have gone on to a life of crime and thuggery. Yet, that's what The U is known for. That's what South Florida players are all about in the eyes of the nation.
And that bothers me. The truth is we can't keep track of the number of successful, talented people who have come out of this university and from South Florida because there are too many and that number is growing every year. Last I checked, doesn't the University of Miami lead the NFL with the most players and first round picks in the last decade? Last I checked, doesn't South Florida lead the nation in producing the most NFL players? Somewhere in there, something positive has to be happening around here doesn't it?
I don't want to spin too out of control here and dwell on the past. I'm not going to change the nation's opinions here about UM or South Florida high school football players -- nor am I trying. Honestly, it won't ever change. No matter how much cleaning up this program does, the national media will always have those video tapes of Randall Hill dancing in the Cotton Bowl, UM players fighting on Bourbon Street and now, The Brawl to make their case "stronger."
But at the very least, I hope, as South Floridians we've all seen the way the national media portrays this school and our local football players. I think we've all learned it will never change.
EXAMPLE: All the stories in the papers, TV stations and radio stations nationwide, are sure to have Anthony Reddick's prepared speech somewhere in their coverage tomorrow next to a title that won't be too far off of Helmet Swinging Safety Apologizes For Antics.
But nowhere in those stories does there figure to be any description of what Reddick looked like before he delivered his speech. Nobody will say how he looked down at the floor in real disappointment as he walked toward a collection of TV cameras and unknown faces to tell people he doesn't know he's sorry he ran to the defense of his teammates and instead of grabbing a jersey, swung a helmet at another guy who was coming after one of his buddies. Nowhere in the story will there be anything remotely describing the thought process Reddick put into it his letter, how the piece of paper he typed his forgiveness letter on was covered with ink with words crossed out and new ones added on in pencil and pen.
No. All that will be replayed over and over again as Reddick speaks is the video of him flinging his helmet at the back of an FIU player, the worst decision he's probably made in his life. And when its all said and done some guy in Oklahoma, Alabama or Washington is just going to shake his head and tell his buddies "I knew those UM guys were thugs." Then, his buddy is going to tell him, "All those people down there are like that."
And that's not totally right or fair. Somewhere in there, guys like Reddick deserve a little more than that. These schools deserve a little more than that. And our hometown deserves to been known for a little more than one bad night.