Football Player's Punishment 'Outstrips The Crime'
NEAL CONAN, host:
The college football season got under way this past weekend. One of the first games ended in an uproar. The Boise State Broncos just beat the Oregon Ducks 19-8 Thursday night. As the players gathered to shake hands at midfield, Boise State linebacker Byron Hout yelled something at Oregon running back LaGarrette Blount, and tapped him on the shoulder pad.
Boise State head coach Chris Petersen responded immediately, but as Hout turned to look at his coach, Blount decked him with a punch to the jaw. Blount's teammates and coaches restrained him as they left the field, and Blount apologized afterwards. It was just something I shouldn't have done, he said. I lost my head.
The next day, Ducks head coach Chip Kelly suspended his star running back for the remainder of the season. He will remain on scholarship and be allowed to practice with the team but will not be allowed to play. He's a senior. So that effectively ends his college football career, and could also diminish his chances at a career in professional football.
So, does the punishment fit the crime? We'd especially like to hear from listeners in Ohio - excuse me - in Oregon and Idaho. 800-989-8255. Email: npr.org. And you can get into the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dave Zirin is sports editor of the Nation, where his column on this incident appears tomorrow. He's also the author of "The People's History of Sports in the United States" and joins us by phone from his home in Maryland.
Happy Labor Day, Dave.
Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sports Editor, The Nation; Author): Well, happy Labor Day to you, too.
CONAN: And in a way, you say this punishment is way overstated.
Mr. ZIRIN: It's way over the top. I mean, what happened is unforgivable and inexcusable, and I'm not here at all to make excuses for punching somebody on a football field.
That being said, the repercussions of that one punch, about that one loss of control, are really quite extensive, and I give you a lot of credit, Neal, for laying some of that out in the intro. But just to be clear about this, LaGarrette Blount has gone from being somebody who will most like - would have been most likely a second-round NFL draft pick with a contract of one or $2 million guaranteed, to being somebody who, according to ESPN draft expert Todd McShay - and people I've talked to as well, for that matter - is not going to be drafted, just for that one moment, that one punch.
CONAN: He still might make a professional team, but would more likely make $300,000, something like that?
Mr. ZIRIN: I don't know if he'll be drafted at all.
CONAN: Well, he can still try out. He may not - you know, undrafted free agents do make it.
Mr. ZIRIN: They do make it. But undrafted running backs? I mean, it's not exactly a boom market. And other NFL people, they say, well, even if we don't draft him, who really needs the headache? Who really needs the publicity of drafting this guy? Conventional wisdom is that running backs are a dime a dozen.
But it's really too bad, because this was somebody who really did - he came up the hard way. He spent two years at community college in Mississippi. He made it to the team. Last year, he set an Oregon school record for touchdowns, ran for seven yards a carry, had no on-field or off-field incidents last year. And he had one terrible moment.
And if you think about it, if every player in every sport who lost their cool on the court, who threw a punch - it's nothing we should, you know, obviously, extol as somehow a great virtue. But if everyone who's ever done that was effectively banned from their sport, I mean, would there even be an NHL? I don't know if there would be any hockey left, let alone some of the most famous NBA players.
And now, LaGarrette Blount, he has no opportunity to have any kind of on-field redemption and restore his name on the field of play, which unfortunately, in the world of sports, is really the only way to achieve redemption.
CONAN: Well, you were talking about players in professional sports. This is at a college. Standards should be different, no?
Mr. ZIRIN: Well, that's an interesting thing, too. It is at a college. It's a college - University of Oregon - that has a multimillion-dollar budget when it comes to sports, when it comes to football. The football coach at Oregon State, Mike Riley - not Oregon, but Oregon State - is the highest paid public employee in the state. I mean, it is a big business.
And LaGarrette Blount, he filled the seats all last year and thrilled fans. And now, they pull out the student-athlete card for the simple reason that, frankly, LaGarrette Blount has no recourse. And that's one of the things that this exposes to me, is the utter powerlessness of college athletes.
I mean, one of the reasons why people like Julius Erving, Larry Bird, even the notorious Ron Artest - the reason why they were able to play after getting in notorious on-court brawls was because they have a union, they have collective bargaining, they have some form of redress. And LaGarrette Blount has nothing. And I got to tell you, if he did have the chance to appeal, there are enough extenuating circumstances around what happened to maybe cut that suspension a little bit.
CONAN: What do you mean, extenuating circumstances?
Mr. ZIRIN: Well, one of them you mentioned, but I'd like to mention others. One of them was the fact that according to the tape, you can very clearly see Byron Hout giving him a good slap on the shoulder pads and a good taunt, which is hardly the epitome of sportsmanship here in the lead-up to it. But the second thing is, there was a horrible incident after that with Blount and the fans talking back and forth and Blount having to be physically restrained from going into the stands.
According to Blount and other witnesses, a fan brandished a chair, hit him with a fist. And I'll tell you the other person who is getting off way too easy here is whoever the fool is - and I don't use that word lightly - who runs the JumboTron at the stadium, who then showed the punch over and over again on a loop right after it took place, sending the fans into quite the fine froth.
CONAN: That is inexcusable. Aren't those people ordinarily instructed that they're not supposed to show anything controversial? In baseball games, they never show anything that'll show up the umpire.
Mr. ZIRIN: You're absolutely correct about that, that they actually are under the rules, especially - another thing, not just - but all the sports, there are rules that you don't show on the JumboTron if, say, a fan runs out onto the field. You don't show anything that is considered to be beyond the bounds of sportsmanship behavior because, you know, there's the reality that people are drinking in the stands. And there's the reality that tempers are high. But that's not what happened in Boise.
CONAN: One final thing. Yes, he was taunted. He'd had a horrible game, minus five yards rushing and, of course, was upset his team lost the game. And he'd apparently mouthed off before the game, saying we're going to get those guys -nothing out of the ordinary, but nevertheless - and, of course, then he was taunted. But the player, Hout, was turning away from him, was not looking at him, and gets blindsided by a punch to the jaw.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, he - you're right. Absolutely. I mean, there's no defending the punch. And I really don't want any listener to think I'm in any way, shape or form defending that action. But I guess what I'm saying is not only that we have to look at the whole context of it, we also have to look at the extent to which this particular suspension is going to damage Blount's chances to make any kind of living from football.
And I also think we need to look at the fact. I mean, I'm looking at sort of our own hypocrisy here. I mean, I'm a big football fan. It's an incredibly violent sport. If you ever go to an NFL retirement dinner, it looks like a Veterans of Foreign Wars event. People are just hunched over. And yet, when that violence spills over, we act absolutely shocked and appalled. You have a sports columnist in Oregon calling for Blount to be arrested.
And I'm just thinking, you watch the equivalent of multiple car wrecks every Saturday in college, and every Sunday in the pros. And when that violence doesn't maintain a sort of gentlemanly veneer, we act shocked and appalled, like Renault in "Casablanca," shocked that there's gambling going on here.
CONAN: Well, had that punch been throwing anywhere else, that would be assault.
Mr. ZIRIN: That is true. And, you know, that could be a whole different discussion. But if we do want to have the rules off the field apply on the field, I mean, the NHL criminal blotter alone - let alone people in the world of auto racing. People like Tony Stewart to Danica Patrick have gotten in physical altercations. And yet we have somehow accepted that the world on the field, because of the hyper adrenaline and because of the atmosphere, sometimes does lend itself to actions that we would not accept in the normal bounds of society.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org. Our guest is Dave Zirin of the Nation, where he's the sports editor. Let's start with Jim. Jim's with us from Mount Pleasant in Michigan.
JIM (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Go ahead, Jim.
JIM: Well, I think the real hypocrisy is in tying college football in with professional sports. Look, if the NFL wants a farm club, then the NFL should do what Major League Baseball does and start Minor League Football. What we have in amateur athletics - or what Chicago's sportswriters often refer to as shamateur athletics - is college students being prepped for the NFL.
Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.
JIM: It is a different thing at the college level. And yes, football is an inherently violent game, which is why it's so important - the good coaches will tell you - that whether or not the kid should be suspended for the entire season, drastic punishment needs to be meted out because they must know the difference. They must get up from every play and not act like jerks. There is a higher standard for college students.
CONAN: And Dave, is there not also a - the theory of, at least, a deterrent effect, that the next kid might think twice before taking a punch?
Mr. ZIRIN: I know…
JIM: If you look at what goes on in the NHL. Look at what goes on in the NHL, you know, even the best teams. Fights last forever and ever. We can't see that - we can't have that happening in college football. If the NFL would allow it, that's up to them. But these are student athletes, plain and simple. And…
CONAN: And Jim, I just wanted to get a response from Dave.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. I mean, but Jim makes some wonderful points, actually. But unfortunately, the system as we would want it to be is not the system as it is. I mean, I wish it was Saturday afternoons of student athletes. I wish the NFL have their own farm system that LaGarrette Blount could try out for. But because that system does not exist, and the NCAA is the only feeder system into the NFL, you have the situation where the NCAA is absolutely tied to the NFL, so Blount doesn't get to play anymore in college. And therefore, as the prospects of a pro career - which he's been working for from Florida, through Eastern Mississippi and now through Oregon - is something that's just not going to happen. And that's, to me, above and beyond the bounds.
And I wish we could talk about a deterrent. But unfortunately, when you're dealing with this kind of level of adrenaline and testosterone, it's very difficult to think in terms of people thinking twice.
CONAN: Jim, thanks for the call. Let's go next to - this is Brian, Brian with us from Fort Wayne.
BRIAN (Caller): Yes. Good - yes.
CONAN: Go ahead, Brian. You're cutting in and out a little.
BRIAN: OK. Well, I watched it live and saw several replays. And my impression was that but for the provocation of the linebacker, Hout, this incident wouldn't have happened at all. He jumped right into the other player's face. And you couldn't hear, obviously, what he was saying, but it was obviously very provocative. I thought that the punch was egregious and that at the time, I was thinking a multigame, you know, suspension, maybe four games. But the fact that we're not hearing Boise State take any punishment action against their linebacker - and also in the subsequent altercation, as Blount was trying to leave the field, he was verbally assaulted by fans in a manner that was just totally outrageous.
And these fans can be identified by the films. And I would like to hear that Boise State's going to take some action against the conduct of the fans in the stands as well. But Blount should be suspended, not for the season, but some - also punishment should be extended to Hout and the fans.
CONAN: So, you're going to punish trash talking?
BRIAN: When it goes over the line. I mean, these people were leaning over the rail…
CONAN: No, no, no. I'm not talking about the fans. I'm talking about Hout, the player. Players from opposing teams say things to other - to each other.
BRIAN: You know, there was two - obviously, Blount said some very indelicate things in the press beforehand. But what Hout did, running right up to him, getting directly into his face, inches from his face and abusing him, you're asking for trouble there. And that conduct should be sanctioned as well as the punch.
CONAN: All right. Brian, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the punch. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go next to Lou. Lou's calling us from Dayton.
LOU (Caller): Yes, hi. Dave, I'd like to ask you a question. I believe, first, the Boise State player should be suspended, too. But if the punch had hit his neck and paralyzed him or killed him, what would you say then?
Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, gosh. Well, first of all, I agree with you and the last caller that action should be taken against Hout, and that there are rules against trash talking. I just wanted to put that out there. If the punch had caused real and serious damage, and it did not, then I would agree with you that greater action has to be taken.
But like any time you're talking about an issue of violence, the affect is critical in assessing the damage. It has to be.
LOU: True. But I could've happened. I really think you're making excuses for the Oregon player.
Mr. ZIRIN: No, no.
LOU: Why would you say that it - the words are one thing, and the Boise State player was right. But players have to restrain themselves, just like we all do. There's got to be (unintelligible).
Mr. ZIRIN: No. You're absolutely right. And I - like I said, I'm trying to make this very clear, that it's not about making excuses for Blount. But if we do look at this like a criminal trial, like a lot of people in the press are, the extenuating circumstances are A, all over the place and B, the punishment -which effectively removes Blount from having the opportunity at a pro career when before, he was on he fast track towards a spectacular one - is something that to me seems above and beyond, given the extenuating circumstances, and given the hyper adrenalin of that particular moment.
CONAN: Lou, thanks very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Pat. Pat with us from Boise.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAT: I would just like to say, I agree that the penalty was far too excessive for what was actually done. But as an Idahoan, we tend to be perhaps a bit sensitive about our image to other states. And unfortunately, what I saw was a black man, first of all, being taunted by another player, and then secondly, a proud black man being heckled by fans as he ran off the field.
And I would just like to make the statement that I think perhaps we owe Mr. Blount an apology, and the fact that Idaho isn't like that. We may have that image because of some miscreants that live in the northern part of the state, but I - we just don't want that image to be perpetrated. And I think the penalty was far excessive to the crime.
CONAN: Well, evidently some miscreants live in the southern part of the state, too.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: So let's not get too carried away here. Pat, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
Mr. ZIRIN: I'll tell you, if there are - just to say something quickly, if there are any college football fans who don't respect what Boise State has done with that program, then they're not following the game. So hopefully, at this point, when it comes to respect, at least on the football standpoint of things, that that question has been settled for several years.
CONAN: I wanted to end, Dave, by asking you - I know you called, well, the author of the - perhaps the most famous or notorious punch in professional sports.
Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah. I spoke - I had a long interview with Kermit Washington, who in 1977, I believe, he punched Rudy Tomjanovich on the court, a moment of terrible anger. And it speaks to one of the callers - it's because of the damage that was done to Rudy Tomjanovich that we still remember this to this day. It almost killed the man.
And Kermit Washington's a brilliant person, academic all-American, works on HIV and hunger issues in Africa. Yet this moment has stained his whole life. And I asked Kermit what advice would he give to LaGarrette Blount, and he just said, look, you have to apologize. You have to own the fact that you did it. And you have to try to make amends and move on, and redeem yourself. And that's the only thing you can do.
CONAN: Interesting, the punishment, he will be able to keep his scholarship…
Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah.
CONAN: …and work out with the team, not be able to play. Do you suspect that maybe he's going to be forgiven later in the year?
Mr. ZIRIN: I do not. No. I think he's gone for the whole year. You have a new coach at Oregon. You have an athletic director who's really trying to make a name for himself with leadership there, the former coach Mike Belloti. I think he's done playing.
And unfortunately, the last impression NFL scouts will have of him is of his absolutely worst moment on the field.
CONAN: Dave Zirin, thanks very much.
Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, my privilege. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Dave Zirin, sports editor of the Nation, where his column on this incident appears tomorrow. He's also the author of "The People's History of Sports in the United States," with us today by phone from his home in Maryland.
Tomorrow, Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, on the shocking violence against her son and her new book: "The Meaning of Matthew."
Hope you have a happy remainder of Labor Day, everybody. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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