Violence Dogs University of Miami Football Program

A history of violence seems to surround the football team at the University of Miami. The recent murder of a star player has raised the question of why violence has swirled around the program for years.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

It's been a terrible year for the University of Miami's football team, and that has not even counting the Hurricanes disappointing record of five wins and six losses. Much worse, was the murder this month, of defensive linemen Bryan Pata.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, violence has dogged the program, on and off the field.

(Group)(Singing Amazing Grace): I once was lost but now...

GREG ALLEN: Gusman Hall at the University of Miami is usually a venue for concerts. Last week though, it was the site for a sad occasion, a memorial service for 22-year-old Bryan Pata.

(Group)(Singing): ...but now I see.

ALLEN: Hundreds of University of Miami students, faculty, and other members of the community came to say goodbye to Pata, a star player who was shot and killed November 7th outside his off-campus apartment. Miami Head Coach Larry Coker

Mr. LARRY COKER (Miami Head Coach): Bryan Pata was a good football player. Those that tried to block him, they certainly know that he was a terrific football player. The thing I remember most of all, is like many have said, Bryan's smile - he played with a lot of passion.

ALLEN: Police have released few details about Pata's murder. The Hurricanes cancelled practice the day of his funeral, but have played all the games on their schedule.

Bryan, they say, would have wanted it that way. Pata was more than just a well-loved player, he was a force on the Hurricane's defensive squad and an NFL prospect.

Anthony Saunders coached Pata at Miami Central High School.

Mr. ANTHONY SAUNDERS (Coach, Miami Central High School): On the football field, he was a dominator, you know. He's one of them kids, was six-four, probably about 275 when in high school. And he was the strongest kid out on the field, so he almost like dominated people when he was here at Miami Central.

ALLEN: Saunders says Pata was heavily recruited, but only was ever interested in one school, the University of Miami - it's long been a pipeline to the NFL and drawn heavily on local Miami talent. But staying close to home in a tough urban environment may carry its own risks. In July, another Hurricanes player, Willie Cooper, was shot and wounded outside his home. A teammate, Brandon Merriweather, who was with Cooper at the time, returned fire with his own semi-automatic.

Ten years ago, another player, Marlin Barnes, was also murdered at his off campus apartment. This year, Miami season has also been marred by a different type of violence at the Hurricanes game against cross town rival Florida International University. Play-by-play on Comcast sports was by Jason Sludka(ph).

(Soundbite of Comcast Sports coverage)

Mr. JASON SLUDKA (Commentator, Comcast Sports): Another melee out in the field, this one is getting out hand. Flags are all over the place. And this is ugly, very ugly.

ALLEN: During the bench-clearing brawl, one Miami player swung his helmet as a weapon. Another was seen trying to stomp on opposing players. Afterwards, one player was suspended for the season, the rest involved received one game suspensions.

Bruce Feldman is a writer for ESPN Magazine, who's followed the Hurricanes since he attended Miami in the early 1990s. He doesn't believe there's any connection between the violence that has followed Hurricane football on the field, and off the field. In recent years he notes, Miami players had been involved in far fewer off-the-field incidents than many other big football programs.

Mr. BRUCE FELDMAN (Writer, ESPN Magazine): That's the irony here, is they clean themselves up. And then because of this brawl I think it opened up and it let a lot of people who were really turned off by Miami, it brought that image back. And it was like see, they haven't changed.

ALLEN: Sitting outside the Starbucks on the University of Miami campus, sophomore Brad Gage(ph) agrees, that Brian Pata's death and other incidents are once again casting his school in an unfavorable light.

Mr. BRAD GAGE (Sophomore, University of Miami): People see us negatively. I get a lot of people asking like, what's going on down there? And like, are you safe? Over the Bryan Pata thing, I mean, it really didn't have much to do with the football team. I mean, the murder didn't have to do with that. But it's just um - slowly people are getting a negative outlook on our university. It's unfortunate because - for the university.

ALLEN: Compounding Miami's image problems, is the team's poor record. Unless they win next week against Boston College, the Hurricanes won't qualify for a post-season bowl game, something that hasn't happened since 1997.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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