Monday, December 3, 2012

A Time To Choose

It happens more often than most sports fans realize, the confluence of sports and elements like politics and ethics. For sports fans of many kinds - and especially for football fans - the events of this past weekend should have made it crystal clear that sports, like nearly every other part of life, collides with politics and ethics all the time.

For NFL fans, that realization began with the murder of Kasandra Perkins, mother of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher's three-month-old daughter, at Belcher's own hand. That was followed by Belcher's suicide, committed in front of his head coach and general manager. It was capped by the Chiefs playing an NFL game that should not have been played for a whole host of reasons. Yet Chiefs players and coaches unanimously voted to go ahead with the game as scheduled, winning only their second game of the year in Belcher's memory, in what has been an otherwise dismal season.

For University of Nebraska Cornhusker fans, the terrible weekend began with the inexcusable meltdown of their football team in the Big 10 Championship game, a collapse of the kind that made many in Husker Nation begin to think some seriously violent and nasty thoughts. That implosion of the now twenty-third ranked Huskers was followed by an invitation to the Capital One Bowl, to be paired against the sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

Welcome to "sports" in America, in 2012.

Both Sunday's Chiefs game and the upcoming bowl game for the Huskers are embarrassing examples of why the attitude that 'sports always sets a good example for our kids' is sadly no longer the truth.

As Dave Zirin of The Nation magazine made clear, the pretense Chiefs' and NFL officials claimed - that going ahead with the game on Sunday was a good and maybe even healthy idea - can be completely disproven by years of science and player experience. Both factors say that when NFL players play a game while distracted, they are much more prone to dangerous and severe injuries. There is little that could be more distracting to an NFL player than knowing your friend and teammate killed himself yesterday, in front of your head coach, after murdering his girlfriend.

As for Nebraska, our own staff members have experience with the politics of bowl games and college football.

There are many who have called for Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini to be fired for "only" achieving a 10-3 season, after the disastrous Big 10 Championship meltdown. That would be exactly the wrong thing to do. If Nebraska were to fire Pelini now, with a new Athletic Director coming in, the message it would send is that Nebraska will ONLY accept all winning, all the time.

Not only is that an unrealistic goal - it's one that has a serious cost, beyond dollars, that we highly doubt Nebraska fans are willing to pay.

We've seen the price of that kind of 'winn at all costs' attitude over the last two years in the football programs of both Ohio State and Penn State. If your ONLY goal is about winning college football games, things like educating your students, respecting the law, and respecting the game become liabilities.

Big 10 officials also could have worked behind the scenes to help Nebraska secure a more fair and just bowl game. Instead, school officials will subject a team that achieved a 10-3 season to a likely slaughter by Georgia, in exchange for a very big financial payout - in part because the money is obviously more important than the players, or the fans. We have to wonder if some part of the bowl assignment against Goergia is punishment because neither the Husker players or the coaches could be perfect - which is sadly what is expected these days.

Neither the example of the Chiefs, the example of fairweather Husker fans, or the example of Big 10 executives is any kind of lesson to teach children.

It's time we, as fans, choose to put our mouths and our dollars behind what we really believe. Do we believe in the players as people, as fellow human beings, with all the failures and flaws we each have? Do we accept that humans are more important than money?

Or will we continue to expect machine-like performance and perfection - and punish those who are unable to live up to those unrealistic expectations?

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