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A slow sports day

Last Sunday was a fairly slow sports day. It was the first weekend with no football, baseball’s on lockout, and the NBA was an all-star mode. Even the Olympics was showing closing ceremonies. It was a slow sports day. Until it wasn’t.

That changed Sunday afternoon at the end of the Michigan/Wisconsin men’s basketball game, a contest the Badgers won in a relative blowout on their home floor. After the final whistle as the teams walked through the customary handshake line, a disagreement flared up between Michigan head coach Juwan Howard and Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard. After some back and forth, Howard reached over and punched Wisconsin assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft in the face. That sparked something of a melee where players traded punches and turned a perfunctory walk to the locker rooms into something of a hockey match. It was an ugly affair that embarrassed university presidents, especially Michigan’s, and led pretty much every sports talk show Monday morning. Of note, while Howard is relatively new to the coaching game, this is not his first time losing his cool. Last year, he nearly came to blows with Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon in the Big 10 Conference Tournament. There’s obviously a big distinction between almost and fighting, but the fact that he’s heard the criticism before and still took a swing doesn’t help Howard’s case.

The calls for punishment were swift and heated, as were those defending Howard on faulty logic. Some of Howard’s supporters cited Gard’s touching Howard’s elbow as they argued in the processional. Others named the fact that Gard called two timeouts in the final minute despite the lobsided score. These arguments range from mildly relevant to outlandish, and none excuse what Howard did. If you want an extensive rundown of the debate or want to feel bad about the state of the human condition, simply peruse Twitter. The two most common refrains include some machismo logic about never putting your hands on another man, like life is a barroom scene from a Clint Eastwood movie, and misguided arguments about race and power and social dynamics. In the end, we shouldn’t over complicate this. Howard, the head coach of one of the most storied programs in college basketball, threw a punch at his opposing coach at the end of the game.

To move this forward quickly, Michigan suspended Howard for the next five games, or until the end of the regular season. That hurts a team squarely on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament. He’ll also lose over $200,000 in fines and missed salary, which obviously isn’t that big a deal for someone who earned well over 100 million in his NBA career alone. Wisconsin fined Gard 10K, but he won’t miss any games. And three players – two Wolverines and one Badger – will each miss one game for throwing punches. You can argue the semantics of the punishments, and people are, but I think it sounds about right. Whether Gard should miss a game or Howard should miss the Big 10 Tournament is semantics. For the most part, it’s well within the standard deviation.

There are proposed solutions to avoid this happening again. Like eliminate the handshake line, as it’s largely ceremonial and comes at a moment of heightened emotion. I tend not to like the idea, because it assumes we can’t overcome base emotions and must succumb to testosterone and competitiveness. If that’s the case, then perhaps sport doesn’t belong as part of a civil, liberal education. I’ve also heard the idea that the line has to remain silent, I suppose to save ourselves from our savage instincts. Again, it seems an odd way to foster a society where conflict resolution is paramount.

Solutions aside, I’m most upset about this particular affair because I still hold this pollyannish idea that coaches should bring out the best in their athletes and perhaps even serve as role models. Not just athletically, but as humans. That sport is more than simply the sum of its plays and the tally on the scoreboard. I understand that’s both naïve of the current economics of big-time sport and likely unaware of the entire history of athletics. But I can still hope. And perhaps when I see something that’s such a blatant disregard of that aspiration, it makes me more sad than angered, the prevailing disposition in this afterglow. It’s not that I want Howard fired or punished more. I just want him to do better.

He’ll have his chance, although not for a few more games. And I’m certain that will not be a slow sports day.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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