Beneath the veneer, college football is multi-billion dollar spectacle of unpaid labor and unhinged fandom. The 2009 season opened in Boise, Idaho and flashed it's underbelly to the world. The game started with a mandated sportsmanship initiative, as 14 players from the Boise St. Broncos and the Oregon Ducks shook hands at midfield. It ended with one of the 14 players, LeGarrette Blount of the Ducks punching Boise St's Byron Hout in the jaw.
Without question, what Blount did is entirely unacceptable. But without question, the punishment that's been levied against Blount outstrips the crime. First year Oregon coach Chip Kelly has announced that while Blount can keep his scholarship, he is banned from the team for the season. This is a devastating blow for the senior running back because it ends his collegiate playing career. After a stellar junior season where Blount set a school record for touchdowns and averaged seven yards a carry, he is done. One NFL scouting director told ESPN's Todd McShay, "In the matter of five minutes, Blount just went from second- or third-rounder to completely undraftable."
Now the perfectly predictable pile-on is playing out in the press. As John Canzano for the Oregonian wrote, "...what we have here is a low moment that can not be greeted with tolerance.....The Ducks running back should be arrested and charged with assault today."
Please spare us the sanctimony. If every player who ever threw a punch in the high-octane, adrenalized world of sports was banned like Blount, there wouldn't be a National Hockey League. Dozens of basketball players including Larry Bird, Julius Erving, and Shaquille O'Neal would have been booted from the NBA. Ron Artest would be in Gitmo. The difference between Blount and the rest is that players in the NHL, NBA and other sports have a degree of power. They have unions, collective bargaining and an appeals process. Blount has nothing. Despite all the stadiums he filled during his junior year, he, like all college players, is powerless.
If Blount could appeal, he'd have a decent case to get this suspension lightened.
It was not a "suckerpunch" as much of the media calls it but a direct response to provocation. Following Boise State's 19-8 victory over Oregon, which saw Blount rush for a humiliating -5 yards on 8 carries, Hout slapped Blount on the shoulder and talked smack. We still don't know what Hout said but it was bad enough that Broncos coach Chris Peterson can be seen grabbing Hout and pulling him away. Boise St. officials have already said that Hout would receive no punishment for the precipitating act. This is not to excuse Blount, but explain that many of the highlights are telling only half the story.
Also emerging unpunished is whatever fool runs the big screen at Boise St.'s stadium. In front of the partisan crowd, Blount's jab was shown repeatedly, working the crowd into a state of full froth. The running back says that he was punched and hit with a chair by Boise fans, which led him to become enraged and eventually removed from the field by assistant coach Scott Frost and two police officers. Creating a cauldron of violence amidst unpaid "student athletes" is apparently just fine but when the violence spills out of acceptable boundaries, people want Blount's head on a pike.
To call for Blount's arrest and celebrate his expulsion from the team is to be party to hypocrisy. Football is a profoundly violent sport. Player's bodies are destroyed, and their life expectancy is shortened with every down. In the United States, the average life span for NFL players is 55, more than two decades less than a typical male. Go to an NFL retirement dinner and it's literally like going to a Veterans of Foreign Wars banquet. Dave Meggyesy who played in the '60s once said to me, 'When you sign and NFL contract, you sign away your right to have a middle age.' We are fools if we express shock that this violence does not remain contained in the three hours on Saturday or Sunday.
And now, amidst the violence, powerlessness, and the fandom run amok, here is LeGarrette Blount, without a roadmap to redemption. If he expresses his regret openly and honestly and had the chance to play again this season, he could begin to undo the damage. In the twisted moral world of sports, as Michael Vick will discover, playing well is the only way to win back the love. Unfortunately, absent that option, LeGarrette Blount is stuck in YouTube purgatory: an endlessly looping clip of his worst moment defining him for the immediate future.
Dave Zirin is the author of "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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