Two young college athletes were in the news over the weekend.
Marcus Smart, a star guard for the Oklahoma State basketball team, would have been one of the top draft choices in the NBA had he come out after his freshman year. But he returned to school for his sophomore year. He still will undoubtedly be a lottery pick in the NBA, but I imagine the decision has been frustrating for him -- OK State has been a disappointment in the Big 12, other players (freshmen Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Julius Randle) have eclipsed him. His team had lost two straight games, and was poised to lose a third on Saturday, when Smart, chasing down a play from behind, fell into the stands. Two fans (both, incidentally, white) helped him up. All seemed normal. But apparently another fan (also white) in the same section said something (the "N" word? "Go back to Africa"? "You're a piece of crap"?), and Smart accosted him and gave him a two-handed shove. The fan was not injured at all, and has since apologized for his own behavior, which was reprehensible -- a grown man shouting at a 19 year-old young man, whatever he said, is pretty grotesque. But the video became the main topic of conversation on Sunday (no football, no baseball, regular season NBA, regular season NCAA, lots of time to fill on the sports shows, you get the picture). Smart has now been suspended for 3 games, which OK State will likely lose, and thus will likely miss the NCAA tournament. I tend to think that's a bit heavy... Smart was clearly provoked, and a little two-handed shove in the chest of a fairly large man (the fellow probably outweighs Smart by 50 pounds) is not that big of a deal. Should Smart have walked away? Sure. Would you have walked away? I doubt it.
Also, a minor point... Smart chases down the play, tries to block the Texas Tech player's shot, and hurtles into the stands. The chairs are hard, the steps in arenas are typically concrete, there are things to fall on or against... how did the jackass yelling at Smart know he wasn't hurt? You have to be a real moron to be yelling at a young man at a moment when he might have injured himself. So I'm not sympathetic at all to the fan, and I'm fairly sympathetic toward Smart. Heck, if I'd been next to the guy in the stands, I'd probably have had to chastise him earlier in the game for swearing... I've done that before at sporting events, and a guy like that seems like the type.
Meanwhile, another Big 12 team in another sport, the Missouri Tigers, had their star defensive end, Michael Sam, announce that he was gay. Sam, the SEC defensive player of the year, is likely to go in the 3rd or 4th round of the NFL draft, and, again, the media frenzy ensued. Sam's teammates and coaches at Mizzou apparently had no problem with Sam's sexual identity, he was a great teammate and a great player, the team had a great season, etc. But apparently this is a big story because Sam will be the first openly gay player in the NFL. So the talking heads have to hyperventilate about whether locker rooms will accept him (hint: if he plays well, they will), will his draft status suffer (hint: probably not, if teams like what they see on film), etc. In short, the media seems to be fighting battles that haven't mattered for many years... no one cares very much about gay men or gay women being out in the workplace or openly gay in society... some do have legitimate concerns about the issue of gay marriage in the context of the general erosion of marriage as the bedrock institution of civil society, while others (like me) observe that intolerance in society often seems to be directed, not at gays, but, for instance, at believing Christians and, especially, Catholics. But pretending that there will somehow be a wave of intolerance in an NFL locker room is, frankly, just a bunch of over-dramatic hype.
So why are these two stories really just one story?
Marcus Smart is a college kid and, apparently, a nice guy. Michael Sam is a college kid and, apparently, a nice guy. Their coaches like them, their teammates like them. Smart has a bit of a temper... lots of 19 year old boys do. Sam is gay... lots of 21 year-old boys are. The only reason these are big stories at all is because they play NCAA sports at Division 1 schools and BECAUSE WE ALL TAKE NCAA SPORTS WAY, WAY, WAY TOO SERIOUSLY BECAUSE THERE IS WAY, WAY, WAY TOO MUCH MONEY INVOLVED IN BIG-TIME SPORTS.
Young men who are barely old enough to vote ought not to have to live their lives under a microscope.
In other words, there's nothing much wrong with Smart or Sam... but there's a lot wrong with the rest of us who live vicariously through college sports.