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Ben Smith

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Sanity prevails in aftermath of fight

– In the end, Bobby Cox put the book down.

He didn’t throw it. He didn’t go looking for a thicker book (“Crime and Punishment”?) and throw it. He threw, I don’t know, a magazine instead.

The verdict is in for South Side and Indianapolis Tech in the wake of their disgraceful brawl in Indy last Friday, and no one will walk the Green Mile. The two head coaches, Eddie Fields and Emil Ekiyor, got a one-game sitdown. The two assistants who threw gasoline on the fire instead of behaving like the grownups they’re alleged to be got the rest of the season off. A bunch of players got one-game suspensions, and everyone has to go to sportsmanship school, which might be the harshest penalty of all.

The reactionaries will likely hate this. Saner people will, and should, applaud it.

If nothing else it displays a level of proportion notably lacking in American life today – just look at what’s going on in Washington – and for that, Cox, the commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, is to be commended. If the situation got badly out of hand last Friday night, it didn’t do so out of any willful intent. And where there was an egregious lack of control, the perpetrators (assistant coaches Dan Muchler of South and Angelo Muhammad of Tech) were properly smacked down for it.

“It was a hard play out of bounds that escalated to an event it shouldn’t have,” Cox told Indianapolis media Tuesday. “I can’t condone it, but you know how (teenage) kids play with emotion and coaches coach with passion? Events like this occur, and we have to deal with them swiftly.”

They do. He did. End of story.

And as for the more extreme measures that will no doubt be lobbied for by some …

Cox likely will draw fire from those quarters for not going that way, for not looking at the video and banishing the two assistants for life and the head coaches for life and ending the season outright for both South and Tech. That this would serve no useful purpose except to satisfy inflamed emotions is something Cox understands that they don’t. That it would be patently unjust given the meager evidence available, he also understands.

If you weren’t there, and even if you were, meting out appropriate justice is a tricky deal in this instance. I’ve watched the video half a dozen times, and I can’t tell you for sure to what extent an individual player’s actions inflamed the situation. With the exception of the two assistants getting into it just when everything seemed to have died down, individual blame is a hard thing to pin down.

And that’s not what this is about anyway. It’s about making sure everyone learns the lesson without destroying their ability to show what they’ve learned.

“You can blame anybody you like, but that’s not the issue,” Cox said Tuesday. “Placing blame doesn’t solve anything to do with sportsmanship.”

That doesn’t mean you condone what happened, but it does acknowledge that there were human beings involved, not automatons. It is, as Cox noted, football. It’s a passionate game that feeds off the rawest of emotions at times. You can’t play it with any degree of success otherwise.

With it, however, comes the responsibility of properly harnessing it. It’s a delicate balance, particularly with 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids. You’re asking hormonal teens for impulse control in a game that is hardly conducive to it.

That said, what happened last Friday cannot happen. Because if it does the extreme measures will be the only measures left.

For now, though, they aren’t. And thank God for that.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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