Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Let me be Blount

the guy on the left fell on his own accord ...
from "The Real Views" magazine, 11/13/09
Hundreds of thousands of people watched the game live. Millions more have since watched the video. During the opening week of the college football season, LeGarrette Blount, Heisman Trophy darkhorse and University of Oregon tailback became a household name – for all of the wrong reasons. The buildup took all 21 years of his life, the destruction only took seconds.

Everything had built up to this moment. Blount had shown flashes of greatness in the 2008 season, rushing for over 1,000 yards. He’d impressed NFL scouts, and his Oregon Ducks were slated as fierce competitors to unseat USC from atop the Pac-10. But Blount, who reported to camp overweight and out of shape, was not a factor in the game, rushing for -5 yards on 8 carries. In the high stakes environment that is college football, particularly for NFL prospects who feel immense pressure to impress scouts at each turn, this was a disastrous outcome.

Then things took a turn for the even worse.

As 16th ranked Oregon lost 19-8 to 14th ranked Boise State and the teams cleared the field, Blount put up the kind of fight fans had waited for all night long. Unfortunately, though he had failed to penetrate Boise State’s defense all evening, he found his odds much better going one on one with a Boise State player.

After the game, while players shook hands, wished each other well, and began looking forward to the next game, everything came crashing down around LeGarrette Blount and the pressure proved too much to bear for his bearish shoulders. Byron Hout, a Boise State defensive end and the victim of Blount’s post-game battery, never saw it coming. From the looks of it, didn’t see it afterwards either. One could easily imagine Blount’s life flashing before his eyes at the exact same moment.

The fight was one-sided (though Hout was shown jawing only moments earlier and even being chastised by Boise State Head coach Chris Petersen for doing so), the opponent was unsuspecting, and this cheap shot would not only fail to erase Blount’s poor performance or Oregon’s loss, but it would, at the time, signal the end of his playing career.

The ultimate counterpunch to Blount? According to several sources, including NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., in those five seconds, he would render himself, in the eyes of many NFL general managers, undraftable. He’d been suspended the previous season for violating team rules, and had shown discipline issues by not reporting to fall camp in shape in 2009. This was the straw that broke Blount’s back (well, the extended footage of him being dragged off the field by security while becoming increasingly belligerent didn’t help).

Predictably, within days, Oregon Head Football Coach Chip Kelly announced that Blount would be disciplined severely for this transgression. His punishment was a suspension for the duration of the football season, ultimately ending his collegiate career, and perhaps, any chance of redemption among fans, university alumni, and potential future employers in the world of professional football.

As usual, the hypocrisy of sports media and sport enthusiasts all over was in full effect, from local journalists all the way to the “Worldwide Leader.” The meme spread like wildfire all across the country – “the Blount Punch” became a favorite search on YouTube.com as quickly as Blount became a villain in the blogosphere, on ESPN, and on Oregon Football message boards. I’m always amazed by how something so ‘vile,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘unruly,’ and ‘reprehensible,’ can attract so many “views” (the ESPN.com video has over 160,000). Oregonian columnist John Canzano wrote off Blount’s post-game apology as “clumsy and self-serving.” ESPN.com bloggers Todd McShay and Kevin Weidl wrote off Blount as not skilled enough to warrant investment of NFL teams in him, given his behavior (they think that Michael Vick, though, is freakishly talented enough to warrant such investment, however, even though he is a convicted felon). Overnight, Blount became the “this is what’s wrong with sports these days” athlete du jour. Sure, fans and analysts hate this kind of behavior, yet celebrate it by rehashing it ad nauseum and contemplating the consequences of a young man’s life as though he were pawn, not person.

In fact, analysts all over, even outside of sports journalism lined up to offer what pop psychologist’s proof they had that they’d seen this coming all along, what anecdotes they had about this being no surprise given Blount’s past behavior, and what sundry issuances of good riddance they could muster.

Here’s where I get on the wagon, but only briefly. Blount’s actions were hyperbolic, hyperemotional, and unjustifiable (I mean, I get the frustration … he’s out of shape, just had a big opportunity to impress future employers on national television and blew it … this wasn’t a “c’est la vie” moment, but still). In fact they were indefensible even if they could be rationalized, and many believed the moment revealed something more deeply-seated than an “Aw, shucks I didn’t play well tonight” attitude, but more of a “Football is all I have and if I can’t do well at this, I am going to destroy everything around me and myself in the process” attitude. It’s bad enough when stress breaks a young person down to the point that they act out violently – it’s made infinitely worse when this all happens on national television.

I know from my past employment as a judicial affairs officer on a university campus that if a student exhibited such behavior, sanctions, education, and anger management classes would be issued. However, in the all too damning world of athletics, the verdict was much stricter – Blount’s career should be ended and unrelenting punishment, rather than education and reflection, and perhaps atonement, should be the sanction of choice.

Chip Kelly’s brave decision to keep LeGarrette Blount on the team and allow him to continue practicing (he faced staunch criticism for not cutting ties with Blount completely), and his recent decision to reinstate him for the team’s final three games, after paying a “significant and appropriate price,” is the best educational sanction that Blount could have received. That’s the difference between our “chew them up, spit them out” consumer culture and sports media and the true spirit of the NCAA and intercollegiate athletics – while the sports media and fans fired up the band and told Blount to hit the showers, Coach Chip Kelly put the ball back in Blount’s hands.

Sure, it’s a long shot (like 3rd and 21, inside sprint draw against a dialed up blitz, long shot) that Blount will move the chains and extend his playing career beyond Oregon, but putting the ball back in his hands at this point should figure in considerably in how he plays the game of life from this point forward.

Welcome back LeGarrette. Drive your legs, lower your pad level, and don’t put the ball on the ground.