Lost column

I had already written a column on the night that Bobby Petrino left the Atlanta Falcons, so that piece was scrapped in favor of the one I eventually wrote about Petrino. I kept thinking there’d be time to plug it in, but news kept happening, the Mitchell Report, U of L basketball game, etc.

And now Derrick Caracter is back. In the interest of not wasting anything, here’s my column as I submitted it to the paper for Dec. 11, 2007. It’s of some interest in light of Caracter’s quick return. There’s no headline on it, because writers don’t do our own headlines . . .

– – –

While announcing the indefinite suspension of Derrick Caracter on Monday, U of L basketball coach Rick Pitino said something that shouldn’t be washed out in the news cycle.

“With young people, it’s just very, very difficult, what I’m seeing today,” Pitino said. “Somewhere along the way, these young guys have just got to get it. . . . If their lifestyle is not altered, if things don’t change, the same sad results are going to occur. That’s what we’ve got to do as teachers, as coaches, as parents and everything else. We’ve got to try and alter these lifestyles. We’ve got to try our best. I’m not sure of great success.”

Two seconds later — in the first question after Pitino’s statement — he was asked about the possibility of Caracter coming back.

So much for the sobering truth. Let’s get back to the game.

That’s how it goes. The splash of the suspension hasn’t even finished rippling before the story turns to the player’s return. Certainly, the question was pertinent and should have been asked. But that it now may become the primary question regarding Caracter, and in some ways, this team, shows where things have veered off course.

So I want to go back to Pitino’s statement, which is true of some of these elite athletes everywhere.

Because you can talk about entourages and lifestyles all you want, but as long as these young guys are viewed — and view themselves — as players more than people, then why should they not view life as a game?

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Maybe you watched the Monday Night football broadcast and saw the Michael Vick jerseys in the Georgia Dome crowd on the day he was sentenced to 23 months in Federal prison for his dogfighting conviction. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday published a comment from one of those Vick fans, Windall King, who expressed a common viewpoint when he said, “We support Michael Vick the football player, not Michael Vick the person outside of football.”

A while back I was talking to Peter Roby, who is the director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, and he identified this very problem.

“There’s a great chasm between athletes and fans and their ability to relate as human beings,” he said. “I don’t know how you bridge that chasm, but the wedge hurts them both.”

The problem for coaches is that they are among the few who have to deal with these guys as players and as people. Or at least, the ones who care do.

The players know the pressure coaches are under to win. And they’re leveraging it. Coaches can now find themselves coping with an undercurrent of pressure from fans if they suspend too many players, or a talented enough player, and losses result. The same people who cheered the phenom’s signing will start to question why he was recruited.

Something like that backlash happened with U of L football coach Steve Kragthorpe this season. The first email I received after Pitino’s announcement on Caracter had the subject line: “A 9 p.m. curfew???”

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I only bring this up because fans can’t do much about the crowds players hang with. They can’t change anyone’s lifestyle. What can be done, from a fan standpoint, is to support the players most who do it right.

There’s always going to be a segment that wants the player on the court or field regardless. The longer Caracter sits, the more restless some will be. Caracter may be counting on it.

You wonder if Vick saw all those No. 7 jerseys in the crowd and felt vindicated, even then. Because many of these athletes justify their behavior through listening to the few who tell them what they want to hear.

I suppose the message here is, if you’re like the U of L fan who wrote yesterday saying he felt “jerked around,” by all this, you might want to think twice about being one of those few.

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