On Marcus Smart, Michael Sam, and name-calling

Two weekend sports stories grab our attention for good reasons

Published: February 9 2014 | 10:41 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:25 am in

This past weekend was kind of an amazing one in sports.

It was the weekend after the Super Bowl, normally one in which sports media would catch its breath were it not for the Winter Olympics. But here in the USA, we had a pair of stories that struck all sorts of chords.

Saturday night, a college basketball player named Marcus Smart shoved a fan in anger. Sunday, the Big 12 Conference suspended him for three games.

Sunday night, a soon-to-be NFL draftee named Michael Sam from the University of Missouri announced he was gay. Which means he would be the first openly gay player in NFL history.

First, Smart was wrong. It doesn't matter what Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr said to him in that heated moment in Lubbock, Smart had no cause to put his hands on the fan. I'll repeat it for those who might gloss over it in anger. Smart ... was ... wrong.

Actions have consequences. Smart not only gets the suspension (and got off cheaply at three games), but his reputation got a bright red pen taken to it. For a long time, people won't be able to think of him without thinking of his actions in Lubbock. That isn't a small thing.

He apologized, and his apology sounded like an apology, not a prepared statement. He is 19, he has a lot of NBA money waiting for him, he'll be fine if he manages his anger better in the future.

But count me among those who would like to see Texas Tech divorce itself altogether from "superfan" Orr instead of him agreeing to stay away from Red Raiders basketball games for the rest of the season.

In a statement released by Texas Tech, Orr apologized to Smart, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Which is good. But he also said "I regret calling Mr. Smart a 'piece of crap' but I want to make it known that I did not use a racial slur of any kind."

OK, maybe just calling Smart what he said he did was enough to make the player flip out. A lot of people in this world would consider being called "a piece of crap" fighting words.

What kind of adult calls a fellow human being that, by the way? That's a rhetorical question, obviously.

This guy Orr is an air-traffic controller. He traveled over 32,000 miles in one year to follow Texas Tech basketball in 2008. He has been known to wear a striped referee's shirt when Texas plays at Texas Tech. That in itself might have been a warning sign.

Texas Tech featured Orr on its website in 2010. You don't get such recognition and courtside seats if you aren't kicking some big bucks into the program.

Saturday night, one of the big-buck donors called a player "a piece of crap." Should we be surprised, given the things some freely say in public sports arenas and on the World Wide Web?

Last week, I wrote a column that included mentions of Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery and Iowa State football coach Paul Rhoads. I got an email from someone -- I don't know if the sender was using his real name -- with "Fran is a piece of crap" in the subject line. (That particular phrase must resonate with a particular type of person.)

The e-mail was from an Iowa State fan who ripped me for using McCaffery's name in the same sentence as Rhoads'. Maybe the e-mail was an attempt at satirizing a crazed fan. But satire generally has wit.

It could just as easily have been from an Iowa fan about Rhoads, because there were posts on Hawkeye message boards last week savaging the Cyclones' coach.

How many of the highly irate in either camp would walk up to an opposing team's coach or player in an airport or restaurant and call them names like that? My guess is zero. Tough guys like that are a tiny percentage of e-mailers or message board folks, by the way. But they are the loudest ones out there, like the lout in Lubbock who called a 19-year-old ballplayer "a piece of crap" (or something worse).

Aren't sports supposed to make us happier instead of loonier?

As for Sam's announcement, my first thought was "He'll be the first NFL player to say he's gay? How could that be?" But he is.

We all know there have been lots of gay pro baseball players, football players, basketball players. It's basic math. Openly gay people have been in virtually every other walk of American public life.

Gays have surely hit a lot of home runs and 3-pointers and quarterbacks. They've also apparently feared receiving ridicule or hate, which is unfortunate and understandable. Or they decided their sexual orientation was nobody's business, which is difficult to argue against.

Even though it doesn't seem like it in many ways, civilization does evolve. Before too much longer, it won't be a big deal when gay athletes are known as, well, athletes.

If nasty name-calling went away, wouldn't a lot of other problems disappear with it?

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