Something strange and disturbing has developed in Iowa Hawkeyes sports and college sports in general.
The relationship between Hawkeye men's basketball players and their fans is not harmonious, at least in certain players' and former players' eyes. To be clear, this isn't just an Iowa thing. Not even remotely. But ...
Two weekends ago, Iowa center Adam Woodbury gave a shush gesture to the fans in Carver-Hawkeye Arena after he dunked against Michigan. It wasn't viewed as a vindictive gesture, but it had a purpose behind it.
“Everybody has been on my case about dunking,” Woodbury said. “Showing that I can actually do it is always fun.”
Who was on him about not dunking? People on the Internet. You know no one on the streets of Iowa City or in Woodbury's classes were riding him about seldom dunking in games.
OK, that's innocuous enough, although, when have you ever seen a player make the shush gesture to his own fans?
On his radio show last week and again two days later, Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery criticized a caller to the show who rapped Iowa senior forward Zach McCabe.
“(McCabe’s) going to score 900 points and get 500 rebounds and he’s trying to rip the kid on my radio show,” McCaffery said. “That’s not going to happen, not on my show. I don’t care if the guy — I was this close to saying, ‘You know what? Don’t preface what you’re getting ready to say by saying I’m a big Hawk fan. No, you’re not. No, you’re not. Go root for somebody else.’ I don’t have time for that guy.”
What happened Saturday was further indicative of something not good, something that isn't native to Iowa fans, something we'll probably see more and more of as time passes.
People on Twitter and certain message boards wrote unkind things about McCabe after Iowa's 79-74 loss to Wisconsin. Some directed tweets to McCabe, saying things that I won't repost here because of their sheer stupidity. You can tell players to pay no attention to things like that, but they're only human.
McCabe's immediate reaction was to send out a tweet of his own that was angry and vulgar. I'm not defending that in the slightest, but I have to admit I'd have probably done the same thing if enough people tweeted me with insults shortly after a gut-wrenching defeat in which I didn't play my best game. Like McCabe, I would have probably deleted it as soon as possible and apologized after realizing it was the wrong move to make.
Once it's out there, people keep it out there. And if you put it out there, well, actions have consequences.
You should have seen what I saw after the game in the interview sessions with Iowa's players. McCabe answered question after question without making a single excuse, even though he was clearly anguished about the defeat and his play. He wasn't the only one on his team that did so. They may not win the Big Ten regular-season title, but the Hawkeye players aren't excuse-makers or finger-pointers, and don't hide after defeats. Isn't that the real definition of winners?
The obvious thing to say about the lousy things people sent McCabe is that it was a distinct minority of a fan base being nasty. Intellectually and mathematically, that's as true as true can be. A huge percentage of fans would never even consider doing something like that. But the distinct minorities tend to be the loudest people, at least behind a keyboard. When it comes to being the most courageous or thoughtful people, they usually fall well short. And they don't realize it. Or they don't care.
Some former Hawkeye athletes, like football players Nate Kaeding and Tyler Sash, took to Twitter on Saturday.
Greg Brunner, Iowa's all-time leading rebounder, is a 30-year-old playing pro basketball in Italy. Brunner was one of my all-time favorite Iowa athletes to write about. Besides not only being a talented, passionate, positive player, he was self-deprecating and funny as an interview subject. To me, he was the kind of player you'd want to represent your school and state.
Saturday, Brunner posted the following on Facebook (He gave me permission to repost these comments, and I appreciate it.):
Former Hawkeye basketball players J.R. Koch, David Palmer and Cyrus Tate were among the money who clicked "Like" to that comment.
Sunday, Brunner had this follow-up post I think is simply great, raw and honest.
Some fans have always been this way, we're told, but they now have public forums they never had before. Which is true. Anyone who wants to say anything to a fairly large audience has platforms on which to do so. That is a good thing in many ways and not-so-good in many others. Reasonable people have always had to fight to let common sense and civility reign over idiocy and boorishness. They always will.
I like to see college athletes have the same freedoms as the rest of us, including on social media. Part of the college experience is supposed to be independent thought and the freedom to develop and express it. I wince when I see coaches ban their players from media interviews or from interacting on Twitter. I also begrudgingly understand it, because it's a minefield out there. Many is the college athlete who stirred up unnecessary trouble by shooting his or her mouth off on Twitter or elsewhere.
But many others have used those vehicles to show us their intelligence, wit, and humanity.
The problem with the interaction is when it gets ugly. And there are plenty of people who take their unhappiness over a sports result to verbally attack the competitors.
Major-college athletics are amateur athletes in professional sports, a contradiction that lends itself to problems like these. Iowa can say over and over that Woodbury and McCabe and other former football and basketball whipping boys for the fans are amateurs that deserve to be left alone. Which, of course, is true. But those amateurs are part of the multimillion-dollar program, the stars of the national-television productions performing to keep money flowing into the networks and the sponsors, and the athletic departments with their six-figure and seven-figure salaries that go to the coaches and administrators. So who do fans with anger issues see when they've had the unimaginable, unspeakable horror of watching their favorite team lose a ballgame? The players.
When college players are taking written beatings for the world to see or are getting hateful messages sent directly to them, something isn't right. When a former Hawkeye like Greg Brunner lashes out at fans like he did -- and remember, he clearly said he wasn't talking about the vast majority -- something isn't right.
A few weeks ago, I tweeted that Woodbury was going to become a very good college basketball player. I could easily find you several Big Ten coaches and other basketball experts who would concur. But that tweet caught me some predictable flak from a handful of geniuses. He's going to become a very good college basketball player, by the way. He's pretty good right now.
I don't have a rooting interest in these games or seasons. I like having good stories to cover. When you're in my business long enough, you realize honorable and admirable people are part of every team, whether pro, college, high school or pee wee.
But I'd love to see Zach McCabe make a game-winning shot or game-saving defensive play before this season is over.
(For a very interesting perspective on this from former Iowa State running back Jeff Woody, click here.)