There was much to celebrate, and much to mourn, in the remarkable ACC championship football game played in Charlotte Saturday night. Heroism, grit, stubborn determination. A breathtaking refusal to surrender. Triumph and, for some of us, an eventual heartbreak.
There was also an episode that has no place in college athletics or in any other facet of university life. Or in the life of any educational institution. An exchange, or rather an assault, that in any other context would trigger immediate sanction and separation – but that in football we seem to accept as a foreseen, understandable component of the venture.
As if successful football coaches have to be willing to unleash uncontrollable torrents of abuse and degradation upon their student charges. As if it were thought acceptable to watch the most visible and highly compensated representative of an America university literally lose his mind while spewing invective at a 20-year-old on national television – in an inflicted trauma that will literally mark the rest of a hopeful, if mistaken, young man’s life.
In the second quarter, Clemson punter Andy Teasdale, facing 4th and 15, on his own 30, inexplicably attempted to run for the first down. The results were, in football terms, disastrous. Teasdale gained only a few yards, turning the ball over with a massive loss of field position, leading to a Carolina score and temporary Tar Heels lead.
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Nothing beyond, conceivably, the first fifteen seconds of the stunning harangue, was anything like a teachable moment.
When Teasdale returned to the sideline, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney grabbed him by the collar and unleashed what may be the most ferocious, visceral, repeated, and near unending tirade I’ve witnessed in my six plus decades on this planet. Swinney would scream, relentlessly, in Teasdale’s face until he exhausted himself, then walk back and start the exercise in humiliation all over again.
Embarrassed players tried to look the other way – relieved it wasn’t them in the crosshairs. It didn’t seem like the first time they had seen their vaunted coach explode. The game proceeded for several minutes, apparently unbeknownst to Swinney, while he continued to vent his spleen. Vengeance, in ample doses, was administered. I won’t soon forget it. Teasdale never will.
And, to be clear, nothing beyond, conceivably, the first fifteen seconds of the stunning harangue, was anything like a teachable moment. This was simply a nearly 50-year-old man releasing his unbounded rage, repeatedly, on a captive target. The fury was hurled with such vehemence I doubt Swinney can even remember it.
Many decades ago, I was a college football player myself. And, unlike most of the folks who played in Charlotte, as we used to say in Oklahoma, I was “never much count.” I do know, however, that there are few figures in modern American life who enjoy such supreme authority as a major college football coach. They oversee legions of young, ambitious men whose fortunes lie, almost completely, in their hands. Every player, in his heart of hearts, dreams of being a star. He has since he was a boy. All it takes is a swift, unexplained and unreviewable move down the depth chart to dash, completely, life-defining aspirations. None, or almost none, dares risk defiance.
This is why, for example, that comparatively elderly and tiny men can be seen hurling vituperation at giant, muscled, and intensely aggressive linemen and linebackers with impunity. Absent the protections of office and authority, the abusers know, they would be left bloodied and unconscious on the floor as a result of such shaming attacks. But they need fear no retaliation. The stakes, for the victims, are too immense. As a result, the “macho” displays carry the scent of cowardice.
Now, in truth, I harbor little hope that such transgressions will be rectified. Swinney will be lionized, not reprimanded. He’s just been named ACC coach of the year. If Clemson continues to win, his fortunes will know no bounds. No university president would dare say him nay. If he did, the president would be soon dispatched.
I write only to state my belief that such debasement has no place in college football. I may be wrong about that, of course. If I am, it at least ought be clear that football has no place in the university.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.