Thursday, March 11, 2004

Some sports-related thoughts

First up, the NHL.

This morning, Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi was suspended for the remainder of this season and the playoffs for punching Colorado's Steve Moore in the head and riding him down to the ice. Moore suffered a broken neck, a concussion, and facial lacerations and will miss the rest of the season. I think the suspension should have been longer, and it may be: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will reevaluate the situation before the start of the next season to see how Moore's recovery is progressing and whether Bertuzzi's suspension should be extended. I was all set to bloviate about the NHL's irresponsibility in mandating a short suspension for such a heinous attack (there are only 12 games left in Vancouver's regular season schedule) when another columnist reminded me that the next NHL season might not start until 2005 or 2006, if there is a lengthy work stoppage as everyone expects there will be. So Todd Bertuzzi could conceivably miss a year or two of professional hockey anyway, even if his suspension were to be lifted after the 2003-04 playoffs end. Still, I think his actions warranted a year out of the game, even if Moore were able to come back next fall. The league sends the wrong message by only suspending Bertuzzi for this year. In 2000 Marty McSorley clubbed Donald Brashear on the head with his stick, ending Brashear's season, and McSorley got a year's suspension for his troubles. Bertuzzi's hit was no less premeditated than McSorley's, so the only reason I can see for the shorter suspension is that Bertuzzi had the sense to drop his stick before slugging Moore. The intent was the same, so the penalty should have been the same. The league should also send a message to all the teams' coaches and GMs, indicating that behavior of this sort will not be tolerated. I understand that violence is part of the game of hockey, but there's no excuse for sucker-punching a guy, and there's no justification a coach, GM, or teammate can give for why someone would deserve this. The Vancouver coaching staff had to know that their players were upset about a check Moore delivered to Markus Naslund in February that knocked Naslund out for three games. The coaches should have taken the players aside and told them in no uncertain terms that there was to be no retribution. Unfortunately, that's the culture of hockey. I love the game of hockey, but I could live without all the clutching, grabbing, and hitting that passes for the modern NHL game. The league should be taking steps to eliminate all of the above, and even with a looming labor dispute, a short suspension for Todd Bertuzzi sends the wrong message to the players.

Next, the current trend of college basketball fans rushing the court after games.

Wednesday's Washington Post had an excellent article on the subject. While this sort of on-court demonstration used to be limited to the unbelievable upsets or unimaginable come-from-behind victories, lately everyone in the the arena seems to think it's acceptable to run onto the court after any win. I've never understood this phenomenon, and I've even been a part of it once. In 1994, I was a sophomore at Georgetown and I had season tickets to the mens' basketball games. One night late in the season, we were playing Syracuse, who were ranked much higher than we were, and we were winning a close game. I was in the student section near the front row, practically on the court already, and there was a palpable excitement in the crowd. We were living and dying with every shot. There were only a few games in my Georgetown days that were that exciting, so it was already a memorable night. As the seconds ticked down, word spread that we were rushing the court if we won. And when the game ended, we ran like we'd just won the national championship, not just a regular season game (albeit an important one against a longtime Big East rival). I remember being forced onto the court by the mass of people behind me, but when I got out there I realized something: there's nothing for a fan to do on the court. We jumped around and screamed for a few seconds, and I bumped into a few players who were just trying to get out of there, but it couldn't have been more than a minute before all of the students were calmly leaving the floor. There was no reason for us to be down there in the first place, and when we got there, I like to think that everyone figured that out right away. Probably not, though, because a week or two later, we were in the same situation against UConn, and as the game wound down and were were behind by only a few points, we got ready to rush the court again. This time, the barriers to the court were removed in the final seconds, even though the police presence righ in front of us augured against another successful rush. It was all moot when we lost the game. By the way, in neither case was I drunk, or even drinking, though I can't speak for the people around me. In my case, it was just youthful exuberance and a love for my team.

The point of all that rambling was that there's just no point to fans rushing the court, but university officials seem reluctant to do anything about it. Barricades aren't the answer, for safety reasons and also because they would probably be dismantled by fans intent on their goal no matter what the obstacle. I think the NCAA needs to step in and tell schools that if they can't control their own crowds, they'll forfeit games where fans run onto the court. If the people in the stands knew that their team would forfeit a hard-won game just because they ran onto the court, I think that would stop the practice. It might take an actual application of the penalty to do it, though, and I'd probably wait to announce the forfeit until after the fans have left the building. Otherwise a riot is a real possibility. But this trend has to be stopped, before someone dies during a celebration.

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