|Marshall's leadership was exemplified in calming down teammate John Henson vs. Creighton. (Getty Images)|
We expect so much from college athletes. We expect class, restraint, composure -- and for the most part they give it. I've seen things from college athletes in the heat of competition that would warm both ventricles of your heart, and for examples I don't have to go back a few decades, or even a few years. I can go back a few days, to Norfolk State, which stunned Missouri and then was stomped by Florida and showed class, restraint, composure in both instances.
One example of many: When the Missouri game ended, the pro-Kansas crowd in Omaha, Neb., was howling -- not so much at Norfolk State in support, but at Missouri in derision -- and Missouri's Phil Pressey sat there on the court. Emotionally, he looked destroyed. A few feet away, Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn stood there on the court. Emotionally, he looked delighted. But then he saw Pressey's pain, and O'Quinn gathered himself, walked over, helped him up, hugged him, told him he had played with honor. I'm getting goose bumps just thinking about it.
But then, that's what we expect from athletes. We expect so much -- much more, it turns out, than we expect from ourselves.
This isn't a rant against what North Carolina fans did this weekend, because North Carolina fans are merely the tip of this ugly iceberg -- and anyway, it wasn't all North Carolina fans, or even most North Carolina fans, who embarrassed themselves, their fan base, their school. The UNC fans in question here were the tip of that iceberg, and that's a pretty big iceberg. North Carolina is a great school, and like all schools, North Carolina has mostly great fans.
But all it takes is a few of them, giving what those few gave to Creighton, to make you angry. And I'm getting disgusted just thinking about it.
Maybe you know what I'm talking about. When North Carolina played Creighton on Sunday, Creighton forward Ethan Wragge fouled UNC point guard Kendall Marshall. The collision sent Marshall to the floor, where he caught himself with his right wrist -- and broke it.
The foul was hard but clean, so normal, so innocuous -- even as it sent North Carolina's most important player to the court -- that nobody from UNC complained. Nobody got in Wragge's face, not even Marshall. He popped up and walked to the foul line for his free throws. The injury that would be determined later was enormous, but at the time the play was no big deal. Not to anyone on the court.
Then came later.
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Turns out, Marshall had stayed in the game and played several more minutes with a broken bone in his wrist. Turns out, he needed surgery the next day. Turns out, he might miss the rest of the NCAA tournament, and even if he can play, surely he won't play at 100 percent. And this is a season in which UNC has had realistic dreams of a national championship. That dream remains intact, but it's not so realistic anymore.
And some UNC fans went nuts.
Some, I say. Some.
They emailed and tweeted Creighton athletics director Bruce Rasmussen, telling him horrible lies about the character of his program. Had they stopped there, it would have been shameful behavior by some -- some, I say, some -- UNC fans.
But they didn't stop there. And I'm getting dismayed just thinking about it.
They found the Twitter address of Wragge and unloaded, writing unspeakable things at a college kid who was guilty, honestly, of nothing more nefarious than lacking athletic ability. Had Wragge been a lot quicker, as Marshall caught up to him from behind and then zoomed past, he would have been able to contest the shot more cleanly, maybe even block it. Instead, by the time Wragge's body reacted to what his eyes had seen, all he could do was reach futilely with his left hand while his momentum -- and Marshall's momentum -- created the collision that led to the hard fall.
Wragge wasn't dirty -- he was slow. Big difference. But not to the UNC fans who wrote him, and this wasn't one or two. It wasn't all of them, or even most of them, but it was lots. How many? Too many. Here's a collection of some of the tweets, but the language is indefensible. If you click the link, don't do it with young kids around. I'm serious.
Also in that collection of deplorable tweets are apologies from anguished UNC fans, humiliated that a handful of UNC supporters would stoop so low.
Anyway, this isn't a story about UNC fans -- it's not. It's not a story about fans of Kansas and Missouri, either, though Omaha was bracing for trouble when both teams were assigned to the pod there. Fights had broken out 10 days earlier in Kansas City when (some) fans of both schools couldn't handle being in the same town for the Big 12 tournament without fighting. A Kansas athletic department official, once a KU football player, was beaten so badly that he needed surgery. The assailant hasn't been identified as a Missouri fan, but Kansas fans have made that assumption. In any event, the violence in Kansas City baffled Kansas coach Bill Self.
"I understand you don't have to like each other. I don't understand some of the hostility that goes with it," Self told the newspaper in Lawrence, Kan. "I heard fights were going on -- that stuff is ridiculous."
Sure it is, but it happens. All the time. All over the place. That's why this isn't a story about fans of North Carolina, or Kansas, or Missouri. It's a story about fans all over the map, and what they expect from the athletes they watch, and what they tolerate from themselves. The gap is wide. The irony is thick.
And the stench is nauseating.