Stompgate Rolls On

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Three days after Marcus Vick stomped on the leg of Louisville’s Elvis
Dumervil in a momentary fit of passion, Hokie fans continue to be up in arms
over the incident. Something that took just a split second has ignited a portion
of the Virginia Tech fan base into a rage. The message boards are full of talk
about the incident, emails are pouring into the Tech athletic and academic
administration, and there are a lot of people out there who want something to be
done about it. The situation has put the decision-makers at Virginia Tech into a
difficult position. What will they do, if anything, and when?

Football
is a violent game. It’s a challenge to the psyches of the young men who play it,
because it asks them to do two things that create conflicting emotions and
require high levels of control. Football asks its players to hit, block, and
tackle each other violently, the more violent the better; but do it
within the confines of the rules of the sport. Essentially, football asks its
players to go to the very edge of aggression and hostility, then reel it in.

Most of the time, the players manage this task well, considering that
football games are on average 125-140 plays long, with 22 players going at it
every play. Late hits and helmet-to-helmet contact are common and usually don’t
get people in an uproar.

But every once in a while, a player goes beyond the normal transgressions
during the heat of battle, drawing attention and reprimands. There are many
examples of this. Just a few that come to mind are:

  • Miami’s Nate Webster eye-gouging Virginia Tech’s Shyrone Stith and
    sucker-punching Michael Vick after the whistle in the 1999 game in
    Blacksburg.

  • Bill Romanowski of the NFL spitting in the face of San Francisco’s JJ
    Stokes during a 1997 game (not to mention punching a teammate in a 2003
    practice, inflicting what papers describe as a “career-ending brain
    injury” — SFGate.com).

  • Kermit Washington punching Rudy Tomjanovich in a 1977 NBA game (admittedly
    a basketball example, and one of the most infamous of all time).

  • Ohio State’s Robert Reynolds choking Wisconsin quarterback Jim Sorgi in a
    2003 Big Ten football game.

There are many other examples, of course, but those four put Vick’s action
into context. This was not an off-the-field incident, one that was committed
with plenty of time to reflect. And it wasn’t as vicious as the incidents
described above. It was similar, though — a player committing an egregious act
after the whistle, on the spur of the moment.

Since it happened, the incident has been replayed and discussed repeatedly on
national and local TV (and radio) talk shows. Vick has been raked over the
coals, and many of the commentators have taken their criticism beyond Vick and
extended it to the Virginia Tech program as a whole, including head coach Frank
Beamer. Tech players as a group have been characterized as thugs, and Beamer has
been cast as a head coach soft on discipline and without control over his
players. VT has sold its soul to win football games, many have said. All in all,
not a good day at the PR office for the Hokies.

Of more importance is the vehement backlash from a large portion of the Tech
fan base. The TSL message boards are on fire. Tech athletic director Jim Weaver
noted in a newspaper article today that he has received over 200 emails on the
topic. And yesterday’s Roanoke Times sports mailbag ran four letters about the
incident (and Tech’s poor behavior during the game as a whole), an unusually
high number of letters about the same subject, in a mid-week mailbag. And here
at TSL, we’ve been getting emails, too.

While the message boards contain debate in both directions, the emails to
Weaver, TSL, and the Roanoke Times all condemn Vick’s actions. There is no
support to be found for Vick anywhere, except amongst a few posters on the
message board.

There are three levels on which Vick’s action against Dumervil bother Tech
fans and supporters:

1.) The act itself. When fans see an after-the-whistle incident like that,
committed by a Tech player, they don’t like it. The stomp, when combined with
Vick’s well-documented past transgressions, perpetuates an image of Vick as a
player who continues to be out of control and behaving poorly.

2.) Statements made by Vick, Kevin Rogers and Bryan Stinespring after the
game. Vick said he apologized to Dumervil — Dumervil says Vick didn’t.
Rogers said he didn’t remove Vick from the game because it would “harm
the other 21 guys in the game.” Bob Molinaro of the Virginian-Pilot
called that “coach speak at its worst” (while incorrectly attributing the comments to Beamer — and let me add that I’m not indicting Rogers, who earns my respect for being the only coach to speak out about the incident so far, calling it “an embarrassment”). Meanwhile, Bryan Stinespring said
Tuesday that he hadn’t seen a replay of the incident (how could you not?).

3.) The reflection upon Virginia Tech as a whole. Fans are tired of Vick
not just making himself look bad, but making the entire university look bad.
Tech fans as far away as California are being asked about the incident around
water coolers and in coffee shops. Hokie fans don’t like trying to explain
something like that. Hokies are fiercely proud of Virginia Tech, and they take
it personally when someone embarrasses the school.

It’s item #3 that is bringing the outcry from Hokie fans, an outcry that has
surprised me in its volume and longevity. I didn’t make the trip to
Jacksonville, instead watching the game in a sports bar with some friends in
Harrisonburg. When the Vick stomp was shown on replay during the game, the group
I was in — and the whole bar, it seemed — had an “Ew, that’s not
good” moment, but it wasn’t discussed much or dwelled on. So when the stomp
completely consumed the message boards for two days straight, driving site
traffic to astronomical levels, I was caught off guard.

The VT administration is in a pickle. When Marcus was suspended from school
for the fall of 2004, public statements were made by VT officials that amounted
to a warning that Vick was at the end of his rope with regards to Virginia Tech,
and his next infraction would be his last.

Since then, Vick has done two things that reflect poorly on the school and
were caught on camera: he flipped off West Virginia fans, and he stomped on
Dumervil’s leg. The problem is, those were on-field incidents, not off-field
legal transgressions, and that gets into a gray area. Indications are that the
Tech Board of Visitors, for example, doesn’t have much of an appetite for meting
out severe punishment for something that happened on the field of play. One
might think that Tech president Charles Steger doesn’t either, because once you
start disciplining athletes for things that happen on the field, where do you
stop?

The problem for Virginia Tech is that many among the fan base, including
big-money donors, season ticket purchasers, and everybody on down to Hokie Club
reps and chapter presidents, are irate about the beating Virginia Tech is taking
in the national press, and they’re making a lot of noise about it. And Jim
Weaver fired the opening salvo Tuesday with an ominous Statement
on Unsportsmanlike Conduct by Marcus Vick
. Weaver has since vowed in the
press that punishment is coming.

Meanwhile, head Gator Bowl referee Steve Usecheck inexplicably decided
to shoot his mouth off
about Virginia Tech, Marcus Vick, and the conduct of
Hokie players in the game. Usecheck’s comments were incredibly unprofessional,
to the point of being bizarre and making me wonder if he’s got a chemical
imbalance or a brain tumor (neither of which is a laughing matter, and I’m not
kidding; Usecheck did a shoddy, inconsistent job of officiating the game, and
then he went off in the press, making me wonder if there’s something medically
wrong with him).

It appears the Tech administration will have to do something, given
the outcry, Vick’s history, and Weaver’s public statements on the matter. Hokie
Nation is waiting to find out what that “something” is.

I’ve been asked for my opinion on the matter. You’ll be disappointed to know
that I don’t have a strongly-held view on whether or not Vick should be
suspended for a game or two, or thrown under the bus, as many are advocating. I
find that over the years, my ability to get worked up about the transgressions
of Virginia Tech football players has greatly diminished. From the time Christy
Brzonkala publicly accused Tony Morrison and James Crawford of rape way back in
1995, Virginia Tech football players have made regular appearances in the papers
for all the wrong reasons.

The list is so lengthy that it can’t be captured here. Going from memory and
leaving many things out: first, the Morrison/Crawford/Brzonkala story; then a
rape allegation against Brian Edmonds around 1996; Jim Druckenmiller being
charged with malicious wounding in a 1996 bar fight; the 1996 Blacksburg Brawl,
where eight football players beat a Tech track athlete; Druckenmiller (in the
NFL at the time) being charge with rape in 1999 in a public, humiliating trial;
Derrius Monroe pleading guilty to a felony charge of cocaine possession in 2000;
Vick’s transgressions in 2004 — etc., etc. That’s just skimming the surface
and recapping the most serious and most public incidents.

This sort of behavior has been going on for years and years in Virginia Tech
football, and the response has been so soft from the Virginia Tech coaching
staff that the school administration created a Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP)
in the mid-90’s that addressed the issue of behavior by athletes. Then they
proceeded to gut the CAP in 2000 by reinstating Monroe, who pled guilty to a
felony, to the Tech football team. That story ended well — Monroe’s record was
wiped clean, and he graduated from Virginia Tech — but nonetheless, the letter
of the CAP was bypassed for the benefit of Monroe, thus rendering the CAP
toothless, in this man’s opinion.

This is my main, and perhaps my only beef, with Frank Beamer over the years.
He gets so close to his players and their families that he can’t hand out the
harsh discipline required to reel the kids in. Beamer and his staff have noted
for years that when they recruit these players, they promise their families that
they’ll take care of them. So when the kids step out of line, often repeatedly,
the coaching staff treats them like you would your own son, giving them second
chances, and more. A friend of mine, who used to coach at the small college
level, understands this mindset and even defends it. And he’s no softy.

This approach is a kind, caring approach. It works well on the recruiting
trail, because it creates a family atmosphere at Virginia Tech, and recruits and
their families respond positively to it. They trust Frank Beamer and his staff
to care for their sons. But when athletes embarrass the university, it angers
the fan base and reflects poorly on Virginia Tech — and lately, Frank Beamer
himself.

So focus on Vick, if you want, but the larger point is this: if you toss him
out, there will be more behind him. There’s no end to the supply of Tony
Morrisons, Jim Crawfords, Jim Druckenmillers, Derrius Monroes, and Marcus Vicks,
players who will run afoul of the law or step out of bounds on the playing
field, thus making Virginia Tech look bad again. That’s part of the reason I
don’t get too worked up about it; it’s all just swimming upstream, as far as I’m
concerned.

That’s not where I thought this column was going when I started it, but there
you have it. Now it’s time for me to get back to my way-overdue Gator Bowl
analysis, which I promise will include no mention of The Stomp, which I have now
decided to capitalize.

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