The Death of Sportsmanship

Rutgers University is known as the birthplace of college football, but in the last few weeks it’s seemed more like the deathplace of sportsmanship. On Sept. 7, Rutgers hosted Navy’s football team. What respect was shown in the wake of the midshipmen’s forthcoming service to the country and the approaching Sept. 11 anniversary? The rowdy student fans of Rutgers hurled obscenities at Navy, thoroughly embarrassing their college and their town.

Rutgers won the game but lost any sense of honor and decency. Navy was booed and peppered with "You suck!" chants when they stepped on the field to start both halves. When Navy kick returner Reggie Campbell came up limping after a tackle, students chanted: "You got f-ed up! You got f-ed up! You got f-ed up!" Toward the end of the second half, Rutgers students began to serenade an adjacent section of Navy fans and uniformed midshipmen: "F- you, Navy! F- you, Navy! F- you, Navy!"

Bill Squires, a New Jersey recruiter for Annapolis and a 1975 graduate of the Naval Academy, was appalled by the students, but proud of the Navy midshipmen because they had no reaction. "They took it. They stood tall. They did what they were taught to do. I am not sure, if I was 30 years younger in my white uniform, I wouldn’t have reacted differently."

On Sept. 11, Rutgers President Richard McCormick apologized to Naval Academy officials in a letter. "No student-athlete should ever be subject to profane language directed at them from the crowd," he wrote, "and certainly not the young men of the Naval Academy, who have made a commitment to serve our nation in a time of war." That should be obvious to anyone, even college students with a surplus of alcohol in their systems.

It’s ironic that the national media would grow outraged when the girls’ basketball team at Rutgers was the target of a fleeting, unfunny "nappy-headed hos" line from Don Imus earlier this year, but when Rutgers students demonstrated a more prolonged and more profane disrespect of one of our nation’s service academies, there was virtually no media outrage. It was largely swept under the rug.

The only defense of Rutgers — and this really is no defense at all — is that their vile behavior was certainly not unprecedented. A few years ago, the University of Maryland’s basketball fans caused trouble for ESPN by chanting "F- you" at Duke guard J.J. Redick. As Mark DiIonno, who broke the story of the Rutgers student misbehavior in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, lamented: "Booing, cursing, chanting obscenities, unfortunately, are now part of the game-day experience. It’s easily been three decades since fans across the country in all sports began spending more time and creative energy jeering the visitors and officials than cheering the home team."

DiIonno said that the Rutgers fans weren’t even the worst in New Jersey, saving that place of dishonor for pro football fans of the New York Jets. In the first game of the season, starting Jets quarterback Chad Pennington injured his ankle in the third quarter and limped over to the sideline. The Jets fans cheered his injury.

Former New York Giants quarterback (and NFL broadcaster) Phil Simms said this kind of negativity "would probably happen in 30 of the 32 stadiums across the NFL. There are a lot of factors as to why it’s that way, including the way the fans have changed when they go to games, and just the position of the quarterback." He added, "If the head coach got injured and relieved during the game, almost every fan base would cheer that action, too."

The sports arena is no longer a place where you can comfortably take young sons and daughters for entertainment, unless you have grade-schoolers who are used to profane taunting.

The climate’s gotten so poisonous it’s almost comical. The University of Oregon has to suspend its mascot for brutalizing the mascot of the University of Houston at a recent contest. He couldn’t tolerate the Houston side doing push-ups for each point it scored, feeling that it was a sign of disrespect. So YouTube watchers are going wild over footage of this large white duck mascot kicking the other mascot on the sideline.

Some find it funny. It would be funny if it were an act, like old-fashioned San Diego Chicken high jinks. But it wasn’t. The brawling mascots had to be separated by security personnel.