LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The penalties have been assessed in the Marcus Smart incident, and the talk radio buzz has died down considerably in the wake of other stories starting to pick up steam.
But there's one aspect worth considering before the whole thing goes away (until next time).
What's the media's role in all this?
ESPN's SportsCenter spent about 40 minutes talking about Marcus Smart's shove of Texas Tech fan Jeff Orr the night it happened, over top of the replay of the shove, over and over.
Twitter exploded with the incident, with its usual combination of debate and diatribe. Facebook, it seemed, less so, but social media certainly propelled discussion of the story.
Writers, like myself, who might've been 24 hours behind the curve because of deadline in an era gone by, weighed in more or less instantly on the World Wide Web, wherever we were in the nation.
What happened before ESPN, Twitter, media websites, the intense media coverage and analysis of events in general and, probably more importantly, real-time video of every incident?
Well, I can tell you what happened on Dec. 16 and 17, 1948. It's just one incident, and I only use it because it's one I remember reading about, from longtime University of Kentucky assistant coach Harry Lancaster, in his book, "Adolph Rupp, As I Knew Him," as told to Cawood Ledford and published in 1979. (It's a short book, but one of my favorites when it comes to UK basketball history.)
UK was at the Boston Garden playing Bob Cousy and Holy Cross on Dec. 16, 1948. The game was physical. Cousy and Cliff Barker had already gotten into a fight. (Both stayed in the game — already a change from today.) Wah Wah Jones fouled out with about five minutes left in the game and took his seat on the bench. I'll let Lancaster and Ledford tell the story from there:
"Wah sat next to me on the bench and he had barely taken his seat when a fan right behind our bench really started to get on him. He kept daring Wah to turn around until it was more than Jones could stand. Just as he turned, the fan threw a wet, wadded cigarette pack hard into Wah's face. Wah was strong as a bull. He turned, grabbed that fan by the tie and shirt front and landed a hard right hand to the man's jaw. Jones knocked him clean out of his clothes. The man was lying on the floor and Wah was standing there holding the man's shirt and tie in his left hand. The man's friend was trying to hit me, but I beat him to the punch. I knocked him down and went after him. He kicked me while he was on the floor leaving his footprints on the stomach portion of my white shirt. When order was restored, we went on to win by three points, 51 to 48."
Can you imagine today, if a University of Kentucky basketball player turned around and clocked a fan behind the bench, in the Boston Garden, what would ensue?
John Calipari would be excoriated. The player would face suspension and more. ESPN might have to start another network. CNN, Fox News, national outlets, all would get involved. Local television would be ablaze with it, as would the local newspapers. Because of the omnipresence of television, we'd have multiple camera angles of the punches. We'd have slow motion.
We'd have a major national conversation.
In 1948, neither The Courier-Journal nor The Louisville Times staffed that game. The C-J had a stringer write a game report, while the Times used a wire story from UPI. Both gave the incident a passing mention.
From The C-J:
Kentucky's Wildcats had anything but a tea-party in historic Boston tonight as they slugged their way to a 51-48 triumph over a fighting Holy Cross.
The bitter battle broke up with a spectator attacking Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones and police escorting the Wildcats from the floor.
One of the big guns in the Kentucky attack, Jones appeared to be hit with a rolled-up paper bag by the spectator, Jones resented it and advanced on his assailant, who began throwing punches.
Some of the blows were aimed at Coach Adolph Rupp, who went to Jones' defense. The incident was short lived, as ushers and police quickly moved in. Most of the crowd of 13,000 cheered, however, as the NCAA and Olympic champions left the floor after the game.
The Times had less detail, saving mention of the incident to the final paragraphs of its game story: "The game was marred by a minor disturbance. An identified fan struck Jones with what appeared to be a crumpled paper bag. Jones had fouled out and was sitting on the bench. Jones resented it and moved toward the fan who began punching. Coach Adolph Rupp and some of the players moved in. Rupp was struck a couple of glancing blows."
Regardless, the point is this — these things have happened in sports for a long time. In 1916, Ty Cobb jumped the left field wall and beat a heckler to a pulp until police could get to him and he could be thrown out of the game. Cobb was given an indefinite suspension, and when his teammates went on strike in protest (the Tigers had to dig some players out of a Philadelphia neighborhood to field a team for one game) the league settled on a 10-game suspension and $50 fine.
Many people have mentioned the famous Louisville-South Carolina brawl in Columbia in 1988. You don't need a description from me, because you can watch it on YouTube. Not only did the players get involved in a free-for all, but Pervis Ellison and Kenny Payne tried to climb the scorer's table to get into it with South Carolina fans.
The point being, whatever you see on SportsCenter, folks, chances are it's been a lot worse.
The presence of television cameras, or camera phones, changes everything. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. There's no place for this kind of fighting in sports. But putting events into historical context becomes more difficult, because you can't watch the historical events in your living room.
Still, we'd do well to remember that. There's no place in sports for players and spectators fighting. But there's also no standing at all for anyone who wants to treat a player who gets caught up in it as some kind of criminal.
Just remember, a lot of guys we celebrate in sports did some of the same things.
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