By Mike Wise
Thursday, November 9, 2006
Not even death stops the college football machine. Not even a kid murdered outside his apartment after practice on Tuesday will stop the University of Miami from continuing its season in College Park on Saturday, a day it should have used for mourning the death of Bryan Pata.
It's not clear whether anyone considered not playing the game, or what pressures existed to proceed with the schedule. But it is clear that Miami Coach Larry Coker, school president Donna Shalala and even the ACC had the opportunity to do the right thing, yet instead decided, "Game on."
Coker, the embattled coach of the most notorious college football program in America, said yesterday that his team will play "to represent our university and represent Bryan Pata."
These people truly can't see beyond their own myopic coachspeak. A senior defensive lineman is shot in the head four miles from campus, and less than 24 hours later Coker's team is practicing. He and the university decide the show must go on. With ESPN/ABC and the ACC on board, the grieving process gets shelved so the U. can bump helmets with No. 23 Maryland.
It's not the first time a big-time school flunked sensitivity training; it just might be the most callous.
Beware of the droves who proclaim, "This is what Bryan Pata would have wanted," or, "The kids need the game to take their minds off the tragedy." Most who say that have ties to the school or a financial interest at stake. None will be a psychiatric professional, who would explain in detail why young adults have more to worry about than football this weekend.
The truth? Beneath the bling, the mean-mugging after a violent sack and the muscle mass that was going to give him a genuine shot at an NFL career, Pata was a 22-year-old kid when he became a Miami-Dade homicide victim on Tuesday. He wasn't even four years removed from Miami Central High.
If a high school player were murdered, the game would be canceled. No questions asked. The school would make sure the victim's traumatized teammates could bury their friend over the weekend and work out their grief with counselors.
But college football is boffo box office. At the U. -- and, frankly, elsewhere -- the bill-paying supersedes appropriate behavior in the wake of a player's death.
Look, any decision would result in complications. No other weekend is available to reschedule the game. Unless Miami forfeited -- which would be rash and unfair -- Maryland is penalized a home game at the very time Ralph Friedgen's team is peaking.
It's true Maryland is in the race for the ACC title, and you can make a strong argument that it's not right to deny Boston College or once-woebegone Wake Forest -- both of which would benefit from a Maryland loss Saturday -- a chance to play in a conference championship game because of some tragic circumstance at another school. Neither Miami nor Maryland is playing for the national title this season, but erasing the game from both teams' schedules would have a severe trickle-down effect.
Yet for all the machinations involved, all the cries of unfairness, we're still weighing bowl games against a homicide.
Coker had a real opportunity to lend sanity to a crisis situation. Instead of saying he could not in good conscience expect his kids to play on Saturday, he went the old, manly way of denial. Rather than taking aside his kids individually, especially the ones close to Pata, and telling them they didn't have to make the trip if they didn't want to, he made an executive decision to play.
The lore surrounding Miami's bad-boy image will grow because of Pata's murder. From Ray Lewis obstructing justice in a double murder involving his friends to Sean Taylor's vigilante justice against men who stole his all-terrain vehicle and so on, the criminal behavior of Hurricanes past will be brought up.
And because of where some of these kids are from -- decaying urban areas where young people are shot and killed in frightening numbers -- people will say: "It's not like these kids haven't seen this before. How traumatized are they by a murder of a teammate?"
All of it misses the point. This is not about the U.'s punk past. It is not about finding ways to rationalize making all those shellshocked kids go play a football game they are in no emotional shape to play on Saturday.
This was a coach, a university and a college football nation full of enablers trying to make themselves all feel better by saying this decision was for the well-being of the kids.
This decision showed that, in big-time college sports, network obligations and the accompanying financial strings trump the right way to mourn a murdered kid.