It was nearly comical.
The Oregon Ducks-Boise State Broncos matchup to kick off the college football season ended up a disaster. From the opening kick-off, the aura played into Boise's hands: the plucky, all-American underdog facing its Nike-funded, evil-empire, neighboring state, BCS rival.
In last year's game, a Boise State defender delivered a vicious helmet-to-helmet cheap shot to Oregon QB Jeremiah Masoli after his first pass attempt. It was the one moral ground a Ducks fan could stand on going in, and even then it was reluctant. Before the last two season, most Oregon fans loved Boise State. The Broncos aren't in the Pac-10, they've featured a slew of Oregon-grown talent (like Jared Zabransky and Legedu Naanee), and they pulled off one of the greatest games in college football history against a team Duck fans do hate. Even their head coach, Chris Peterson, is a favorite son in Eugene, serving as an assistant coach under Mike Bellotti for six years.
They were also ranked two slots higher in preseason rankings, making this game a lose-lose situation. Smaller conference teams aren't expected to beat teams like Oregon, even if they're consistent college football powerhouses. On paper, in Boise, the Ducks were the underdog, but most of the country doesn't know that. This game also marked the beginning of a new era under the Ducks' promising new coach, Chip Kelly, after the 14 year reign of Mike Bellotti.
What ensued was the most frustrating game imaginable. Despite their much-vaunted offense, which racked up an average of 54 points per game over the last three games last season, Oregon gained a total of 14 yards in the first half. They did not manage to convert a first down until the third quarter.
Despite the ineptitude, the Ducks kept getting breaks. They were only down 13 at the half due to Boise State's two missed field goals, and a series of fumbles and stops kept giving the ball back when it looked hopeless. After their first first down of the game, the Ducks suddenly started playing like they usually do, and rolled in for an easy touchdown. There was an entire quarter and a half to go, and the Ducks were only down 11 points.
It never panned out, and neither team scored again. It was sloppy and ugly on both sides, and I was almost relieved when the clock finally ticked out, but not before Oregon's hardest hitter, T.J. Ward, was injured badly, and not before they repeatedly the same teary-eyed Duck fan in the crowd, a man who looked to be in his 20s, sulking.
Then, things got really bad.
From ESPN's game report:
As the Broncos began celebrating on their famous blue turf, Hout yelled in Blount's face and tapped him on the shoulder pad. That drew an immediate scream from Boise State head coach Chris Petersen, but before Petersen could pull Hout away, Blount landed a right hand to the defensive end's jaw.Then, Blount wouldn't leave quietly, fighting with the police escorts ushering him off the field, and making blind rushes at taunting fans over the exit tunnel.
I felt two primary emotions in quick succession.
1. A vague sense of justice. I like to pretend, despite my fanhood, I'm fairly objective. But that Boise State player sure came off an @$$hole. Who taunts an opposing team like that, especially after such a humiliating loss? Trash talk is part of the game, I know, but I've always felt sore winners are more obnoxious than sore losers. LaGarrette Blount entered this game one of the top NFL running back prospects in the nation. He finished with -5 yards on 8 carries. That's all the talk you need...rubbing it in during the post-game handshakes is classless.
So watching Hout get absolutely cold-cocked in response was vaguely satisfying. I'm ashamed I felt this way.
2. Anger. I was embarrassed to be somewhat pleased by the punch, and immediately swung the other way. My exact Facebook post was "LaGarrette Blount should be kicked off the Oregon Ducks." Blount's actions made Oregon look as evil as Bronco fans wanted them to be. It's bad enough being the powerhouse team humbled by their small conference neighbor. It's another to punch a guy in an epic display of bad sportsmanship, on national television, in the first game of the year. For many Ducks fans and players, it was shame heaped on a humiliating game.
The next morning, I don't feel the same. Blount should not be kicked off the team, though he should suffer a lengthy suspension. With one emotional reaction, Blount has done irreparable harm to his future. His actions could cost him a shot at the 1st round of the NFL draft (maybe more - with more emphasis on character in pro sports lately, he could drop considerably, costing him millions of dollars in bonuses).
I wasn't alone in my response. The cries were out all over Facebook ("Horrible, I say. Hope they boot him from that sorry excuse of a team..."), from the announcers ("unconscionable!" "reprehensible!"), and the always-indignant John Canzano.
Here's my problem, 10 hours later, with the outrage:
The Oregon and Boise State players had just finished 60 minutes of football. They are big and powerful men, running across the field and slamming into each other at full speed. These men are ridiculously strong. As Chuck Klosterman pointed out years ago in a brilliant essay for ESPN, NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman weighs more than the greatest offensive tackle of all-time (Anthony Munoz, who retired in 1993) and runs faster than the greatest receiver did during his draft combine (Jerry Rice, who retired in 2005). These men are destroying each other for our entertainment.
And yet, when that raw emotion and energy spills out for even a moment after the game, we gasp in self-righteousness. We recall our time on the field - in Little League, or out with friends - and pretend we understand what it's like. If we were tackled just once by a 200 pound man, we would file assault charges. LaGarrette Blount was pulled to the ground 8 times by groups of men even larger, while he was running full speed. We can't fathom, from our pure white towers of the finest carved ivory, how he could ever resort to flinging his fist into an opponent's smug grin?
Maybe I should start taking some notes from hockey: if I'm going to cheer on the barbarism and slow death of athletes, I may as well cheer when they fight, as well. Or at least not recoil in hypocritical horror like a pious windbag.
(UPDATE: Maybe I'm not such a homer after all...Deadspin's post on the incident has some similar themes.)
(FURTHER UPDATE: Blount has been suspended for the rest of the season.)