On December 2, last year, in a men’s college basketball game between BYU and the University of Utah, Nick Emery of BYU sucker punched Brandon Taylor of Utah. Emery was properly assessed a Flagrant Two foul, and ejected from the game; he was subsequently suspended for BYU’s next contest. The game was in Salt Lake City; fans began throwing things on the floor. Eventually, order was restored, and the game ended, with Utah victorious by 8 points.
On January 7, Utah announced that they would withdraw from next season’s game with BYU. Larry Krystkowiak, the Utah coach released this statement:
The events that have occurred in our recent games with BYU led me to ask [athletic director] Dr. Hill several weeks ago if we could take a cooling off period and put the rivalry on hold. The level of emotions has escalated to the point where there is the potential for serious injury. Chris said he would support me in canceling next year’s scheduled game against BYU. I called and let Coach [Dave] Rose know our intentions a few days after our game [on Dec. 2].
BYU v. Utah is one of the more intense college sports rivalries in the nation. And like all intense sports rivalries, it involves emotions quite ridiculously disproportionate to what’s really at stake. Words like ‘hate’ and ‘loathe’ and ‘despise’ (and also ‘love’ and ‘worship’ and ‘adore’) tend to pepper sports fan conversations. So, of course, the cancellation of this one basketball game has led to all sorts of wild speculation and accusations of bad faith. Mostly, it’s directed at Chris Hill, the Utah Athletic Director, who, I’ve been reliably assured, ‘hates’ BYU and is trying to ‘destroy’ BYU.
Of course, for some BYU fans, the U’s decision is definitive proof of the perfidious irreligious moral depravity of the Utah program. BYU and Utah had a contract! Contracts are sacrosanct agreements! Utah can’t unilaterally cancel this game! Except that this particular contract had a buy-out clause, with a financial penalty attached; Utah exercised that clause, and paid the money. From the other side, Utah fans say that BYU is a dirty team. There have been a number of incidents recently of BYU players acting out violently. But most of those incidents–basically all of them, except for Emery’s loss of composure–have involved the BYU football program. Not men’s basketball.
As a BYU sports fan, I’m troubled, frankly, by the unsportsmanlike play of the BYU football team recently. And I can’t help notice how tepidly the BYU administration tried to keep Bronco Mendenhall, the football coach, when he was offered a job at Virginia. BYU will have a new football coach next season, Kalani Sitake; I wish him the best. He has a well-earned reputation for integrity and teaching excellence. A reputation he earned while coaching at the University of Utah.
It’s also been pointed out that Larry Krystkowiak, the U coach, lost his head a few times when he played in the NBA; that he punched opposing players a couple of times. So accusations of hypocrisy get to fly in both directions. ‘Larry K was a dirty player!’ ‘BYU pretends to be so moral and Christian, but look at this kid punching this kid!’ ‘Chris Hill hates Mormons!’ ‘BYU only cares about money!’
Meanwhile, of course, the BYU athletic director, Tom Holmoe, has been trying to see if it’s possible, through negotiation, to reinstate the game. Good luck with that, especially since his opening negotiating tactic was to call the U’s decision ‘stupid.’ Best of all, the Utah legislature is making noise about involving itself! Of course it is. Speaker of the Utah House, Greg Hughes, says he worries about how cancelling this one basketball game “might impact the public.” Let me see if I can help Speaker Hughes with this: not playing the game would absolutely impact the public. In the sense of some few members of the public not being able to see a basketball game they’re rather like to see.
What the most aggrieved voices on neither side of this debate seem all that interested in addressing is the nature of fandom itself, the emotional investment we fans make in our silly games. (Which are silly, though I love watching). And, of course, the high emotions experienced by the players. Nick Emery, whose sucker punch started the controversy, is a returned missionary, and, by all accounts, a really nice kid. He apologized profusely for his actions, saying, “I got caught up in the intensity of the game and let my emotions get the best of me.” He also apologized to Utah, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak, his teammates and fans of both schools. Taylor, the kid he hit, accepted his apology; said it was no big deal.
I am a fan of the San Francisco Giants, Indiana University, and the Utah Jazz; I am therefore obliged to ‘hate/loathe/despise’ the Los Angeles Dodgers, Purdue University and the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, I have very good friends who are Dodgers’ fans, my best friend is a Lakers’ fan, and my home teaching companion got his PhD from Purdue. I like sports, in part because of the emotional investment I make in the teams playing. The stakes, in a ballgame, are simultaneously very very high, and also trivial beyond belief. It matters a lot who wins, and it also doesn’t matter at all. You get all caught up in the game, in who wins and who loses, and you also feel like a bit of a fool for caring so much over this . . . nothing. And it’s okay to feel both those emotions simultaneously. In fact, I think it’s sort of necessary.
Otherwise, we’re in danger of losing perspective. And maybe that’s what Chris Hill and Larry Krystkowiak are really saying, something actually kind of valuable and important. People on both sides of this particular sports rivalry were taking it too seriously. Things were getting out of hand. This isn’t about Nick Emery; it’s about the rage and fury in the stands. We need to mellow out, maybe. Maybe it’s time, as Krystkowiak said, for everyone to cool off. Let the game go. Give it a few years, and try again.