WE SHOULD not be surprised by the recent vandalism to Howard’s Rock, one of the more iconic symbols in college football. We live in an age where it is not enough to win games and capture championships. We must also taunt our opponents, chastise them publicly and, yes, damage and defame their history and traditions.
Such is life in 2013 college athletics.
We do not know who broke into Clemson’s Memorial Stadium and smashed the Plexiglas case before taking a chunk out of the rock in early June. It could have been a random act of vandalism. More likely, it was executed by someone who knows of the rock’s history and saw a way to take a sadistic shot at the school and its football program.
It was no different than the vandal(s) who recently broke into Williams-Brice Stadium and painted an orange tiger paw on the turf. At least that damage can be repaired before USC plays its next football game there in late August.
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No matter, these random acts of ugliness have replaced what once were considered pranks, harmless undertakings that provided comic relief to the then otherwise serious nature of old rivalries.
No prank will top the 1961 stunt pulled off by 50 members of USC’s Sigma Nu fraternity. They borrowed orange and white uniforms, pads and helmets from Orangeburg High and sneaked onto the Williams-Brice Stadium field prior to kickoff as a team of Clemson imposters.
Even the Clemson band was fooled and struck up “Tiger Rag” as its “team” entered the stadium. The imposters went through mock calisthenics, executed a couple of backward punts and stumbled through a few phantom plays.
That was fun. Funny, too.
The fun of such frolics seemed to morph into taunting with the arrival of Cassius Clay on the boxing scene in the mid-1960s. Before his 1964 heavyweight championship bout against Sonny Liston, Clay’s camp purchased a bus and painted on its side “Sonny Liston Will Go In Eight.” Clay referred to Liston as a “big, ugly bear.”
Granted, it was all part of a promotional game for Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali and continued to attack his opponents verbally before fights, and physically within the ring.
He mastered the “art” of putting down opponents as a way of building up himself. Fifty years later, the practice has become the norm throughout sports. Athletes stand over and preen to fallen opponents. They seize every opportunity to taunt, goad, insult and/or ridicule someone wearing a different jersey, anything to show little or no respect for the opposition.
It is not as if athletes act on their own. They watch and practice the examples set by coaches, administrators and university presidents. When there no longer is decorum practiced at the highest level of government — need we be reminded of the “You Lie!” rant at our President? — we certainly should not expect it to be in athletics.
Coaches run up scores on inferior opponents in all sports. They poke fun at any shortcoming of an opponent. Sportsmanship be darned. A longtime Florida State assistant football coach once insisted that his players never lend a helping hand to an opponent on the ground.
University presidents have now gotten into the sad act. Retiring Ohio State president Gordon Gee is the poster-president for flippant, mean-spirited comments aimed at the opposition.
“You tell the SEC when they can learn to read and write, then they can figure out what we’re doing,” Gee said when asked why fans of the SEC question the Big Ten’s math skills because the league has 14 members.
Then he went after the Catholic faith, and Notre Dame in particular.
“The fathers are holy on Sunday, and they’re holy hell on the rest of the week,” Gee said. “You just can’t trust those damn Catholics on a Thursday or a Friday.”
No wonder fans of schools start the practice of ridiculing athletes during the recruiting process. As soon as a recruit commits to a program other than their own, fans immediately begin labeling the 18-year-old athlete a “bad person.”
That is the environment of college athletics today. It is why we should never be surprised at any random act of vandalism that surrounds sports. Not the poisoning of oak trees at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner by a 62-year-old Alabama fan, nor the recent attack on a prized piece of Clemson’s football history.