[Warning: Overdramatic blogging ahead. But it looks to be a fairly dramatic moment for both the football team and the university then, isn't it? Which is roughly the point I'll get to in a moment.]
Over the coming days/weeks/months, we're going to be inundated with media and internet reports about the precise nature of the altercation (if that's the right word for it) that occurred at Rather Hall Sunday night. Be prepared for a deluge of speculation. How many football players were involved? Who were they? Which ones, if any, were wearing ski masks? Who has previous violent incidents in their past? Was there a maybe-sort-of legitimate cause for retribution?
I'm here to tell you that none of it matters.
If there were, in fact, one or more football players involved in what, if the initial report is at all accurate, was a premeditated act of pure thuggery (and all signs point to yes on players being involved) those players need to be dismissed from both the team and the university with all dispatch.
I don't care if there was only one football player in the group. I don't care if none of the players involved were the individuals wearing the ski masks. I don't care if a player just happened to tag along because he ran into the group as it walked to the dorm. I don't care if dismissing a player is likely to lead that player down a path toward lifelong ruin. And I certainly don't care what impact any player's dismissal will have on the team's fortunes in its bowl game and/or the 2010 season.
Further, a clear message needs to be delivered to the entire Michigan State football team that the level of tolerance for violence and any other form of law-breaking is now exactly zero. No more second chances. You get a first chance. And then you're done.
One would think that such a warning would have been handed down after the Winston/Sturges incident. If it was, apparently it didn't work (as, obviously, the Winston-second-chance decision didn't work).
If everything is as it seems to be, this is a defining moment not just for Mark Dantonio's tenure as head coach of the MSU football team, but for the university itself. For better or worse, the football team is, if not the face of the university, certainly a major component of the university's public profile. When the average person thinks about MSU, they don't think about the medical schools or the cyclotron, they think about the football team and (thank goodness) the basketball team.
Yeah, I don’t think many MSU fans would feel that this type of black mark is worth a few wins. We have to carry our degrees into the world and these sorts of things matter, both in the football world and outside of it.
I can only hope that, beyond the simple issue of integrity as it relates directly to the football program, the impact of this incident and those that have preceded it on the broader reputation of the university and its alumni/supporters will figure prominently into the thinking and decision making of Mark Dantonio, Mark Hollis, and Lou Anna Simon as this situation moves forward. In fact, strike the first two names on that list of decision makers. Mark Dantonio may (or may not) know what's in the best interest of his team or a given football player. But responsibility for protecting the image and integrity of the university rests with its president.
When an athlete in a high-profile college program commits wrongdoing, it's easy to moralize about it and demand swift justice, irrespective of other realities that may exist. In this case, though, the reality is that our university is now going to be firmly linked in the public's eye to a gang of ski-mask-wearing thugs invading a college dormitory and pushing women around. Barring the football team somehow being completely exonerated of having been involved, that reality trumps any other realities.
This may sound clichéd, but the athletic department is, in fact, a department within the university. And the way the institutional response to this incident is handled better reflect that organizational fact.