Two football players got in an argument this past week. One was a linebacker. The other was the starting quarterback. Often starting quarterbacks wear red jerseys during practices, to remind teammates not to hit them too hard.
That didn’t stop the linebacker. In a dispute allegedly over $600, he coldcocked his quarterback in the face in the locker room — a “sucker punch” is how some witnesses described it — breaking the passer’s jaw and landing him on the injured list for at least the first few weeks of the season.
The linebacker, IK Enemkpali, was immediately cut from the team. The quarterback, Geno Smith, underwent surgery and won’t be taking snaps for a while.
Meanwhile, also this past week, an Australian tennis player named Nick Kyrgios got angry at his opponent, French Open champion Stan Wawrinka, turned to him and said that another player had slept with Wawrinka’s girlfriend.
“Sorry to tell you that, mate,” he added.
Well. At least he said sorry.
Swift justice for miscreants
Now, I’m not sure what to make of all this. It’s true that athletes have a long history of fighting with each other. Remember Kermit Washington punching Rudy Tomjanovich, or Ron Artest attacking half the Pistons and their fans? Some sports, like football, actually encourage a little “healthy” intrasquad engagement, although breaking the starting quarterback’s jaw doesn’t show up on anybody’s healthy list, least of all the quarterback’s.
And it’s true that in both cases, the perpetrators were swiftly dealt with. Enemkpali lost his job (although he was picked up by another team and his former coach). And Kyrgios immediately was fined the maximum on-site amount of $10,000, while his sport continues to review the matter and may add more penalties.
But there is a hair-trigger anger in sports today that is different than the old days when baseball players clutched at each other until the umpires separated them, or John McEnroe threw a tantrum and yelled at referees that “you guys are the absolute pits of the world!”
That stuff seems downright Brady Bunch compared to Gilbert Arenas, the NBA star, who a few years ago brought guns to practice and reportedly told a teammate he had been squabbling with to pick one if he was so tough. The teammate declined, then pulled out a gun of his own.
Is this sports or the Sopranos?
And this month marks the one-year anniversary of a still-controversial auto racing tragedy in which veteran driver Tony Stewart killed a young driver named Kevin Ward Jr. by striking him with his car in an upstate New York sprint car race. Stewart claimed it was 100% accidental, and his sport and legal authorities have exonerated him. But Ward’s family recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit, claiming that Stewart intentionally gunned his engine when Ward was walking on the track.
At the very least, it was a confrontation that had a seriously tragic conclusion.
You wonder what’s on the horizon?
Have your teammates’ backs
Look. Our world has clearly become angrier. Everyone yells. Everyone demands respect. (Whatever happened to earning it?) Everyone has an opinion. Everyone tweets. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram give harbor to fast tempers. Reality shows fill us with the idea that if there isn’t conflict, it’s not really life.
If sports was not always refuge from that, it was at least a place where the rules kept your worst temper in check. There were fines nobody wanted to incur and penalties that would hurt the team. There was also the scorn of the locker room if you broke the cardinal rule of having your teammates’ backs.
Pulling guns or cracking a jaw doesn’t really fit that spirit. And telling your opponent that your friend slept with his girlfriend doesn’t jibe with the spirit of “the gentleman’s sport.”
The culprits in the past week’s incidents were very young (Enemkpali is 24, Kyrgios is 20). Maybe this is the new manners. Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Maybe it’s just coincidence. But I’ve covered sports for a long time and can’t remember either incident ever happening before. A teammate broke the quarterback’s jaw? My buddy slept with your girl? We’re going to have to come up with a new meaning for sportsmanship. Hopefully it won’t be “a word that means nothing anymore.”
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.