WHEN FANS TAKE FIELD, THEY’VE GONE TOO FAR

Let’s say you’re a salesman. How would you like it if, moments after you lost a big account, someone ran into your office and started wagging a finger and yelling, “Ha! Ha! Too bad! Guess the other guy had a better pitch!”

Or you’re a lawyer. You just lost a big case. As you turn to leave the courtroom, 1,000 people surround you hollering curses and insults. You can’t even get to the door without wiggling through their army.

Sound annoying? Sound wrong? Well, then maybe you can tell me, why was Jon Wauford the one led off in handcuffs after the Marshall-Miami (Ohio) football game Tuesday night?

Wauford, in this story, is the lawyer or the salesman. He was leaving his place of work, the football field. Suddenly there were hundreds of fans between him and the locker room, all of whom were celebrating Marshall’s last-second, 36-34 victory over Wauford’s team.

One of these fans, a 36-year-old man named Robert Flaugher — and why a 36-year-old man has to run onto a football field is a question we will ponder in a moment — was, according to his brother, “celebrating with the Marshall players” and “waving good-bye to the Miami players.”

Now, “waving good-bye,” in the lingo of crazy postgame fans, is not “waving good-bye” the way, say, a flight attendant waves good-bye.

More often than not, it’s: “SEE YA! WOULDN’T WANT TO BE YA!”

Or “GO HOME, LOSER!”

Or words to that effect.

No matter what, it is not something a football coach or a player should have to endure as he tries to make his way off the field. Doesn’t a person have the right to leave his workplace without confrontation?

The system is out of whack

Nonetheless, when Wauford tried to leave the field after the wild, last-second loss, he was faced not only with hundreds of opposing fans, but the sight of Flaugher and his “waving good-bye” antics.

What went through Wauford’s mind? Some say he thought he was in danger. Some say he thought one of his players was in danger. Maybe he was just ticked off. But he shoved Flaugher and Flaugher went down. Hard. He landed on the artificial turf, banged his head, and was eventually taken away on a stretcher.

Wauford was taken away in handcuffs.

The arrest charge? Battery. The fallout? Wauford was suspended from the program. And we can only imagine what is coming his way once Flaugher’s headache clears up and he talks to lawyers.

But while no one condones violence, you have to wonder if Wauford should be taking a fall for a system that is out of whack.

After all, we live in a world where a tennis player, Monica Seles, was stabbed in the back by a rabid fan. Where a baseball coach was recently jumped and beaten by two fans. Where soccer crowds routinely endanger one another in postgame celebrations. Did you know a Marshall fan Web site made such ominous threats against the Miami team, that Miami’s head coach brought along several police officers to guard the sidelines? Is that what these sports have come to?

At what point do colleges — which have rules about almost everything — make rules about who belongs on a field and who doesn’t? You have a harder time getting into the library than you do getting to the 50-yard line.

Fans are not part of the game

Consider a few basic facts of this story. Miami had just lost the game on two controversial pass-interference penalties. Wauford is Miami’s defensive coordinator, and therefore, he likely felt worse than anyone else. He is 32, a former standout player himself, a big guy, strong, and used to physical contact. Along comes this taunting fan. And Wauford — in anger, frustration, self-protection, whatever — shoves the guy. And the guy happens to land on his head.

All those circumstances add up to disaster for Wauford. But what about the preventive math? How about a rule that keeps fans off the field — period? What right do they have to be out there? The six beers they drank?

I have seen players swarmed and swamped by drunken idiots. This from universities that are supposedly concerned about their athletes’ welfare. Mark my words, one day a kid is going to break an arm under a pile of whooping fans, and his career will be over. And then what?

Wauford may have been wrong, but he was only being human. What was Flaugher being — besides a fool? A 36-year-old has to run onto a football field to wave good-bye? Why? Was he a part of the win? No. That’s the mistake too many fans make. They think they matter. They think they belong. They think by wearing T-shirts or painting their faces, they are a part of the game and on the team.

They’re not. And they don’t belong on the field. You wouldn’t put up with such exits at your office. And football teams shouldn’t have to, either. The handcuffs were on the coach. But it’s fans who pose the danger.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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