Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Wait…I’m a T.V. star and STILL have to write columns?
Hope you got the chance to see me on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” on Sunday morning. To get the mushy stuff out of the way first, it was a thrill to work even briefly with the legendary Bob Ley, to talk with Jay Williams and Ken Paulson, and after 30 years on the radio it’s kind of a kick that my mom and dad can watch me on TV at least this one time.
I want to thank Ryan Franklin and Shelly Silvey at KOMU and the crew at ESPN, and especially Missouri grad John Anderson and Shelly Smith who put in a good word for me. It’s seriously been a thrill. And the notion of putting me on TV was preposterous before Chris Gervino started doing so a few years back, so thanks to him as well.
As for the show itself, seven minutes is a weird length of time. Wait seven minutes at a stoplight or spend seven minutes listening to “YMCA” two and a half times, it can seem like an eternity. Talking with Bob and three other guests about an important topic for seven minutes went by like a flash. When I heard “that’s all for now” I about got whiplash, as there was plenty more to say. Decades on NPR have given me time to say more than the commercial media allows.
So while this forum may not have quite the reach of the Worldwide Leader, allow me to revise and extend.
For those you weren’t up and about at 9 a.m. on the first morning of Daylight Saving Time, the issue on this episode was rowdy college student cheer groups at basketball games. At Missouri we have the Antlers, a group I have long opposed.
As I said on your T.V., I agree with Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, that the final answer isn’t just kicking the members of the Antlers out of Mizzou Arena forever. I want them as individuals to enjoy their college years and at a school like Missouri being at home basketball games is a part of that (more enjoyable some years than others, granted). The organized activities, them being not just fans but Antlers, is the problem. I continue to call for the disbanding of this organization.
On the other hand, I disagree in part on one comment made by Jay Williams, ESPN’S men’s basketball analyst. While Jay’s dirty socks know more about basketball than I do, he’s mistaken in wanting to include coaches in the mix on this, for two reasons. First off, the coaches’ job is to win basketball games. I don’t believe Norm Stewart loved the Antlers because he thought bad sportsmanship was really awesome and didn’t care about the image of Missouri. I think he liked the Antlers because his job was to win more games and lose fewer games and he felt the Antlers helped him do that.
The other reason is because there’s no way in the world coaches can monitor this stuff. There was a time several years back when fan behavior became pretty grim at Missouri volleyball matches. Stuff was yelled at opponents that was still pretty vulgar and hateful. I encountered the mother of an opposing player leaving the floor who was in tears and shaking in rage at stuff that had been yelled at her daughter, and no visitor to our campus should be made to feel that way. I talked with coach Wayne Kreklow afterwards, and he was surprised—actually stunned—when I told him some of the stuff that was said. And it’s no wonder, Kreklow and men’s basketball coach Frank Haith and the rest of these guys have far more important things to do on game day than listen to what fans are shouting. I imagine every fan in Hearnes Center could shout, “Wayne Kreklow, your hair is on fire!” in unison and Kreklow would be checking to make sure his outside blockers are in the right place.
There are others who need to take responsibility for this one, so let me give the three suggestions I have for the real powers that be, the people really responsible for getting this situation under control: athletics director Mike Alden and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
1. Disband the Antlers. Don’t allow signs in the student section (the giant player heads can be an exception, although those happen everywhere, are they really that clever any longer?) Don’t allow the Antlers shirts and for heaven’s sake don’t let them sit together. Talking to them has failed. Kicking them out of individual games has failed. They were banned for nearly an entire season in the past, and they keep coming back. It’s time to end it.
Now, I know the response…”Oh, it’s a tradition at Mizzou.” I’d point out the following list—a hardcover yearbook, The Savitar. Freshmen being made to wear beanies. The Shack. Paddling students who stepped on the grass at Francis Quadrangle. Guess what guys? Traditions end. And this one needs to.
2. Establish a Sportsmanship Council. I know of at least one school (Ohio State) that has done this, and I’d like to see every school with a significant intercollegiate athletic program do the same. The group exists to promote being what they call “The Best Fans.” Their purpose as stated on their website is, “enhancing the sporting experience for all fans while making sportsmanship an enduring tradition throughout the Big Ten Conference.” Talking about sportsmanship. These are words recited by rote before Missouri basketball games and summarily ignored from the top down. They’re taken seriously at other places, and should be here.
3. Enforce and expand the rules set rules for the fans, for the student body, for support groups. After the Antlers were kicked out of two games earlier this season, the Athletic Department reportedly gave them a “don’t say this stuff” list. That’s simply not going to work. Tell them not to say a specific phrase, these guys are going to turn around and say something just as rude and vulgar, just worded a little differently. The Antlers are rude and bratty — but they ain’t stupid. They’ve found ways around these “lists” since before the parents of some of the current Antlers were born.
Yes, there needs to be some specific things they’re told not to say, but there also needs to be more broad-based guidelines, such as not addressing players specifically, not shouting at a player by name or number. No more “research” into player’s personal lives, attacking girlfriends or arrest records or sick moms or alcoholic dads or the way someone looks. There are plenty of other suggestions, but the idea is obvious. And this needs to be made clear particularly to those who represent MU in an official capacity. There have been situations at volleyball and women’s basketball games over the years where the Mizzou band members needed, shall we say, more direction in their behavior, occasionally crossing the line, sometimes quite a bit. Official cheer squads like the Zou Crew and Volley Zou (who’ve seemed at times to be Antler wannabes) need very strong guidelines, they are official representatives of this university and need to act like it.
Oh, and one more point. There’s that old saw that these guys help the Tigers win games. I’ve seen them mercilessly attack the 12th man on the bench of a team losing by 30 points in the final five minutes. That’s not supporting your team, that’s being a bully.
And the ESPN piece pointed out that Kevin Love of UCLA had a monster game after getting death threats and verbal abuse, but a friend of mine also pointed out an instance when then-Arizona guard Steve Kerr played at Arizona State, where fans taunted him with chants about his father having been murdered in Beirut. Kerr went 6-6 from 3-point territory and ended up with 22 points and the Wildcats whipped the Sun Devils 101-73. This kind of abuse can “get in the player’s head” and might even occasionally help your team win, but what kind of fan wants their team to win that way? And it often has the opposite effect, firing up the best of players and bringing out the very best in them.
I know this seems like old news, like an ax I keep grinding. But I was talking about the subject before this season and people thought it was old news then, and afterwards we learned that the problem was still just as bad if not worse than ever. People thought after the Antlers’ suspensions that they’ve been talked to and learned their lesson. We’ve heard differently since. I’m of the opinion that the Antlers are an organization whose very purpose for existence is directly contradictory to the purpose of the University of Missouri and the Tiger athletic department.
Dr. Loftin, Mr. Alden, the ball’s in your court.
Darren Hellwege is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association and the Football Writers Association of America.