Last Thursday afternoon, Texas A&M officials issued a Code Maroon emergency warning after a woman spotted an unidentified man, aged 40-50, walking near the University Center Garage with a gun wedged into his waistband.
While authorities never found the suspect, and the university gave an all-clear signal Thursday evening, news of the potential gunman came only two weeks after a bomb threat prompted officials to evacuate the campus.
As I watched the Aggie football team dismantle the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville on Saturday, I found myself dwelling on these Code Maroon warnings, and on the way football encourages savage tendencies obviously widespread, if not innate. I'm certainly not exempt: my first response to Ryan Swope's third quarter block on Bulldog linebacker Cameron Lawrence was celebratory and emphatic.
Not only did the block break Johnny Manziel for a big run and set up Christine Michael's second rushing touchdown of the game, it also blindsided the Mississippi State defender, knocking him off his feet. For a few seconds, I relished a kind of justice in Swope's hit; only a few weeks ago in Shreveport, La., an illegal hit by Louisiana Tech's Craig Johnson sidelined Swope with the fourth concussion of his college career. For a brief moment, Swope's hit had a satisfying, retaliatory tang.
But when, a few plays later, Mississippi State's Nikoe Whitley was called for unnecessary roughness on Swope, I wondered if further retaliation or mere frustration sparked the Bulldog's lapse in judgment. Either way, I saw a thin, transparent line – like the digital yellow tape networks use to mark first downs – between violence and condoned aggression. I realized our reaction to violence often has more to do with the timing and location of an act than it does with the act itself.
Swope will be applauded for upending that defender, while, earlier in the game, officials penalized Manziel for miming Superman's (aka Cam Newton's) signature chest-baring transformation. End-zone celebrations didn't dislocate (South Carolina running back) Marcus Lattimore's knee, while the play that did injure him was perfectly legal.
And yet, I still watch football, and I enjoy it. And of course it's possible that criminal violence and dynamic play on the football field have nothing to do with one another. I'm not suggesting that Swope did anything wrong. At the same time, I think it's possible that when we celebrate aggression in supposedly controlled circumstances, we unknowingly encourage the illegal helmet-to-helmet contact that sidelines great players, and even increase the likelihood of the threats that prompt a Code Maroon.
How do we balance the two? How do we prevent injurious violence while preserving healthy aggression? After all, football is a brazenly violent sport; stripped entirely of its shock value, the game loses its essence. Who wants to watch Damontre "Damonster" Moore play flag football when we can see him run down a wide receiver and make a diving tackle? When Whitley was called for unnecessary roughness, ESPN commentator Brad Nessler quipped dolefully, "That's about the only roughness that Mississippi State's defense has had."
While I think penalizing late hits and helmet-to-helmet contact helps protect players, I don't think changing the game of football is necessarily the answer. If there is an answer, a cure for the violence – condoned and not – rampant in our society, it lives in the personal, private ways we respond to aggression.
I think it's important to remember the players on college football fields are college students. As high-profile as some of these players are, they're really just kids. Next time I see a hit, legal or not, like the one Ryan Swope put on Cameron Lawrence, I hope I think first of both players' safety, of their future as athletes and as adults. I'll celebrate when the Aggies score.
They did a lot of scoring against Mississippi State, amassing 38 points on 97 plays while holding the benign Bulldogs to just 13 points. The Crimson Tide is likely to give more resistance this week. If the Aggies can take the same level of well-timed aggression to Tuscaloosa, we may get to see a special game. So long as no one gets hurt.
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