Stompgate Rolls On

Three days after Marcus Vick stomped on the leg of Louisville's Elvis Dumervil in a momentary fit of passion, Hokie fans continue to be up in arms over the incident. Something that took just a split second has ignited a portion of the Virginia Tech fan base into a rage. The message boards are full of talk about the incident, emails are pouring into the Tech athletic and academic administration, and there are a lot of people out there who want something to be done about it. The situation has put the decision-makers at Virginia Tech into a difficult position. What will they do, if anything, and when?

Football is a violent game. It's a challenge to the psyches of the young men who play it, because it asks them to do two things that create conflicting emotions and require high levels of control. Football asks its players to hit, block, and tackle each other violently, the more violent the better; but do it within the confines of the rules of the sport. Essentially, football asks its players to go to the very edge of aggression and hostility, then reel it in.

Most of the time, the players manage this task well, considering that football games are on average 125-140 plays long, with 22 players going at it every play. Late hits and helmet-to-helmet contact are common and usually don't get people in an uproar.

But every once in a while, a player goes beyond the normal transgressions during the heat of battle, drawing attention and reprimands. There are many examples of this. Just a few that come to mind are:

There are many other examples, of course, but those four put Vick's action into context. This was not an off-the-field incident, one that was committed with plenty of time to reflect. And it wasn't as vicious as the incidents described above. It was similar, though -- a player committing an egregious act after the whistle, on the spur of the moment.

Since it happened, the incident has been replayed and discussed repeatedly on national and local TV (and radio) talk shows. Vick has been raked over the coals, and many of the commentators have taken their criticism beyond Vick and extended it to the Virginia Tech program as a whole, including head coach Frank Beamer. Tech players as a group have been characterized as thugs, and Beamer has been cast as a head coach soft on discipline and without control over his players. VT has sold its soul to win football games, many have said. All in all, not a good day at the PR office for the Hokies.

Of more importance is the vehement backlash from a large portion of the Tech fan base. The TSL message boards are on fire. Tech athletic director Jim Weaver noted in a newspaper article today that he has received over 200 emails on the topic. And yesterday's Roanoke Times sports mailbag ran four letters about the incident (and Tech's poor behavior during the game as a whole), an unusually high number of letters about the same subject, in a mid-week mailbag. And here at TSL, we've been getting emails, too.

While the message boards contain debate in both directions, the emails to Weaver, TSL, and the Roanoke Times all condemn Vick's actions. There is no support to be found for Vick anywhere, except amongst a few posters on the message board.

There are three levels on which Vick's action against Dumervil bother Tech fans and supporters:

1.) The act itself. When fans see an after-the-whistle incident like that, committed by a Tech player, they don't like it. The stomp, when combined with Vick's well-documented past transgressions, perpetuates an image of Vick as a player who continues to be out of control and behaving poorly.

2.) Statements made by Vick, Frank Beamer and Bryan Stinespring after the game. Vick said he apologized to Dumervil -- Dumervil says Vick didn't. Beamer said he didn't remove Vick from the game because it would "harm the other 21 guys in the game." Bob Molinaro of the Virginian-Pilot called it "coach speak at its worst," a nice turn of phrase to describe Beamer's avoidance of the issue. Meanwhile, Bryan Stinespring said Tuesday that he hadn't seen a replay of the incident (how could you not?).

3.) The reflection upon Virginia Tech as a whole. Fans are tired of Vick not just making himself look bad, but making the entire university look bad. Tech fans as far away as California are being asked about the incident around water coolers and in coffee shops. Hokie fans don't like trying to explain something like that. Hokies are fiercely proud of Virginia Tech, and they take it personally when someone embarrasses the school.

It's item #3 that is bringing the outcry from Hokie fans, an outcry that has surprised me in its volume and longevity. I didn't make the trip to Jacksonville, instead watching the game in a sports bar with some friends in Harrisonburg. When the Vick stomp was shown on replay during the game, the group I was in -- and the whole bar, it seemed -- had an "Ew, that's not good" moment, but it wasn't discussed much or dwelled on. So when the stomp completely consumed the message boards for two days straight, driving site traffic to astronomical levels, I was caught off guard.

The VT administration is in a pickle. When Marcus was suspended from school for the fall of 2004, public statements were made by VT officials that amounted to a warning that Vick was at the end of his rope with regards to Virginia Tech, and his next infraction would be his last.

Since then, Vick has done two things that reflect poorly on the school and were caught on camera: he flipped off West Virginia fans, and he stomped on Dumervil's leg. The problem is, those were on-field incidents, not off-field legal transgressions, and that gets into a gray area. Indications are that the Tech Board of Visitors, for example, doesn't have much of an appetite for meting out severe punishment for something that happened on the field of play. One might think that Tech president Charles Steger doesn't either, because once you start disciplining athletes for things that happen on the field, where do you stop?

The problem for Virginia Tech is that many among the fan base, including big-money donors, season ticket purchasers, and everybody on down to Hokie Club reps and chapter presidents, are irate about the beating Virginia Tech is taking in the national press, and they're making a lot of noise about it. And Jim Weaver fired the opening salvo Tuesday with an ominous Statement on Unsportsmanlike Conduct by Marcus Vick. Weaver has since vowed in the press that punishment is coming.

Meanwhile, head Gator Bowl referee Steve Usecheck inexplicably decided to shoot his mouth off about Virginia Tech, Marcus Vick, and the conduct of Hokie players in the game. Usecheck's comments were incredibly unprofessional, to the point of being bizarre and making me wonder if he's got a chemical imbalance or a brain tumor (neither of which is a laughing matter, and I'm not kidding; Usecheck did a shoddy, inconsistent job of officiating the game, and then he went off in the press, making me wonder if there's something medically wrong with him).

It appears the Tech administration will have to do something, given the outcry, Vick's history, and Weaver's public statements on the matter. Hokie Nation is waiting to find out what that "something" is.

I've been asked for my opinion on the matter. You'll be disappointed to know that I donít have a strongly-held view on whether or not Vick should be suspended for a game or two, or thrown under the bus, as many are advocating. I find that over the years, my ability to get worked up about the transgressions of Virginia Tech football players has greatly diminished. From the time Christy Brzonkala publicly accused Tony Morrison and James Crawford of rape way back in 1995, Virginia Tech football players have made regular appearances in the papers for all the wrong reasons.

The list is so lengthy that it can't be captured here. Going from memory and leaving many things out: first, the Morrison/Crawford/Brzonkala story; then a rape allegation against Brian Edmonds around 1996; Jim Druckenmiller being charged with malicious wounding in a 1996 bar fight; the 1996 Blacksburg Brawl, where eight football players beat a Tech track athlete; Druckenmiller (in the NFL at the time) being charge with rape in 1999 in a public, humiliating trial; Derrius Monroe pleading guilty to a felony charge of cocaine possession in 2000; Vick's transgressions in 2004 -- etc., etc. That's just skimming the surface and recapping the most serious and most public incidents.

This sort of behavior has been going on for years and years in Virginia Tech football, and the response has been so soft from the Virginia Tech coaching staff that the school administration created a Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP) in the mid-90's that addressed the issue of behavior by athletes. Then they proceeded to gut the CAP in 2000 by reinstating Monroe, who pled guilty to a felony, to the Tech football team. That story ended well -- Monroe's record was wiped clean, and he graduated from Virginia Tech -- but nonetheless, the letter of the CAP was bypassed for the benefit of Monroe, thus rendering the CAP toothless, in this man's opinion.

This is my main, and perhaps my only beef, with Frank Beamer over the years. He gets so close to his players and their families that he can't hand out the harsh discipline required to reel the kids in. Beamer and his staff have noted for years that when they recruit these players, they promise their families that they'll take care of them. So when the kids step out of line, often repeatedly, the coaching staff treats them like you would your own son, giving them second chances, and more. A friend of mine, who used to coach at the small college level, understands this mindset and even defends it. And he's no softy.

This approach is a kind, caring approach. It works well on the recruiting trail, because it creates a family atmosphere at Virginia Tech, and recruits and their families respond positively to it. They trust Frank Beamer and his staff to care for their sons. But when athletes embarrass the university, it angers the fan base and reflects poorly on Virginia Tech -- and lately, Frank Beamer himself.

So focus on Vick, if you want, but the larger point is this: if you toss him out, there will be more behind him. There's no end to the supply of Tony Morrisons, Jim Crawfords, Jim Druckenmillers, Derrius Monroes, and Marcus Vicks, players who will run afoul of the law or step out of bounds on the playing field, thus making Virginia Tech look bad Ö again. That's part of the reason I don't get too worked up about it; it's all just swimming upstream, as far as I'm concerned.

That's not where I thought this column was going when I started it, but there you have it. Now it's time for me to get back to my way-overdue Gator Bowl analysis, which I promise will include no mention of The Stomp, which I have now decided to capitalize.