Dear NCAA: Handshakes Didn't Work In Third Grade, Either

This weekend is being billed as "Sportsmanship Weekend" by the NCAA, with the most obvious feature being the obligatory full-team handshake prior to the game for all games.  This sounds all well and good on its surface: have every player give an outward sign of respect to the other team and put it on display so the fans in attendance may get the message as well.    More honestly, it's a nice piece of window dressing by the NCAA to present a marketable, family-friend image to the national audience.  The handshake is a part of a general sportsmanship trend across all leagues that was rooted in the 90s, where the NBA lost so much prestige with its uptick in thuggery and where both the NHL and the MLB routinely had to deal with bench-clearing brawls.

Improving sportsmanship in the pro leagues was both necessary and very profitable.  In particular, the NHL enjoyed a huge upswing in popularity when they tightened the rules on fighting to eliminate the game-stalling brawls that had become so commonplace.  (They would still be quite popular now if it weren't for that stupid strike.)  It's no wonder, then, that the NCAA wanted to cash in on that little paydirt of sportsmanship.

So what better way than a public gesture of respect between the teams?

Think back to 3rd grade (or thereabouts).  Two boys on the playground, for whatever reason, take exception to each other and begin the escalation of hostility that inevitably results in a fight with a circle of cheering compadres.  Only before the fight can really begin, the playground monitor comes in, separates the would-be gladiators, and disperses the crowd.  In order to teach these boys to respect the other, the monitor forces them to apologize.  With a curt, "I'm sorry" and downcast eyes, the boys calm down and the monitor moves on.  And that's when the magical line happens, when one says to the other in muted tones:

"Three o-clock.  By the swingsets."

You see, we've learned at an early age that we can go through the motions of civility.  We give the bigger-than-us authority figures the token gesture of respect that they demand and, as soon as that little issue is cleared, we go back to our normal business.  A pregame handshake is meaningless, partly because we're already conditioned to dismiss the gesture immediately after it's over.

The Real Issue

The reason the NCAA has missed the mark so badly on this is that they failed to consider the problem at hand.  Football players train daily for violence.  Pure, simple, brutal violence.  For all the fancy schemes and elaborate codespeak, the very heart of football is for a bunch of guys to spring at each other from both legs, hit as hard as possible, and see who's left standing.  Players are chosen because they like violence; they like to hit and they like to take hits.  Coaches reinforce violence, and any doubters can watch Ed Orgeron coach his defensive line for a day.  Emotions are a part of the game; they're channeled into bursts of seething rage into the most physically impressive people in our country.

Then the whistle blows.

The real conundrum in football is having to constantly ramp up to full fury, lay out as much violence as the rules allow, then immediately switch the rage off a the sound of a single whistle.  This is rehearsed in practice fields all across the country:  whistle, white-hot action, whistle, stop.  This is iterated thousands of times a week -against a player's very best friends.  They practice this violence on their own teammates all offseason for the chance to practice it against other teams for one hour a week.

And one handshake is supposed to control this?

This is a terrible fact of our country's most popular sport: tempers will be lost on occasion.  When you condition these young men to such a degree of binary emotional responses, you will occasionally see the dam burst; when it does, you'll find that the finger of the little Dutch boy doesn't actually stand a chance at holding it back.

This is why football programs spend so much time with behavior counseling anymore.  The way to control this practiced rage is to practice restraint, and it's a long, hard process.  Even Oregon guards against incidents, but once in a while, this will happen.

So when the handshakes resume this weekend, don't expect this to be anything more than ad hoc theater.  Real sportsmanship must come from the players themselves, and we'll see exactly that with over 99% of the players this weekend.

(Note:  Blount can be seen in the handshake line in this video, in the far right side of the screen.)

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