Readers of this site know that I am generally gentle with criticism, perhaps overly so. Maybe it's just my nature, but it might just stem from a belief that sports blogs, message boards, and old media alike all too often engage, without due deliberation, in a somewhat ignominious activity. After all, we are, as every page refresh over at Sunday Morning Quarterback reminds us, [s]econd-guessing the split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress. A daily reminder of that may lead you, as it did me, to a fuller understanding that patience is indeed a virtue, at least when it comes to hurling criticisms from the safety of your sofa of those hurried decisions of others made under fire. And anyway, every effort in competitive sports, whether it involves skill, accuracy, strength, play-recognition, or a combination thereof, is met with the equal-ish efforts of coaches and players in opposing colors dedicated to their own success by depriving you of yours. So failure must come for one contestant or the other, and we fans might as well get used to our teams having their share.
That's the primary reason that I was not ashamed of the team's performance in the SEC Championship Game. Nor was I ashamed of Erik Ainge's senior season despite the mistakes of this past Saturday or of his Tennessee career despite The Season of Which We Do Not Speak. I may have joked that Vol fans lived in a place called dishumiliarrassment after the Florida blowout, and I may have led the expiditious charge through the five stages of grief, but really, I wasn't even ashamed of John Chavis or the Tennessee defense earlier this season when things looked their worst.
No, each of those things is merely a disappointment, a mistake, an error. An inability to best an opponent hell-bent on besting you. It comes with the territory.
But in matters of attitude and maturity, your only adversary is yourself, and whether you succeed or fail is more an individual choice than a struggle between two opponents with the same goals. That's why I have little tolerance for comments like this:
Those are the comments of Tennessee defensive tackle Demonte Bolden, made immediately after the SEC Championship Game, and that post-game rant is the worst mistake of the season. Worse than the Cal loss or the Florida blowout or the Alabama debacle. And yes, worse than Erik Ainge's two interceptions in the SEC Championship Game. Much worse. He wasn't overpowered or outsmarted or outschemed by some stronger, smarter, or better-prepared opponent. He simply thought more of himself than he did of others, and he injected an element of toxicity into the developing chemistry of this team.
Contrast Bolden's post-game behavior with Ainge's. The senior quarterback willingly stepped into the spotlight as cameras flashed and recorders rolled and answered the same question a hundred different ways: It is on me. I messed up. I made a bad decision and I cost our team this game. Ainge sounded positively dispirited about the entire situation, but he sat there with an air of maturity that is quite rare for his age. Shoot, it's rare for any age. All season long he had spent the post-game interview sessions looking out the window for credit, and now he was looking nowhere but the mirror for blame.
So why did Bolden feel the need to stab an accusing finger in Ainge's direction when he was already blaming himself? Immaturity. If you have a problem with a teammate, you keep it in the locker room, you don't air your grievances to a newspaper reporter with a microphone and a deadline. Erik Ainge knows this, and so he can't defend himself to the public. But I can. Bolden's blunder of attitude and maturity earns him a rare public Fisking on RTT, for the sake of the team:
To be honest with y'all . . .
Okay, rule number one: if you ever feel compelled to begin a sentence with "to be honest . . ." it's better to just to stop right there. There is no rule of etiquette holding that choosing not to express a negative thought is dishonest.
. . . I didn't agree with some of the mistakes that were made out here today.
Huh? Who "agrees" with mistakes? Like Ainge threw the interceptions on purpose and there was some room for debate on whether that was a good thing? Come on.
And I feel like -- I hate to say it . . .
Rule number two: if you feel compelled to begin a sentence with "I hate to say it," do everyone a favor and just don't.
. . . but next year we got to get it done. I'm not that type of person. I want to get it done now. I'm not a next year type of guy.
Self-fulfilling prophecy anyone? Is any player going to want to play with this guy next year?
I just feel like, you know, uh, mistakes that were made, it was uncalled for.
Huh, again. Uncalled for? I can pretty much guarantee that Cutcliffe wasn't digging deep in the playbook in search of "one of those interception plays" or that Ainge was intentionally throwing to defenders. That just makes no sense.
Y'all watched the game, you know. Y'all saw what happened.
Yeah, I watched the game, and I saw what happened. I don't remember seeing much of Bolden. Little wonder, when he had only four total tackles and one quarterback hurry in the entire game. On the season, Bolden is listed fourteenth on the defensive stat list. In 12 games, he had a grand total of 26 tackles. For the sake of comparison, Jerod Mayo had 127. Five defensive linemen had better season stats than did Bolden, but only Bolden was jabbing fingers.
And the defense had to bow their back to get a couple of stops, get the job done, and some people just couldn't execute.
Again, Bolden should take a lesson from Ainge here. How many times did the offense bail out the defense this season? Who was it that gave up 59 points to the Gators? How many times this year did you hear Ainge complain about the defense? Or his receivers, or his blockers? None, none, and none.
I ain't saying no names.
Well, that makes it all better now, doesn't it? Except that he didn't need to say no names, he needed to say nothing at all.
You know, I love my teammates.
Riiight. Show it.
This was an abominable indiscretion. Far more than a miserable gameplan or getting beat by a better opponent. This was a conscious decision by a chronic underachiever to publicly rip the only real star of the team who had underachieved in one game. There may be room on a roster for inexperience or sub-par talent, but there should be zero tolerance for contamination.
Look, I understand that Demonte Bolden is an emotional guy, and I appreciate that about him. I understand that he, as someone with an actual investment in the outcome of the game, must be far more disappointed in losing than I or any other mere fan. I appreciate this statement from him, also made right after the game:
There's no gratification. Yeah, we played good, but there's no victory. Aint' no SEC Championship. I"m tired of second. I don't like second. I was not raised to come in second. I came to Tennessee to come in first. You know what I'm saying? I wanted to be first. We won those six games and came out, you know, we got here, we got on that bus we felt that things was going to be different.
That sentiment is altogether honorable. Passion is good. Striving for first and being agitated when you come up short, also good. But you just can't call out your teammates in public, and Bolden must be charged with correcting the damage he no doubt caused to the chemistry of the team. He should be suspended for his comments and forced to stay home on New Year's Day to watch the Outback Bowl on television. He should apologize to Ainge, first in private, then in front of the team, then before a microphone and tape recorder. He should say at least three nice things about his senior quarterback with the world watching.
If he does that, my guess is that Ainge will continue to exhibit his maturity. He will forgive and forget. He will hug Bolden's neck, pat him on the butt, and lead the effort to reassimilate Bolden into the team from which he has just separated himself. Because that's what teammates do.