Tennessee outrage the latest example of fans losing perspective
After Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin abruptly departed for USC, Vols fans went crazy
While Kiffin needed police protection to leave Knoxville, thousands died in Haiti
Sports are supposed to be fun, an escape from your problems; not life or death
I want to scream.
I want to fly to Knoxville, stand in the center of the of the University of Tennessee campus and scream, "Look at this!"
I want to hold up a page from Thursday's New York Times -- the one featuring this image of Lionel Michaud. It is, without question, the most disturbing photograph I have ever seen. Michaud is sitting on a stoop in the central morgue in Port-au-Prince, surrounded by dozens of lifeless bodies. On his knee rests his 10-month-old daughter, Christian. She is dead. Michaud's wife, Lormeny Nathalie, is dead, too.
His head is in his right hand.
His family is gone.
His world is destroyed.
And all you can think about is Lane Kiffin?
Please, do the world a simple favor: Find the nearest mirror and look at yourself. Wipe off the white-and-orange face paint, remove the goofy hat, slip out of the Peyton Manning jersey, turn down Rocky Top, find a quiet place -- and take a good glance.
What do you see?
Immediately following Kiffin's press conference to announce his departure for USC on Tuesday evening, a mob of approximately 500 people gathered on campus. According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, fire was set to a tattered mattress and a handful of Tennessee T-shirts. The participants were hoping to catch Kiffin on his way out of town, to presumably do more than merely talk.
The coach was driven home by university police officers, and a Knox County deputy was assigned to protect him. "We assured (Kiffin)," said sherriff Jimmy Jones, "that there would be somebody close."
In the ensuing days, Vols message boards have been overtaken by people tearing into Kiffin. Tearing into Kiffin's wife. Wishing him personal harm and never-ending misery. He is, they believe, the anti-Christ -- an evil, self-absorbed man who eats young children and secretly plots world domination from the balcony of his sadistic lair.
When, exactly, did we start reaching such a low? When did sports go from serving as a mere diversion (entertainment, enjoyment, fun), to being a way of life ... an actual barometer of a community's happiness or grief? When did the career decision (albeit, awkwardly expressed) of a moderately successful 34-year-old football coach begin to matter so much?
As a boy growing up in small town of Mahopac, N.Y., my parents would try and comfort me following Little League losses by saying, "It's just a game -- keep things in perspective" Then we'd get ice cream. The lesson took some time to sink in, but once it did, I never forgot it. Sports have always been important in my life, but primarily as a way to have fun. Heck, that's when they're at their absolute best: Your day at work stunk, your spouse is in a bad mood, the kid's got the flu -- thank god LeBron vs. D-Wade is on at 8 tonight. Pass the popcorn, ease the mind.
Having spent two-and-a-half years of my career in Tennessee, I was an unfortunate firsthand witness to the lunacy that is SEC football. During the time I was a writer at The Tennessean in Nashville, Peyton Manning had the audacity to choose to attend Tennessee over his father's alma mater, Ole Miss. In the months following the announcement, the Manning family was besieged with vicious hate mail from Rebel backers -- all because an 18-year-old kid with the quirky ability to effectively hurl a pig's skin through the air opted for the university of his choice.
Pathetic -- but not surprising.
There is a place in this country for sports. An important place. The lessons of athletics can be invaluable, the bonds everlasting. But when a city reacts to the fleeing of a football coach with greater dismay than the loss of thousands of lives, something has gone wrong.
Jeff Pearlman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.