Damage control is not leadership

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By Steve Fox

Those who love football as well as civil society, like me, face a chilling ambivalence about a sport that has become not only a stand-in for war (although we still have the real thing going on), but also a huge business that commands, in the corporate world of college education, expenditures seldom lavished on non-athletes.

Football as a game has not only become “war;” it is also big business that deals in millions of dollars and the euphoria (or depression) of thousands of people, depending on winning or losing.

And like all big business, money and winning are the gravity that warps higher education space-time, giving us the recent follies of UNM head football coach Mike Locksley, Athletics Director Paul Krebs, and President David Schmidly.

Both college and pro football have long been described by their devotees in terms of war: Games are “battles.” Big games between evenly-matched teams are spoken of as “wars.”

Players and entire organizations are said to be battle-tested. The giants of the offensive and defensive lines slug it out “in the trenches,” evoking the bloody slaughter of World War I. Worst of all, good players are said to be “weapons.” Johnny got his football.

This fusion of football with war, including the featuring of the most violent “hits” as YouTube favorites and commentators’ frothing, tilts the whole football culture away from civil society’s rules of good behavior. The recent medical finding of brain trauma even among high school players is a topic for another column.

Many UNM football fans are realizing what a decent gentleman Rocky Long is, but I hope not many are willing to put up with the violent temper of current head football coach Mike Locksley.

Locksley’s assault on one of his coaches has spawned an Orwellian trail of admin-speak. “Mistakes were made,” said Schmidly at UNM’s damage-control press conference last week. Note that he used the classic passive-case construction that identifies no one who actually made a mistake. This buck never stops.

Various officials can’t decide whether we should characterize Locksley’s seizing of Assistant Coach J.B. Gerald’s neck as “choking” or “collar-grabbing,” or if Gerald’s split lip was caused by a Locksley “punch” or by “flailing arms.” I guess it depends on what the definition of “is” is.

The Prez went on to say, “We’re going to be very forthright in admitting those mistakes.”  

When? Where? That vague promise of future truthful statements means that he doesn’t know by now who made mistakes, even after investigations (of sorts) by the Athletic Department, the UNM Human Resources Department, by ESPN, by KRQE-TV and by the Albuquerque Journal.

Perhaps what he means is that, before revealing “the truth,” he’ll have to consult with risk-management lawyers and media gurus to help him weigh the costs of “the truth.”

After all, the money won’t roll in from boosters if Krebs has made a grievous mistake in hiring Locksley. Shrouding scandals in bureaucratese and stalling, hoping that another crisis seizes the headlines and gets you off the front pages, is standard ops where money and power are challenged.

© 2009 New Mexico News Services