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Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Cincy-Xavier: Where's the discipline?

By Tim Keown

Mick Cronin had his moment, didn't he? The University of Cincinnati basketball coach spoke for the world during his postgame rant after his team and Xavier disgraced the floorboards with a nasty fight Saturday afternoon. He was embarrassed and disgusted and unhinged. He rattled on about the creation of Benadryl and curing cancer. It was inspired.

Mick Cronin
Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was vocal during and after the game, but his disciplinary actions didn't match his rhetoric.

It was the sanest bout of insanity we've seen in a while, and it was perfect because it was warranted. There's a social contract out there, and his team broke it. Xavier players talked to and taunted their crosstown rivals -- apparently Cincinnati's just not big enough for the two of them -- but Cincinnati responded with a brawl that included a vicious sucker-punch and a foot to the head. Judging by Cronin's self-ascribed moral compass, they'd all pay a big tab.

He said, "If my players don't act the right way, they'll never play another game at Cincinnati."

Mick Cronin, hero, the Howard Beale of big-time college athletics. This guy was an inch or two from outright derangement, and in a world of apologizing and child-worshipping coaches, Cronin was yanking jerseys and taking names.

By Tuesday, there might not even be a Cincinnati team. And by Wednesday, they'd be holding open tryouts on campus. Dudes who averaged eight a game in high school were running suicides in the rec hall two hours after Cronin finished talking. This guy -- by God, he got it. He thought the way you and I think. He spoke for us. He had priorities. Let's order 20 more of him.

Then … well, something got lost between Saturday and Sunday, and I'm thinking it was courage. In the epic battle for his soul, Cronin's instinct for self-preservation won by TKO over his fortitude.

Yancy Gates was apologetic on Monday. That doesn't mean he should play anytime soon.

He said he was going to decide who was on the team going forward, and 24 hours later he tossed around a few light suspensions. He went from the raging conscience of college sports to a guy who realized that, after the cameras went off, he was still Mick Cronin, a guy with a great job but no guarantee that it'd be his long-term. He rubbed his hands together and thought, Well, you know, I looked at the tape and I think that big kid from Xavier just kind of turned the wrong way when the punch was heading for his head. So that was quick -- everybody's still on the team, and the worst punishments were six-game suspensions for the guy who sucker-punched someone and the guy who stomped on the guy who got punched. And what the hell -- a round of Benadryl on Mick!

Oh, but now he says they have to earn their way back onto the team. By doing what, baking cookies? Saying they're sorry one more time? Maybe Mick can make 'em all learn the fight song by the second game of the Big East season, make 'em stand on a chair and sing it at the pregame meal so he can feel good about how they've all been learned up on the ethics and standards of being a University of Cincinnati student-athlete.

You know, the way guys like Ruben Patterson and Danny Fortson did. Speaking of which, here's an idea: Cronin can determine who returns to his team by their performance on a University of Cincinnati-based test.

Sample question: Which former Bearcat was once arrested for punching a police horse?

Answer: Art Long.

The system is fraudulent, and Mick Cronin is a fraudulent product of the fraudulent system. He's not a fraud because he backed down; he's a fraud because he never had the ability to stand up in the first place. He's not successful enough to take a bold stand and sacrifice a season for what's right. He's got a job and a profession to protect.

He's at the mercy of the sucker-punchers and head-kickers. He can't survive past this season without playing sucker-puncher Yancy Gates through the Big East schedule. He might not, anyway.

There's a lot to consider here. Why were Xavier's starters, including lead vocalist Tu Holloway, still playing in the final minute of a blowout? Why didn't the officials listen to Cronin, who claims he was begging them to put a stop to the yapping between the Xavier players and his bench?

Clearly, leagues and commissioners and schools and coaches have always been the absolute worst at handling anything bigger than a parking ticket. They shrivel up into their shells and weasel around the edges, rarely willing to back up their high-minded talk with anything but higher-minded talk.

And now that university authorities have proved incapable of handing out sufficient penalties, who can? A Hamilton County prosecutor says he'll look into pressing criminal charges against any and all players found to have committed criminal acts in the fight. And is there any doubt that at least two criminal acts were committed on the Xavier floor Saturday afternoon?

This is a place nobody ever wants to go. There's a certain level of decorum expected of athletes in the public arena -- the bar has gotten championship-level limbo low -- but when they fail to meet it, nobody wants to take the next step. Nobody wants to bring in the police to handle it, even though that's exactly what would have happened had the exact same brawl happened in an unsanctioned game on an outside court in downtown Cincinnati. Judging by what we saw, Yancy Gates and Cheikh Mbodj would have been led off in handcuffs.

Todd Bertuzzi faced legal sanction for his hit on Steve Moore.

So why weren't the outside world's rules imposed inside the arena? Does the field of play provide asylum? Should it? We all know that emotions run high and guys say and do things in competition that they wouldn't do otherwise. We're willing to provide the kind of leeway that suits the situation. Nobody's suggesting that every guy that charges the mound should be arrested, just as we're not willing to press charges for two basketball players who get into a fight at practice.

But this was different. This fight was vicious, long and disturbing. The guys involved weren't children, either. It should be fully investigated by the DA's office, and real-world law should be at least considered. It's not unprecedented. Five players were charged with assault and given one year's probation for the "Malice at the Palace" player/fan brawl between the Pacers and the Pistons in 2004. In the NHL, Todd Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault after he sucker-punched Steve Moore in 2004. Kermit Washington of the Lakers wasn't prosecuted after sucker-punching Rudy Tomjanovich in 1977, but he was suspended for 60 days by the NBA.

Cincinnati president Gregory Williams, the guy Cronin said he hoped wouldn't ask for his resignation, released a statement saying, "We hold our student-athletes to a high standard and this behavior will not be tolerated." OK, Mr. Williams, so far you and Cronin have failed. So either prove it -- or step aside and let someone else do it for you.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Sound off to Tim here.