Column: Line Drives — Banter should be tactful

[This is my column in The Commercial Review from today.]

I believe in free speech.

In fact, every journalist and sports writer does. It allows us to say (essentially) what we want, when we want.

And with sports, it leads to some very good bulletin-board material.

Case in point, in 2007 University of Michigan running back Michael Hart called in-state rival Michigan State “little brother” after the Wolverines had erased a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Spartans 28-24.

It was the sixth consecutive victory for the Wolverines in the series that began in 1898.

The following season, Hart’s quote was used as inspiration, as Michigan State defeated Michigan for the first of four straight wins. That run included the No. 23 Spartans’ 28-14 victory over the No. 11 Wolverines in 2011.

The University of Michigan isn’t the only college football program offering bulletin-board material to its opponents.

In May, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called the Southeastern Conference’s recent domination of college football — the SEC has won seven-straight national championships — “propaganda.”

“So you’re listening to a lot of propaganda that gets fed out to you,” he said. “You’re more than smart enough to figure it out.”

Furthermore, Oklahoma State offensive lineman Parker Graham said Aug. 25 SEC defenses “aren’t very well conditioned” before the Cowboys’ season-opener against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs went on to hold Oklahoma State to just three points.

But when fans try to offer their clever opinion, the statements are often tactless because they aren’t in the public eye like athletes and coaches are.

That is, until your opinion thrusts you into the limelight, as is the case with the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Louisiana State University.

Prior to LSU’s football game against Kent State, the fraternity hung a sign from its front door reading “Getting Massacred Is Nothing New To Kent State,” mocking the 1970 campus shootings by the Ohio National Guard that left four Kent State students dead.

A week earlier, the same fraternity hung a sign before the Tigers took on the University of Alabama-Birmingham reading “LSU vs. UAB It’s gonna be a gas. Syriasly,” referencing the use of sarin in Syria.

Is the statement protected under free speech? Yes, it is.

Was the statement offensive? Of course it was.

Did the statement cross the line? Without a doubt.

The fraternity has since apologized to Kent State, and LSU issued a statement saying, “LSU certainly does not condone this insensitive behavior and poor judgment by the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.”

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done.

I get it. Passion for your favorite sports teams — or a great dislike for their rivals — can be very strong.

People deck out their houses with memorabilia and items displaying their team colors.

Alumni donate millions of dollars to their alma mater.

Fans get logos tattooed on their body.

And for some, like former Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, children are named after rivals. Jones named his third child Shea after New York’s Shea Stadium, where he had success as a rival of the Mets.

When you’re trying to take a stab at the other team, consider whether or not what you are going to say or do is in good taste.

Just because you are allowed to say something, doesn’t mean you should.


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