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College Basketball: Has The Concept Of Fair Play Become Obsolete?

"Competitor" has been used to justify a lot of things, but perhaps we need to re-examine the concept of fair play.

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

This is just too rich. Dan Dakich complains about an Iowa player, Adam Woodbury, poking a Wisconsin player in the eye. Here is the video of the incident.  It’s pretty clear to me that Woodbury didn’t mean to poke the first player in the eye but didn’t mind that the contact occurred; the head-rubbing in the second incident versus Frank Kaminsky is, in my view, a clear foul. You’re not allowed to gratuitously put your hands on people’s heads and faces. That’s not a basketball play.

Anyway, here’s what Dakich said:

"It’s gutless as well and he’s doing it on purpose. You can say he’s not and you can get mad at me all you want, but he’s doing it on purpose, it needs to stop and the Big Ten office needs to discipline the kid. Woodbury, for some reason, Woodbury thinks that that kind of thing is toughness. That’s as cowardly as you can be to hit a guy from behind or to poke a guy in the face and quite frankly Fran McCaffery and his staff have got to stop this."

Naturally, McCaffery defended his player, but also attacked Dakich:

"Danny Dakich is so far out of line," McCaffery said. He’s just lost it on this one. He doesn’t know Adam Woodbury. And for him to say the reprehensible things he’s said about an amateur is inexcusable. It’s absolutely inexcusable that his network would allow him to say those things of things about a guy he doesn’t know."

"First of all, we can debate what he thought he saw. He has every right to have an opinion. He happens to be wrong. One hundred percent wrong. Adam Woodbury did nothing purposefully to injure the guy he was guarding."

"I don’t appreciate him saying anything about what I should do," he added later. "He’s a TV guy. If he was a coach, he’d be coaching."

I’m going to have to defend Dakich on this one. Knowing Woodbury has nothing to do with it, nor does the fact that Dakich isn’t a coach (even though he was earlier in life). The idea that people have no credibility in their opinion about something like this because they don’t, haven’t, or aren’t coaching is a pure strawman, just like the odd person who’ll tell you you don’t know anything about basketball because you never played the sport at whatever level.

The questions are, notwithstanding Woodbury’s fine character or lack thereof, is what he did a foul in college basketball, or should it be? Second, should the player be disciplined by the league for doing it, whether or not a foul was called?

It seems evident that placing your hands on the head and/or face of a player intentionally, with an obvious intent to distract and even anger them is not a basketball play, nor is it fair play. Dakich is right that the league, and the officials, should call such things as fouls. If we are worried about concussions from swinging elbows, we should also be worried about risk to vision from fingers being deliberately stuck so close to player’s eyes that that eye contact is either inevitable or highly likely.

So to the first question, I say, "Yes, it should be a foul in college basketball." To the second question, I say, "Not until the league and/or the NCAA establishes clear guidance on the matter."

Should McCaffery advise his players to stop doing that? Absolutely. If someone had lost their sight in an eye due to either incident, or even suffered a significant eye injury, the answer would be a unanimous "yes" and we wouldn’t be debating it at all. So let’s not wait until that happens.

McCaffery, in this case, is dead wrong about everything. There is no debate about the second incident, and the first would not have happened but for an intentional action by Woodbury to put his hands in the face of the opponent. Dakich is right for several reasons, not the least of which is the safety of young men and the ideal of fair play. The objections McCafferey raises are transparent stawmen and should be rejected out of hand.

Where Dakich’s remark is objectionable is the addition of the adjective "gutless"; it was over-the-top and, even if sentimentally defensible from a fair-play perspective, objectionable. The observation that the league needs to take action whether or not it has provided significant guidance in that area is debatable. We seem to need guidance for everything these days to avoid some kind of legal pitfall, so it should be given to remove ambiguity. It shouldn’t be needed, but in today’s word, "competitive" and "competitor" seem to encompass anything not explicitly forbidden.

Sad, but alas, it’s the world we live in.