Jim Gazzolo: A chance to send a message

Published 7:00 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

I have always believed that in chaos there is opportunity.

Well, Southland Conference, let’s see if you can make the most of that statement.

Nothing was more chaotic than the end of a thrilling game Monday night between Texas A&M-Commerce and Incarnate Word.

Wanting more national attention, the Southland moved its men’s basketball games to Mondays, and it worked.

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Thanks to McNeese State’s Christian Shumate, the conference has never received more attention. ESPN has made Shumate dunks the centerpiece of several highlights, even on sports-filled Saturdays.

But not all attention is good.

At the end of Incarnate Word’s overtime victory, which was one of the better games in the league this winter, the two teams set the conference back some.

During the postgame handshake line, a massive brawl broke out. This was not the usual pointing of fingers, shouting, and a little shoving.

This was an all-out fight, with just about everybody getting into the action on both sides in some way. There were any number of punches thrown as the fight encompassed almost the entire court before players could be separated.

Who or what started the brawl was not immediately known. As for the fight itself, it lasted almost two full minutes and was all over the news and highlights.

It is an embarrassing moment for a conference that had been showing great signs of making moves up the college basketball ladder.

Southland officials came out swinging themselves Monday night with a statement.

“The Southland Conference is aware of the end-of-game situation that occurred between the Texas A&M University-Commerce and the University of the Incarnate Word men’s basketball teams tonight.

“We will be working closely with both universities to review the footage and issue appropriate disciplinary action. Unsportsmanlike behavior is unacceptable in the Southland Conference and the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, spectators, and officials remains a top priority.”

The league’s action will speak louder than its words, however.

The Southland is not alone in seeing on-court issues like this rising over recent years. It seems to go with the times, unfortunately.

However, Chris Grant, the SLC Commissioner in just his second year, has always stated he wants the league to become a greater voice in college athletics. Well, he gets his chance.

The chaos of Monday in San Antonio is a great chance for Mr. Grant and the league to set a new standard for what is and what is not expected from its athletes, coaches, and administrators.

If the Southland wants to clean up its act here is its chance.

First, it must punish those involved but not the league. That means appropriate and harsh suspensions but not all at one time.

You can’t have your product watered down, so stagger the suspensions so teams can play and not affect the league race as much as possible. Canceling any games would only hurt those not involved.

We saw that firsthand in the fall when Northwestern State shut down its football season after one of its players was killed in an off-campus shooting. Different circumstances, but you have to protect the brand as best you can.

Second, and more importantly, the league needs to clean up its games. Physical play is great but far too many of the league’s contests have periods when they resemble rugby more than basketball.

This also hurts the brand. 

There is better talent in the league now than in some time and if you want talent to continue to come to play in the Southland you need to clean up the stuff that is allowed down low.

Games with 30 or 40 fouls are not only hard to play in, they are tough to watch.

This means better-officiated games to send an early message as to what will be and will not be allowed. 

The coaches should not be let off the hook either. They need to help clean up the games by what they allow and what they teach.

This winter the basketball in the Southland has been better and thanks to the move to Mondays more people have gotten to see that. Yet a big fight takes back some of the narrative and momentum hurting the cause. 

Sending a message that these actions are not accepted in the league can go a long way to get the conversation back to the games and players.

The ball is in Mr. Grant’s hands.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance sports writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. He can be reached at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com