March 27, 2009

The Most Flagrant Foul

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The play didn’t really factor into the end result of Cornell’s 78-59 loss to Missouri in the NCAA tournament, but it certainly grabbed my attention as I was squinting at my laptop’s live feed of the game.
With 10:57 left in the second half, junior Ryan Wittman was called for an offensive foul after swinging his elbow around and catching his defender, Zaire Taylor, in the nose. Taylor grabbed his nose and subbed out, though he came back less than two minutes later.
At least that’s how it would be reported in a calm, professional way. Here’s what CBS announcer Bob Wenzel said:
“That looks like a flagrant foul to me. Notice how his elbow comes away from his body, Zaire Taylor takes this one in the face. This looks flagrant to me.”
And just like that, Wittman, one of the most talented basketball players in Cornell’s history and a generally good guy, became an elbow-throwing thug in the eyes of the nationwide audience that tuned in to watch the Red take on the Tigers. A portion of the country’s populist rage was momentarily shifted off of A.I.G.’s executives and onto an undeserving 6-6 swingman from Minnesota.
The announcing was irritating throughout the game. From gushing over Missouri’s DeMarre Carroll (the “Junkyard Dog”) to riffing about Alex Tyler’s family eating habits to unnecessary rhetoric like “tickled the twine,” only the novelty of hearing about the familiar Red players on national TV kept me from muting the stream of drivel. But in my opinion, the call on Wittman’s foul was the worst offense by Wenzel.
It is part of Wenzel’s, and any journalist’s, job to develop an interesting story for the audience, and a good villain is one of the most compelling parts of any story. But when the announcer painted Wittman, who has no history of hard fouls or dirty play, as that villain, the story benefited while Wittman and the Cornell basketball program suffered.
The average viewer of that game will probably never watch Cornell basketball play again. Unlike Cornell fans and followers, the average viewer won’t get a chance to appreciate Wittman’s shooting skills, junior Louis Dale’s pure basketball ability or the sheer thrill that comes from watching an Ivy League team compete on the big stage. All the average viewer will remember about Cornell basketball is a play that Bob Wenzel unilaterally decided was dirty and worthy of a flagrant foul.
If the referees (who are there for a reason, after all) decided Wittman’s move deserved an offensive foul, then it was an offensive foul. It was nothing more.
While CBS was busy showing the replay ad nauseum (five times; I think I used up half of my monthly Cornell-allotted internet double-checking in Olin), the announcers were making it sound like the Antichrist showed up at the game wearing Wittman’s jersey and knocked Zaire Taylor’s nose right off of his face. Taylor definitely was a little shaken. But he walked it off, the referees made the call, and the game moved on. Unfortunately, the announcers didn’t.
The play, which was truly inconsequential when looking at the game as a whole, even found its way into the Associated Press game recap.
“Holding the ball and trying to create room on the sideline, Wittman pinged Zaire Taylor with a nasty elbow.”
The AP’s account of the game will be preserved by ESPN, Google and various news outlets as the official recap of the game, and it will contain that condemnation of Wittman’s play and the implicit criticism of his character.
It isn’t my place to defend Wittman. I wasn’t in his head and I have no idea if the move was aggressive or not. But I’m pretty sure that the announcers and AP writer don’t know either. Unfortunately, their inappropriate conjectures are now placed in the annals of Cornell basketball.