The Ottumwa Courier

February 25, 2013

GROB: NJCAA ban on Indian Hills is ridiculous

Ottumwa Courier

OTTUMWA — On Thursday, July 26 of last year, a young man named Michael Haynes received a phone call from his little brother, Marcus.

Michael didn’t answer. He couldn’t. He’d just been shot.

Michael Haynes was just a few hours from leaving his visit to his childhood home — Chicago’s Morgan Park neighborhood — for Iona College in New York, a Division I school where he planned to continue to chase his basketball dreams.

He was shot when he tried to break up a fight over a necklace. Haynes was struck in the wrist and back. He was pronounced dead at MetroSouth Medical Center in Alsip.

The shots were fatal. His life was over.

Haynes, who was 6-foot-7 and 22 years old, was one of five players on last year’s Indian Hills basketball team to sign with a four-year school to continue their careers as student-athletes.

Haynes attended Washington High School and graduated from Fenger High School, both in Chicago. He attended the University of Texas at El Paso but left there to play basketball at Indian Hills Community College right here in Ottumwa.

From here, he was recruited by Iona.

Family and friends, coaches and teammates, scouts and sports writers all described Haynes as a friendly young man who spent hours on the basketball court after his mother died about 10 years ago.

His dream was to play Division I college basketball. That was his ticket out of life in a miserable place. Indian Hills played a big part in helping him — and a lot of other young men like him — reach that goal and punch that ticket. Unfortunately, in Haynes’s case, the dream ended sadly and prematurely.

Dozens of other kids come to Indian Hills every year to play basketball. Many of them are a lot like Haynes — good kids from bad places. Indian Hills gives them all the opportunity to prove they are above all of that. Then they can move on, play basketball somewhere else, and hopefully get an education that arms them with skills to compete and pursue happiness in what can be a brutal, unhappy world.

Meanwhile, while they are here, we expect them to represent us — the college, the community — as best as they can. They are expected to behave like gentlemen, and at the same time, expected to win, win and win. Never mind that for many of them, this is a whole new world. They’ve never heard of West Burlington, or Marshalltown, or Council Bluffs. They’ve barely heard of Ottumwa.

They are supposed to take part in heated — sometimes unhealthy — rivalries with other towns and other colleges. They are expected to continue the small-town, small-school grudges that began before any of them were born and continue for reasons no one alive really understands.

We get them all “psyched up” for battle. We tell them pride is on the line. We tell them the world is on their shoulders. We tell them winning at any cost is their ticket to happiness.

As a member of the media, I will take some of the blame. We — newspapers, television and radio — have always hyped the rivalry between Indian Hills and Southeastern as the “War On 34.” I don’t know who invented that label, but not only does it send the wrong message — we’re expecting the kids from both teams to fight as though their lives were on the line — it is also somewhat disrespectful to our soldiers, who fight in real wars, with real lives at stake every second of every day.

So we’re going to stop that. I will no longer tolerate characterizing athletic contests between two schools as “wars” as long as I am working at this newspaper. Time to think of a better nickname for the rivalry.

I have no idea what really happened last weekend in West Burlington. I wasn’t there. The minute after it happened, I started getting messages and calls from people who claimed to be eye witnesses, and yet, each version of events was so different that it seemed each witness had been at a different event.

After a remarkably intense, emotional and exciting game between Indian Hills and Southeastern, a fight broke out among players from both teams. Punches were thrown and people were injured. Fans joined in. People were hospitalized — including Indian Hills coach Barret Peery and the son of Southeastern coach Terry Carroll.

According to some “witnesses” who were Southeastern fans, the floor was cleared, but rather than return to the locker room, the “thugs” from Indian Hills came back for more, and the whole thing ignited again.

According to some “witnesses” who were Indian Hills fans, there were more than a dozen Southeastern fans waiting in the narrow hallway, heckling the players, ready to ambush them. One “witness” even claimed the locker room door was locked, so the Indian Hills players had no choice but to return to the floor, in an attempt to get away from the fans who threatened them.

Whatever happened, the consequences were severe. Nine players from both teams were suspended, eight of them for two games, the ninth — IHCC’s Ronald Ross — for three.

I don’t have a problem with that. Regardless of the circumstances, if a player is involved in a fight during or after a game, that player should be suspended.

Indian Hills coach Barret Peery was also suspended for one game, despite the fact that he suffered a concussion trying to stop the brawl and had to have his face stitched up. Southeastern coach Terry Carroll was not suspended.

That seems rather strange.

Ross was arrested, taken to jail and charged with assault. Dr. Jim Lindenmayer, President of Indian Hills Community College, bailed Ross out of jail that night. The NJCAA has a rule that prohibits college officials from posting bail for a student athlete. For breaking that rule, Indian Hills was banned from postseason basketball play.

I have a problem with that.

Was Indian Hills supposed to just leave this young man in a jail cell, in a strange town? Keep in mind, we are little more than one generation removed from a time when many young men put in jail cells in strange towns never got out of those jail cells alive.

I know Burlington, Iowa in 2013 is nowhere close to Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1964 — but did Ronald Ross know that as he sat in his jail cell?

Dr. Lindenmayer did the right thing — the thing I hope someone in charge would do for my own daughter, should she find herself in a similar position. He deserves thanks and praise. He doesn’t deserve punishment, and his college’s basketball team did not deserve this ban.  

These athletes are not thugs, and I am tired of hearing people who know better characterize them as thugs. The word reeks of ugly, old-school racism. These are good kids, who found themselves in a bad situation, and reacted badly to that situation — the way kids sometimes do.

We — all of us — need to take a better look at how to prevent these bad situations from happening in the future.

And when they do happen, we need to remember who these kids are, and understand why they might react badly.

These are good kids, but some of them come from bad places — places we can’t imagine. Places where sometimes you can’t answer your little brother’s phone call, because you’ve just been shot.

Places where you can get killed for trying to break up a fight over a necklace.