Let the game be the thing

One of the biggest drawbacks of being an active sportswriter is the amount of time one spends in transit. To and from the stadium, or the practice field, or, as has been the case this past year on the University of Alabama beat, to and from hearings and meetings of university trustees.

Sportswriters -- like yours truly -- try to find creative ways to kill the interminable hours alone in the car. When we run out of options, we turn to sports talk radio.

This week, as usual, sports talk radio -- specifically, its callers -- gave me a beacon on the pulse of the sports world. And all that is wrong with that world.

This week local airwaves have been full of talk about Saturday's Alabama-Tennessee game, which is hardly a surprise. But one caller to a local show put it all in skewed perspective.

"Alabama had better be careful," the caller said. "With all that's going on off the field, Tennessee is going to be gunning for them. There's going to be bodily harm, and people might wind up in the hospital."

It was only one fan's comment, brought out by the lunatic fringe and anonymity of talk radio. But it made me think. "Is this the way many Alabama and Tennessee fans think about the game?"

If so, it's seriously wrong. After spending the last several years up-close and personal in this nasty rivalry, one thing is for certain: it's much nastier off the field than on it.

Alabama guard Justin Smiley (#78) will be concentrating on his job--not animosity--during this Saturday's game. (UA Photo)

As much as fans on both sides might want to believe the opposite, hatred is largely confined to the airwaves, anonymous Internet chat rooms and message boards and the occasional booze-fueled fistfight in section UU.

Alabama players interviewed this week said they were leaving hatred to their fans, which makes sense.

Junior left guard Justin Smiley tries to avoid the message boards as much as possible.

"Not really, lately," he said of perusing the Internet. "I found if I read too much these days, with my temper, I'll want to hunt a couple of people down."

Football is, by nature, a violent sport. But the action is largely controlled between the lines, save an occasional push out of bounds or extra-curricular action at the bottom of a pileup.

This isn't the WWE. Gene Stallings isn't going to climb out of the stands Saturday and whack Phillip Fulmer with a steel chair, then smash his headset into the turf.

That'd be a personal foul, and in football, 15 yards isn't worth a little personal satisfaction.

In fact, there are few places calmer than the immediate aftermath of a college football game. Players from both sides shake hands and share a brief passing word, punctuated by a slap on the shoulder pads or a hearty handshake.

Many are friends who've played together from pee-wee ball through high school before going their separate ways, and many of the opponents in Saturday's game were heavily recruited by both sides.

College football players' brains are too crowded for hatred. They're thinking about far more important things.

Their playbooks.

Their teams' records (both Alabama and Tennessee enter Saturday's game hoping to rebound from losses).

Their post-game plans, be it a date with that hot "A Dee Pi" or a meeting with a huge icebag for that aching knee.

There's no room for maliciousness, or even a post-play celebration.

In fact, players on both sides focus on little but the present, a point that is hammered home by coaches on both sides.

Take, for example, lawyer Thomas Gallion's recent allegations that Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer set up an illegal line of credit for former Vol defensive lineman John Henderson. Henderson's agent, former Vol receiver Tim McGee, has said a $50,000 line of credit was set up after Henderson played his final college game, which is legal by NCAA rules.

Gallion is representing former Tide assistants Ronnie Cottrell and Ivy Williams in a suit against the NCAA that he says stems from the NCAA's recent probation against Alabama, which he says was tied into a conspiracy fueled by Tennessee boosters.

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Gallion also claims illegal payments were made to former Vol running back Travis Henry and former offensive lineman Fred Weary.

This is all good and well for the talk shows and message boards, but players say they don't think about off-field matters.

"It doesn't affect players at all," said current UT defensive end Constantin Ritzmann, who not many years ago was the subject of a fierce recruiting battle between the Vols and Tide. "You hear about it, but I don't think it affects the performance of the team at all. We don't know if there's any truth to it and we don't think so. Unless there's any proof, we don't really think about it."

The same, of course, can't be said for all the fans. With some, venom and nastiness will build on both sides, peaking at game's end Saturday before falling back to its normal slow boil.

Insults will be traded. Drinks may be dumped on those draped in visiting colors. A few cars might even be keyed.

Just don't expect the players to notice.

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