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The MSU/UM “brawl” is a black eye on college football

The fight in the tunnel could have a “Malice at the Palace” level impact.

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2022 Big Ten Conference Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

I always knew I was the lucky one.

No matter how much the neighborhood in which I was raised changed, I knew I would be alright. I knew I had a village looking out for me.

I grew up on the south side of Chicago. In common dummy parlance, “Chiraq.” And to be clear, when I say south side I don’t mean Evergreen Park or Frankfort. I mean south side, city proper, south of where the White Sox play, east of the Dan Ryan.

I know what gunshots sound like. I know what drug epidemics followed by draconian punitive measures did to young men across multiple generations in neighborhoods like mine. I know what it’s like to have to find an alternate way home every day because the shooters are on 79th Street. I know what the screams of grieving mothers sound like live, in person, in the living room before the television cameras and pundits arrive. And I know the difference between the principle of self defense and the tar stain of cowardice.

And before you tell me to stick to sports, let me be clear: this is a story about a college football team that is preparing to play a game against the college football team I cover. So you’d damned well better believe this is a sports story.

On Saturday, after Michigan defeated Michigan State, 29-7, several Michigan State players assaulted Michigan’s Ja’Den McBurrows.

The video was first shared on Twitter by Detroit News Michigan State reporter Matt Charboneau.

The “sports” you want me to stick to don’t exist in a vacuum. Yes, I know a majority of fans use sports to drift away. It’s escapism in the gladiator arena. But college campus-based athletics are often a literal escape for those who compete. Getting away from the pall of constant violence and the destroyed communities left after generations of neglect is often a driving factor in why/where student athletes choose their academic destinations.

For three of the young men caught on camera beating up McBurrows — and McBurrows himself — I’d imagine these factors of safety, security, and opportunity loomed large.

McBurrows is from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida — ranked as one of the three most unsafe cities in America.

Itayvion Brown is from St. Louis, which has one of the top-10 violent crime rates in the nation. Also, St. Louis makes the same top-three most unsafe cities in America list that Ft. Lauderdale made.

Cornerback Angelo Grose is from Mansfield, Ohio. According to FBI data, Mansfield has a violent crime rate higher than 90% of the nation.

Zion Young is from Atlanta, where one has higher odds of being murdered than…Chicago.

All of these young men found their way to college towns with passionate fanbases and limitless academic resources. They parlayed their prodigal talents to ply their trade on national television. They may have even set themselves up for NFL futures.

They risked leaving their familiar environments behind, yet fell into the same traps countless young men in their communities have been ensnared by over the years.

Those future prospects look a lot cloudier for three of those young men today.

I’m not here to pound my fist on the desk for old guard, Boomer respectability politics. I’m not here to say “pull your pants up and stop listening to the rap music, and everything will be fine.” What I am saying is that these young men come from places not unlike the south side of Chicago. So I can say with confidence they learned a lot of the same lessons I did. And one of the first lessons you learn is being a man necessarily means not being a coward.

Any man can look like a tough guy when they are part of a mob that “jumps” somebody. Anyone can appear strong in a fight when their opponent is on the ground and they grab some friends and kick the felled foe.

So when you fight like a coward, life should hand you coward consequences.

Kevin Warren and Mel Tucker are on the clock. This shouldn’t be just a measure to punish the guilty parties, but to get justice for Ja’Den McBurrows.

I know there will be more information that comes out about this case in the coming days and weeks. I look forward to more clarity. At the time of writing this article, the Big Ten has said that it is “aware” of the situation. But no decisions have been handed down.

No football-related trash talk warrants a gang beating. And I hope the Spartans don’t bring cowardly wannabe thug behavior to Champaign next week. It’s a horrible look for the university, the football program, and the athletic department still digging out from the Larry Nassar disaster.