J.P. Losman was making me nervous before he spoke last week at St. John Fisher College's 5th Annual Conference on Sportsmanship. The 23-year-old Bills quarterback gave the keynote address before 246 athletes from 27 mostly Monroe County high schools. He seemed uptight, as quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche warmed up the audience for him. Losman's hands were in his pockets and he shuffled his weight from side to side.
This was just Losman's second public appearance, and it didn't look like it was going to be good. I've seen athletes fumble public speaking opportunities before. Former Sabre Doug Bodger once got up at the Press-Radio dinner to tell a dirty joke and then sit down. I recall how former Bills QB Rob Johnson dealt with public appearances, and I inevitably wondered just what in his chest kept him alive.
So I didn't expect much from Losman. Thirty-six minutes later, however, I couldn't recall a better public presentation by a Buffalo Bill. Losman's ability to convey his story and connect with the kids was unrivaled --- better than Doug Flutie, Drew Bledsoe, and Jim Kelly.
He was even bold enough to stop his talk and chide a kid who was apparently laughing in front of him. That was truly a rare occurrence because, after all, the pro sports public relations manual says that when an athlete speaks in public, he should do just about anything to avoid even the possibility of offending someone. Losman evidently missed that page.
"What's so funny, big cat?" he asked the student, who might have just wet his pants. "I just want to know, what's so funny? Things like that, it's kind of rude. I'm up here. I'm kind of nervous myself. It's a chance, an opportunity to get inside of you guys. And somebody's laughing. It's disrespectful. I don't appreciate it... Now I don't mean to call anybody out like that, but this is real life. People call each other out. It's OK. You know, you live and learn. You forgive."
After that, Losman commanded attention like Norman Schwarzkopf. If he displays that kind of bold sensibility as one of the youngest Bills this season --- and if he plays well, obviously --- maybe things will work out.
Disrespect was largely the focus of the sportsmanship conference. There is a feeling that player and fan behavior at many events is coarse and out of control; that no one respects the opposition anymore.
But I'm not sure you can conclude that today's era is any worse than it has ever been. I'd say it's about the same. It's simply easier to recall the incidences that have happened recently (partly because they're broadcast 4 trillion times on TV), such as the Pistons-Pacers fan-player brawl in Detroit last November; Temple coach John Chaney sending out a player with the mission to commit hard fouls against St. Joe's; Fisher and Nazareth men's basketball teams brawling last year; or School of the Arts and Palmyra-Macedon boys' basketball teams brawling last month.
I remember when there was a near-riot between fans at the War Memorial after a Section V boys' basketball semifinal between McQuaid and East in 1990. I remember watching an Amerks game in the late '80s and seeing a Binghamton Whaler climb onto the stage to attack a fan who dumped a beer on the guy and/or verbally assaulted him. And it's been a little more than 20 years since the Rochester City School District implemented the "fan ban" barring people from attending its boys' basketball games after some bad behavior among fans.
So maybe coaches and athletes haven't learned much about sportsmanship, but the conference at St. John Fisher is an attempt to help. I suggest that when players exhibit good sportsmanship, it keeps them focused on their team's mission to win. Bad sportsmanship, especially if it's about retribution, will distract from that mission.
What's particularly unfortunate is that the SOTA-Pal-Mac brawl pitted a city school against a suburban school, hinting at racial overtones. Certainly, it did nothing to further relations between the suburbs and the city. Ultimately, officials canceled the game, but SOTA looked like the culprit as the city school district announced it was canceling the rest of SOTA's season, before reinstating the school a little later, with just the guilty players kicked out.
Palmyra-Macedon also imposed its own suspensions of involved players, but clearly, the city school district's actions indicated more culpability on the part of SOTA, at least in the public eye. Ideally, it would have been better if the districts worked together to create and adhere to a solution for both sides. The wavering looked bad.
Overall, the incident tears at what have been positive steps between city and suburban schools. City football teams have started attending summer camps with suburban football teams, allowing players to get to know one another outside the field of competition. Clearly, when a prior relationship has been established, there is less likely to be an altercation between those players. In pro sports, many of the players do know each other, either from college or high school, or perhaps they've played together on another pro team.
But fans don't know opposing fans or players, and that depersonalization makes it easier for them to act like buffoons. And that's where there are major problems. Fans just see where the battle lines are drawn. They sit on one side of the gym and the opposing fans on the other, and as far as they're concerned the opposing fans and players are simply obstacles to victory, nothing else.
It's similar to the relationship largely shared between suburban Monroe County residents and urban Monroe County residents. They have their city. They have their suburbs. The battle lines are drawn. They rarely meet each other.
Of course, it would be impossible to have fans sit down with opposing fans and players and talk out their problems. The best I can do is suggest that fans are cheering against some parent's kid, who has given up his free time and dedicated much of his life toward playing on a team.
If you don't respect that, it's kind of rude, big cat.