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On Juwan Howard, Punishment, and Sports Fandom

Howard’s suspension likely satisfied few outside some ESPN talking heads

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Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Michigan head coach Juwan Howard is shown during the first half of their game Sunday, February 20, 2022 at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin beat Michigan 77-63.

Two things are important to note up front.

First, I am a Michigan fan. I’ve never made any effort to hide that, much to the chagrin of many on this Duke fansite. I was raised in suburban Detroit to a Michigan alum father, and the fall revolved around our Saturday trips to Ann Arbor. One of my earliest childhood memories is watching Charles Woodson’s punt return touchdown against Ohio State through the legs of fans around me in 1997. I then spent six years in Ann Arbor after my time in Durham, getting my PhD and reinvigorating my love for the University of Michigan and its athletics.

Second, I want to emphasize what this piece won’t be. It won’t be an analysis of the brawl Sunday following Michigan’s loss to Wisconsin. Others have gone through the footage frame by frame like the Zapruder film. At this point, any such analysis comes across, rightly or wrongly, as an attempt to justify or defend Juwan Howard’s actions in that brawl. And that’s the second thing I won’t do: I won’t defend Howard’s actions in any way, shape, or form. In isolation they were heinous and despicable, lacking any justification; in the context of Howard being one of the most prominent representatives of the University of Michigan and a leader of young men, they were even more inexcusable (if that is possible).

With that preamble finished, the dust has now settled: Howard has been suspended the rest of the regular season, five games. It’s a punishment that seems to leave no one satisfied, outside some sports media types who are anxious to put this embarrassment to bed. The Zapruder film crowd will be frustrated by its severity and the lack of a suspension for the Wisconsin staff they view as being the fight’s instigators. The remainder will be frustrated that the suspension wasn’t more severe, and perhaps wondering whether Howard deserves to have his job at all.

In the aftermath of the incident, I couldn’t have given you the details of a punishment that would’ve satisfied me. Instead, I thought the punishment, whatever it was, needed to be “unprecedented” to send the necessary message. Does five games fit the bill? In my mind, not quite. On one hand, Gonzaga’s Mark Few was suspended a single game for a DUI arrest: while not taking place as publicly as a post-game brawl, one could argue that crime is a more serious and dangerous offense. On the other hand, Jim Boeheim was once suspended nine games for recruiting violations, a rather overzealous punishment that shows there is the appetite for such severe punishment in college basketball (it must be noted, though, that Boeheim’s punishment was handed down by the NCAA, while Howard’s was a joint decision by the Big Ten and Michigan). College basketball is rife with examples of how inconsistent these punishments are, so perhaps the only “unprecedented” punishment would have been Howard losing his job (although perhaps a suspension including the postseason and/or extending into next season would’ve been an intermediate solution).

That begs a natural next question: should Howard have been fired? On Sunday, I said that I didn’t think that was the appropriate punishment, but nonetheless would wholeheartedly support it if that was what the University felt was merited. Truth be told, as Sunday went on, I found myself becoming more open to the possibility that Howard would be fired, especially given his lack of a postgame apology. Howard’s offense must also be viewed in the context of his previous behavior, particularly last year’s incident with Maryland’s Mark Turgeon.

Now, two days later, I find myself reflecting on the incident in the context of the philosophical question of “retributive versus restorative justice”. In this context, the question is the following: should the purpose of Howard’s suspension be driven by our need to punish the guilty based on the severity of the offense, or designed to yield the best future outcome for all involved?

Our criminal justice system is notoriously retributive, stemming from the general idea of “an eye for an eye” punishment. From this perspective, we saw Howard commit a heinous act, and want to see him punished accordingly for our own satisfaction. Less crassly, there’s also the argument in this vein that a more severe punishment is warranted in order to protect others from future violent events; in light of the Turgeon incident last year, one could very reasonably argue that Howard has shown a pattern for dangerous behavior when he loses his temper, and has thus lost the right to lead young men.

But the effects of retributive justice aren’t always the best in the long term. They often impede the ability of the offender to grow and improve from their mistake. There are also secondary effects on those around the offender. Firing Howard would deny a still young head coach the opportunity to become a better coach, and more importantly a better man, following this incident. It would also indirectly punish the entire Michigan team, including young men who had planned to spend years of their lives in Ann Arbor learning under Howard.

Like most debates, the one between retributive and restorative justice often becomes overly binary. The optimal solution lies somewhere in the grey region between the two extremes, without a “one size fits all” solution. Five games is likely too close to the lenient, restorative side of the scale for many reading this, but the firing that many were clamoring for would arguably be an entirely retributive punishment.

Nowhere in the above have I said where exactly I fall on this debate, both generally and in this specific instance. That is not an oversight, but purposeful. I’m a scientist in my day job, and also a bit of a philosophy nerd. I should be able to rationally, in an unbiased fashion, analyze this situation and decide what type of punishment fits the incident and my philosophy of justice. Should is the operative word, though.

The fact is, sports fandom is inherently irrational. One of my favorite pieces I ever wrote for The Chronicle was about the nature of sports rivalries, and how they take something completely irrational (hatred for one’s rival) and turn it into a beautiful sense of community. The reverse is also true, though. Irrational fandom can lead fans to overlook problematic behaviors from their favorite players and coaches. In extreme cases, fandom that approaches zealotry can lead otherwise rational actors to overlook or enable real human atrocities in the relatively meaningless pursuit of victory.

I can admit that, despite my best intentions, I can’t be fully objective on this topic. I’d rather transparently admit to this flaw than write anything implying otherwise. Putting forth any sort of opinion that implies a lack of bias, even in the slightest, would be disingenuous. I can’t separate my utter disgust for Howard’s actions Sunday from my appreciation for his seemingly authentic support for the University that I love, ranging from being amongst the first to celebrate the football team’s victory over Ohio State with Jim Harbaugh, to his enthusiastic support for less prominent Michigan athletic programs, to his new tradition of handing out donuts to students on the first day of the semester. I can’t separate my abhorrence for any violence, let alone violence on the basketball court, from the reality that Howard’s success last year provided me a lifeline in the form of brief escapes from the seemingly endless first winter of the pandemic. I wish I was a stronger, better, more ethical person able to do so, but I won’t represent myself as something that I’m not.

That word escape epitomizes the conundrum here. For me, and many others, sports are an escape from the challenges and problems of the real world, making it unbelievably jarring, and disproportionately painful, when these real world problems intrude upon this much needed escape. My wife often asks me how I enjoy watching Duke games when they make me so stressed. My answer is that being stressed about something objectively unimportant relative to the stresses of work (and, lately, the pandemic) represents an escape from those obligations. It’s much more enjoyable when it ends in victory, but even in defeat, I’d rather agonize over a frustrating Duke performance for two hours than let my mind wander back to the latest roadblock in my research or whether the government is handling the next stage of the pandemic appropriately.

Sports fandom is inherently irrational. In turn, it’d be disingenuous for me, or anyone with any emotional connection (positive or negative) to the Michigan basketball program, to attempt to rationally assess whether Howard’s five game punishment is just. I can only conclude with my hopes: I hope that Howard’s outburst is the exception and not the rule. I hope that this suspension will reinforce to him that he has to do hard work to ensure nothing even approaching this incident ever happens again. I hope that the University made this decision in good faith, and not at the behest of donors or other pressures.

I hope that Juwan Howard is the man handing out donuts to students in the cold, and not the man who gave into rage at Wisconsin. Only time will tell.