DR. ROBERT CAROTHERS won't get any votes in the Best Trick Play of the College Football Season sweepstakes. Even if there were such a thing, he wouldn't. Dr. Carothers doesn't play football or even coach it. He's a poet. Perhaps you've read one or both of his published volumes, "Freedom and Other Times" and "John Calvin's Favorite Son." Perhaps not.
He is also a president - of the University of Rhode Island.It was President Carothers' decision to cancel Rhode Island's football game with Connecticut this past Oct. 19 that qualifies him for Best Trick Play consideration. The audible from the president's office turned out to be a stroke of imaginative subterfuge, of deceptive duplicity. Like a double reverse or a fumblerooski, only better. Just when it looked like the result was going to be sheer disaster, just the opposite happened.
The president canceled the game because of an incident involving members of the Rhode Island football team who took their nickname, "Rams," literal and barged their way into the Theta Delta Chi fraternity house and beat up three members of the fraternity. As the football players - there were six of them - did their beating, 25 of their teammates acted as security outside the house. Nobody got in. Nobody came out. The attack was in answer to a previous fight between two of the football players and the fraternity. The two came back, with reinforcements.
It wasn't exactly a scene out of "Animal House". Nobody laughed, not the paramedics, not the frat brothers who were taken to the hospital, certainly not the president.
Now, anyone with even a little knowledge of university life, knows that this was not the first time anything like this had ever happened. On campuses everywhere, football players tend to throw their weight around now and then. It's practically a college tradition, like climbing ivy on the walls.
But it was the first time a football team got time off for bad behavior. Ever.
The NCAA looked it up. No school in the 90-year history of the organization had ever before forfeited a game for inappropriate off-field behavior. Games had been forfeited because of snowstorms, flu epidemics, and travel problems. But never for something that happened Friday night.
At first, President Carothers was criticized - especially by many parents of the football players and the Ram coaching staff - for not suspending only those players involved in the fighting and, at that, for not handling the penalties in some kind of staggered fashion, so as not to make everybody, including the Rams fans and the University of Connecticut, which stood to lose a cool $150,000, pay for the crime.
But the president said that the concept of a "team" means you stand together. After a win you don't only credit those who played, you credit everybody on the squad; after a loss, same thing, no matter who's actually in there on game day taking the snaps.
On top of that, there was a question of bottom-line standards. "Civility," said President Carothers, "is everything that we are about. I wanted to make clear our standard of behavior."
So the team that fought together stayed home on Saturday together.
The Yankee Conference gave Rhode Island a loss.
And Dr. Carothers told Connecticut to send him the bill for losses incurred.
Carothers admits he wouldn't have been surprised if a negative backlash had resulted from his decision. He certainly had no precedents to look at to gauge what might happen, not when exactly zero other presidents in nearly a century of American football had ever reacted this way.
But he harbored hopes that instead of negativism the incident might teach the University of Rhode Island a lesson in controlling violence.
"If you're an administrator," said Carothers, "no good crisis should be avoided. It's a chance to teach."
As it's turned out, his hopes were well-founded. The Rhode Island president who "went the other way" has already become something of a folk hero. In the month since the incident he has been widely praised. The Hartford Courant nominated him as the next commissioner of baseball. His e-mail is out of control. And hundreds of letters of support have poured in from around the country, many with checks and money orders to help pay off the bill to Connecticut. The president of USC, Steven B. Sample, sent a personal check for $1,000.
"I'm happy to say it's been a very powerful experience," Dr. Carothers said this past weekend from his Rhode Island office. "It's caused all of us here in the community to look at the issue of violence in our lives and it's caused us to think about what kinds of things we can do to build a community that is more ethical and thoughtful. What started out as a tragedy in the end has had a very positive effect."
In football jargon, the president snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Exactly what a trick play is supposed to do.