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Summers: Football provides lesson amid tension

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ECU's Zay Jones reacts to an UCF interception that was returned for a touchdown during the second half at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.


By Nathan Summers
The Daily Reflector

Monday, October 3, 2016

The day began with a chorus of disapproval that cascaded across Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. It ended amid an eerie silence, the mostly empty East Carolina football coliseum a colossus of disappointment for all but one block of spectators visiting from Orlando, Fla.

An afternoon marked by tension got an early start with a pregame protest by ECU marching band members who knelt during the national anthem. The game that followed did little to quell the mood of many in attendance.

Central Florida routed the host Pirates 47-29, knocked out their starting quarterback and threw ECU's season into a tailspin.

Though not the prettiest rendition of the gridiron game that is a birthright of Saturday culture in all 50 U.S. states, it was nonetheless another example of people from vastly different worlds meeting on common ground in an attempt to accomplish something together. The same thing happened, literally, at 121 other NCAA institutions this weekend in the FBS and FCS ranks alone, and it can be assumed at least some people watched all of them.

The unrest outside the stadiums, based on rising racial tensions and police-related violence, came inside the gates in Greenville on Saturday, and likely many other places this football season. The spectacles inside those stadiums, however, still offer living proof of racial harmony to those willing to notice.

On the field, the Pirates took some serious shots. They lost their third straight game with more special teams mistakes, turnovers and fizzled finishes inside the red zone. Quarterback Philip Nelson was knocked to the deck on a hit deemed worthy of an ejection and did not return, and the 2-3 ECU team heads to South Florida this weekend with more questions than answers.

The protests were multiple leading up to and well after the game was played and UCF had hammered home a key American Athletic Conference win with a 24-point barrage in the fourth quarter.

Upon seeing band members kneeling during the anthem in the same way San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others have done as a means of protesting perceived racial and police injustice, many in attendance booed at the end of the song. They did so again following the band's halftime performance.

If anyone needed a reminder that the mood of the nation is a complex mesh of the moods of each one of its communities and their citizens, it was here. Regardless of whether they were those booing or those booed, it was a snapshot of America 2016, 38 days before election day.

The visiting fans from Orlando, a town touched by recent tragedy, might have felt the same way, though UCF's third victory of the season after enduring an 0-12 nightmare last year likely had them buoyed beyond expectation or worry.

No matter how divided the two sides are, both had their say on Saturday.

Football doesn't necessarily mirror life outside the grandstands, and it is often a three-hour Saturday shield from reality. On Saturdays like this, however, the tension of the nation at large was as present as the goal posts and the scoreboard, but whether carried in the form of boos or silence, both protests were acknowledged as they should be.

For most of the fans which merely dotted the stadium seats all day, the numbers on the scoreboard were all too real. No matter if they booed or beamed during pregame and halftime, the day left ECU fans with a lot to think about.

Only part of it, however, is worrying about a team which has failed to play a consistent 60 minutes since its Sept. 10 win against N.C. State and the fact that three of the Pirates' toughest opponents this season are their next three.

Among the other considerations are how to handle in-stadium protests the rest of the season, especially with a worldwide audience watching the trend everywhere it goes, and how a burgeoning university on the cutting edge of medicine and technology will be perceived in the national picture of racial unrest.

A football stadium is a place where two intricate, multicultural bands of men wage an at-times brutal but mostly respectful battle with one another. Sixty minutes of contempt are followed by a handshake, an odd gesture all things considered, but one that speaks volumes about cooperation, compromise and respect.

Maybe one cannot ask that the simple virtues of the game become those of society, but these games so adored by so many stand in weekly stark contrast to the current divide.

If there are any life lessons being taught in football, perhaps this is one.

Contact Nathan Summers at nsummers@reflector.com, 252-329-9595 or follow @NateSumm99 on Twitter.