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Tom Izzo is right: Ditching handshake line a bad idea

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If you've witnessed Tom Izzo work a sideline during his nearly three decades as Michigan State's men's basketball coach, you know this is a man who exudes a near-crazed level of passion and intensity.

Izzo shouts, he pouts, he stomps, he spins, he pleads, he cheers, he hugs. He acts like his life depends on winning. This is the method to his madness. His teams have reached eight Final Fours and won a national title. It works.

However, as a debate bubbled up about whether college basketball, specifically — and sports, in general — should eliminate the postgame handshake line to avoid overly emotional confrontations such as the one Sunday in the Wisconsin-Michigan game, it’s fair to wonder if Izzo might be in favor.

After all, if anyone is prone to being overly emotional, it’s him.

“That to me would be the biggest farce, joke, ridiculous nature of anything I've ever heard of,” Izzo said at a news conference Monday.

He’s right about that.

Just because Michigan coach Juwan Howard and Wisconsin coach Greg Gard couldn’t control themselves (to varying degrees) after Sunday’s game, doesn’t mean the whole thing needs to be stricken.

Both coaches, hopped on perceived disrespect, went looking for a confrontation. It got out of hand when Howard threw a slap at a Wisconsin assistant — leading to players from both teams throwing punches — but no one acquitted themselves well here. Howard has been suspended for five games. Gard was fined and lucky Wisconsin didn't make him sit at least one game.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, in East Lansing, Mich. Illinois won 79-74. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois on Saturday. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

The blame isn’t equal, but it’s not a zero-sum equation either.

Two multi-millionaires behaving badly shouldn’t kill a tradition that brings far more good than bad, and maybe more important than ever in a country where divisions are stark, respect for opposing groups or opinions is considered a weakness and doing the hard thing is too often avoided.

We’re talking about briefly shaking the other team’s hand after a game, offering the smallest measure of congratulations or uplift while reaffirming that there are more similarities than differences. Maybe that’s too much to ask from a couple of Big Ten basketball coaches, but the rest of the country should aspire to it anyway.

“Not shaking hands, that’s typical of our country right now,” Izzo said. “Instead of solving the problem, let’s make an excuse and … let’s eliminate it so that we don’t have those problems. Let’s try to do that.

“That’s perfect ‘us’ right now,” Izzo continued. “That’s not perfect me. That’s not happening here. So if some team doesn’t want to shake hands, you’re gonna see 15 of my guys walk down and shake air. We’re going to shake air and I’m gonna shake air and then we’re gonna leave.”

Look, not to make what happens at the end of some college basketball game a trigger for the end of the American empire, but the country needs more civility, more respect, more connection … more handshake lines, not fewer.

It’s not just college basketball or professional sports, where fans are marketed into “nations” and there are endless videos of people beating on each other in the stands because they dare wear opposing jerseys. It’s youth sports and high school sports, where winning isn’t supposed to be the only thing or the most important thing.

A critical lesson is supposed to be about honoring the opponent.

Of course, even with generations raised with postgame handshakes, that concept has become increasingly rare.

Too many politicians are just social media trolls. Public opinion shifts not on the basis of core beliefs but us vs. them. Everything is a team sport, a blood sport, where a differing opinion isn’t just a differing opinion, but evil that must be mocked and stomped out.

So much media — led by the cable television industry (all of it) — is based on dividing and villainizing, not informing. And too many Americans gobble up the bait. The profits follow.

There is little comity, little cooperation. To suggest even a modicum of deference to the other side is cause for censure or canceling. In actuality, it should be celebrated because it requires humility and self-esteem. Those things used to be considered positives.

“We've already told these kids that it's hard to hold them accountable,” Izzo said. “Now we're going to tell them to not man up and walk down a line to someone who's kicked your butt and have enough class to shake their hand is utterly ridiculous.”

Don’t get rid of the handshake line. Find a way to expand it into all walks of life.