Kewan Platt: The Myth of Second Chances

This commentary originally appeared on Ryan Scott’s personal blog: One More Thing.

The last 24 hours have seen a rare national glimpse into an oft-hidden world I inhabit: NCAA Division III basketball. I am the national columnist for D3hoops.com – THE source for news and information about Division III basketball for over 20 years. Division III is non-scholarship athletics, so the athletes are paying tuition just like every other student. We like to call them the real “student-athletes.” Schools range from very small (400 or so in enrollment) to gigantic (40,000+) and talent varies as well. It’s the largest division in the NCAA, with 450+ members, but even so, unless you’ve got a connection, most people don’t pay attention or even know some of these schools exist.

Of course, that changes when something bad happen. Tuesday night Fitchubrg State hosted Nichols College in an otherwise ordinary early season non-conference matchup. Nichols is pretty good; Fitchburg isn’t so much. The game was pretty uneventful, except that Fitchburg was making a late run, led by the truly excellent play of transfer Kewan Platt. Platt will now forever be google connected to the elbow he delivered, seemingly unprovoked, to the face of Nichols freshman Nate Tenaglia. If you follow sports even remotely, you’ve probably seen the video somewhere.

It was pretty vicious and ugly. Platt checked to see if the ref closest to him was looking before he delivered it, but failed to notice another ref nearby (or the webstream cameras that caught the whole thing). Tenaglia was in pain, obviously, but did and does (so far) seem physically unaffected. He passed a concussion test and hit both his free throws, following the foul. The Nichols team should get immense credit for responding so coolly and appropriately in this matter. Platt got ejected from the game and has since been removed from the team and banned from campus until official processes can be executed.

It got out on Twitter first, with all the various ugliness that comes with just about anything on Twitter. From there, the general consensus was that Platt should never be allowed to play basketball again and should probably be arrested. It likely was assault, although courts have to make that distinction, which they might do — another D3 player was arrested and received a one year suspended jail sentence for punching and stomping on another player and helping to incite a riot at a game last year. Hockey has had some similar issues with violence on the ice, as well as other sports from time to time.

I am a bit baffled by the severity of the reactions, though, even after you discount the Twitter factor. There’s been time for discussion, both in person and in more civil, relational online forums, to talk about Platt’s elbow, and people still seem pretty set on this moment ruining the kid’s life.

First, I should say, I’m all for consequences, although I’ve written before on this blog about how easily we confuse consequences with punishment in this society. I don’t think shame should be a consequence, though, especially an outward, national shame. Being ashamed of one’s actions — maybe disappointing family, friends, and coaches, yes — but having national public shame heaped upon you doesn’t feel like an appropriate consequence for an action that was extremely localized.

Fitchburg State will do what they do and the school’s athletic conference will probably have a say. I hope those are fair and gracious processes not unduly influenced by the attention this has received. Schools are about shaping people and it’s really hard to do that if they people aren’t there. Every coach talks about shaping women and men of integrity and responsibility, but at the Division III level there’s almost nothing else to do. Yeah, win basketball games, but those don’t get you much on their own.

I don’t know the context, obviously. Platt could have a long history of violence and this is a final straw. Schools can’t have violent, angry people roaming around campus; that’s not good for the formation of people either. Of course, I don’t know if this is indicative of something deeper or just a one-off terrible decision. It’s not really my place to even find out.

I do think we should recognize though, even if this isn’t a pattern, that kind of violence is indicative of some kind of impulse control problem. That usually stems from some kind of mental trauma or illness, in which case shame is about the worst thing to help someone improve. Platt needs more people on his side than ever – not excusing actions, but offering help and support. I can’t see how any of the internet traffic really helps that.

Yes, my site reported on it. We got video (hopefully with more context than the six second that went around Twitter) and we did background work to understand as much as possible. It’s news; it happened. We can’t shy away from admitting difficult truth, just because it hurts somebody. That’s the balance. Recognizing there are consequences to our actions, but also refusing to dehumanize a person or define them by their actions.

We are not what we do. What we think, what we believe, what shapes and forms our understanding, those things are evident only in our actions. But we, as people, are more than just what we do. To define a person by their actions is to dehumanize. Kewan Platt is the kind of person who can elbow a guy in the face and walk away; he’ll have to live with that and deal with that and it’ll be hard – but we can’t say any of us is inherently different. We can’t say, given the same set of circumstances — from childhood to relationships to genetics to whatever — that we wouldn’t do the same thing. That’s humanity.

Now, providing a reason is very different from providing an excuse; we often get those two things confused in society as well. It’s always wrong to hit someone. I’m a firm believer in non-violence. I don’t think anything justifies what Platt did, ever. There is no excuse for that kind of thing. There are always reasons, causes. We have to be careful not to equate causes with excuses.

Immediately after the video started circulating, a lot of the comments were, “what did the white kid do to deserve that.” We justify violence as a response to violence. We do it all the time. I get that it makes sense to some people in some contexts and I’ve certainly written about violence in other posts; there’s not time for that discussion here. What those comments do, though, is recognize that actions depend on context.

We see less fighting in basketball than we used to see. We’re less tolerant, so that may have something to do with it. We’ve also got this global social media platform that amplifies the violence that exists. My freshman year of college, a friend and I drove ten minutes down the road to watch our basketball team play a local rival. During the game, an on-court altercation ensued that really exploded. Eventually people were coming out of the stands to fight players and each other; it was a pretty terrifying experience. We told the story. We moved on. I don’t think the local paper even covered it. Times change.

If both players had gotten shots in, we’d be having a very different conversation. It wouldn’t have gone viral at all. People get mad playing sports. Adrenaline is running and emotions are high. Earlier this year there were NBA suspensions from punches thrown. It’s rare, but not uncommon, even in basketball. It was a defenseless, unprovoked elbow to the face; that’s worse.

Is it this much worse, though?

We tend to justify those things we could see ourselves doing and vilify those which seem foreign to us. The gap between the two, though, isn’t as wide as we make it. In fact, it’s razor thin. A hard foul during a basketball play is a response many might deem appropriate for a perceived slight. If Platt had been tripped or terribly insulted, more people would’ve come to his defense. It’s all about perspective… and context.

I’ve never been in a frat, but I did go to college in Boston. I’ve seen some violence from drunk frat boys on a Friday night, maybe even an out-of-the-blue sucker punch or two. You hit a guy in a bar, is it even a 50/50 chance you get arrested? That’s assault, but it’s not always handled that way.

This wasn’t a racial incident, but when you’re talking about violence, crime, and punishment in our society, race does matter. I don’t want to see another young black kid get his life derailed because of a really terrible decision like this. It’s just harder to “learn” from this experience and move on if you’re black, especially if Platt ends up with a rap sheet because of it. Anger management is a skill you learn in your teens and 20s. Some kids learn it more easily or more thoroughly than others. The patience we have with people as they learn this skill doesn’t have to be dependent on race, but sometimes it is. That’s just the truth.

I don’t think this kind of behavior should ever be excused or justified or forgotten or swept under the rug. I’m just not sure what the end game is here for all the shame? Do we feel good about someone being “worse” than us? That says more about our own guilt and inadequacy than it does about Kewan Platt. It does feel good. I’m sure if you went all the way back in my Twitter feed you’d see some shaming I’m not proud of, but I’d like to think I’ve learned over time. I’d like to think we all can. I want to believe we can be better, more caring, more compassionate and understanding people than we were yesterday. I’d like to think that of Kewan Platt, too.

Violence creates two victims. Always. It shapes the life of the victim in ways they don’t deserve or ask for. It also shapes the life of the offender, regardless of the consequences. In both cases, the only healthy response to violence is knowing, believing that we are more than what we experience, more than what the violence tells us we are.

If we’re willing to call Kewan Platt “trash” or “worthless” we might as well just wish him dead, because we’re writing off his future. For so many people, the future is determined by the mistakes they make. It doesn’t have to be that way for any of us. We don’t hear it enough, but we can be something different than what we’ve been. We have to be, or there’s no point to life.

Nate Tenaglia is really the only one with standing to address Kewan Platt. Yeah, his coach and school and family and friends have a responsibility to address what he did; those actions come with consequences. But they, like us, really have one choice: to do what’s going to help him be more than he was Tuesday night. Shame doesn’t do that, no matter how much it feels like the right way. We’ve all had enough experience with shame to know that life itself is just a succession of second chances.

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