Seriously, Tennessee? One fourth-down play at the end of the game doesn’t go your way and hundreds of fans, especially in the student section, decide to get a head start on cleaning up the stands by throwing water bottles onto the field?

The misbehavior, broadcast nationally Saturday on the SEC Network as the Volunteers lost a close game to Ole Miss, resulted in a 20-minute delay of a game that already had lasted far too long. This episode was an embarrassment to the university and to the Southeastern Conference as well.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, unpopular in Knoxville because he dumped Tennessee after just one year for USC, got nicked by a yellow golf ball thrown from the stands. Security officers ordered the Ole Miss team off the sidelines to the middle of the field. The Tennessee band and cheerleaders left the stadium.

Let’s just say it: This was compelling television of a mini-protest that kept anybody still watching the game from going to bed. It’s a surprise nobody from Tennessee has argued that the antifa people are to blame, that they must have sneaked into the stadium and caused all the trouble, because the Volunteers have great students and fans who would never, ever behave so shamefully.

Except that too many of the Tennessee fans did behave shamefully. After the game, it fell to SEC Network’s studio analyst Benjamin Watson to note that while the passion of SEC football fans is wonderful, this was way over the line because there were a couple of hundred people on the field who had nothing to do with that fourth-down call. All of them were at risk of injury for a few minutes Saturday night, and the SEC knows it’s lucky that no one got hurt.

Aside from wondering who brings a golf ball to a football game, the big question is what could have caused too many people to go bonkers?

It can’t be Kiffin’s return. If a lot of the bottles came from the student section, they were about 8 or 9 years old when he jilted Tennessee in 2009. Kids don’t hold that kind of grudge.

It also can’t be the game itself. Ole Miss is not one of Tennessee’s rivals that Volunteer fans love to hate. They reserve their venom for Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

And honestly, it can’t be that fourth-down spot of the ball a foot short of a first down. The call certainly is debatable, but replays indicated the receiver had the ball tucked against his chest – and did not get the necessary yardage.

A strong suspect would be beer and wine sales in the stadium, which began in 2019. Plenty of college football fans sneak their own flasks into stadiums, but making alcohol legitimate had to increase the potential for trouble. Saturday night indicated it sure didn’t help.

Here’s one nomination for the biggest factor: The public’s behavior outside football stadiums.

Think about it. In 2020 people marched about the deaths of George Floyd and others. Too many of these turned violent.

In January, there was the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump on the day that Congress was certifying that the election had been won by Joe Biden.

And for much of this year, there have been arguments and shouting matches about the COVID-19 vaccine. One side says people ought to get the shots – even that the government should require them – to halt the pandemic. The other side says no one can tell them what to do.

Is it really a stretch to envision the herd mentality, this-is-so-unfair, don’t-tread-on-me mindset of these events creeping into a college football game, where emotions and passions run high?

Saturday night did create a dilemma for the SEC. It must figure out a punishment that will keep people at other games from doing the same thing. It would be nice to count on all fans to behave, but these days that’s just not guaranteed.

Jack Ryan is editor of the Enterprise-Journal based in McComb, Mississippi.

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