Opinion: Putting the rivalry game on hold is the wrong move

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SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah basketball program put a hold on the BYU-Utah rivalry game Wednesday, citing player safety as its main reason for the "cooling-off period."

That decision, however, is the wrong move and the reasoning is faulty at best.

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said in a prepared statement that he approached Utah athletic director Chris Hill about holding off on the rivalry game shortly after BYU's Nick Emery took a shot at Utah's Brandon Taylor with an obvious and apparent punch to the upper body and face region during the Dec. 2 game.

"The level of emotions has escalated to the point where there is the potential for serious injury," Krystkowiak said. "Chris said he would support me in canceling next year's scheduled game against BYU. I called and let coach (Dave) Rose know our intentions a few days after our game (Dec. 2)."

"In the interests of our student-athlete welfare, he requested we cancel the BYU series until further notice," Hill added. "Given his reasons, I agreed to cancel next year's game. We will revisit resuming the rivalry at some point in the future."

Although a player's health should always be a factor in all aspects of the game, calling the rivalry off because of past indiscretions in the name of player safety is a misguided move and appears to be a power play against one's rival.

It's not that we don't believe Krystkowiak's desire for player safety, it's just that he and the university are using it as an excuse to drop the rivalry game.

In the most recent iteration of the rivalry game, Emery's punch was an indefensible action. But it was dealt with swiftly by Rose and shortly thereafter an apology was given from Emery. Does that negate the uncalled for actions of one player in an emotional game? No, but it's also not a reason to stop a rivalry game that has continued since 1909.

Utah, just like BYU, is guilty of letting emotions get the best of them in game situations within the last decade. And the two universities are not the only institutions in the country with this problem.

Yes, players should not be subject to being punched or any other form of intentional harm while playing the game, but putting the rivalry on hold is not an appropriate solution to a game that's bigger than either Krystkowiak or Hill.

If Utah wants to cancel the rivalry because it feels the Cougars offer no value to nonconference play, just be done with it and move on. Many will disagree, but at least it's a clear message. There are other fish in the sea and many other teams to schedule in college basketball. However, Krystkowiak does see value in the game based on comments made ahead of the game this year:

"You won't find too many programs that are playing in-state games as hard as this on a recurring home-and-home situation. I think this one's a little deeper than most, so I've never been opposed to keeping it going," Krystkowiak said a day before the rivalry game. "We've got our hands full, no doubt about it. But it is cool. As much as I'd want to complain and fight and hope that we didn't have to play BYU, there is something special about it."

The game matters and there is "something special about it." But hiding behind player safety as the sole reason for putting the game on hold is disingenuous and embarrassing.

Basketball is a physical sport and emotions can get the best of players, coaches and fans alike. But that's not isolated to rivalry games alone or to the BYU-Utah matchup in basketball, football, baseball, volleyball, swimming, etc. Utah's players are no safer playing Colorado Friday or Arizona later in the year as they are playing BYU anytime of the year or any other team for that matter.

It's a game of risk where a player's safety is always in question. The only way around it is to simply be idle and do nothing, and I'm guessing shuttering the program is off the table in this equation.

Should Duke and North Carolina call it quits because of the potential for serious injury? What about Syracuse and Connecticut, Michigan and Michigan State, Kansas and Kansas State or Louisville and Kentucky?

Each rivalry game is different, the emotions are higher and there's an increased level of physicality, but all continue to move forward despite the risk of serious injury.

If Utah wants a break from BYU for a year or more, just take a break. But don't make a lame excuse.

In the words of Krystkowiak earlier this year: "I would think (the game) means a lot to all the Utah kids, whether you're on a BYU roster or a Utah roster. It's got a little extra significance to it and you want your guys on your squad to rise to the occasion."

It's time for Utah to rise to the occasion and admit that the decision to put a hold on the rivalry was a bad decision, particularly when the reasoning was solely based on the physical nature of the last few games.

Contributing: Mike Anderson

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