The vitriol against Cullen Neal needs to stop.
Believe me, I didn’t want to embroil myself in this back-and-forth debate over Cullen Neal, whether he plays too much, whether his dad favors his son. But when I sit through a Craig Neal press conference when we should be discussing San Jose State but instead a father says his son has received threats, I felt compelled to respond.
In his first press conference before the Albuquerque media since two straight losses at San Diego State and Utah State, the Cullen Neal question came up. Was the constant criticism from a segment of fans wearing on him?
What followed was the most open Craig Neal has been publicly about situation.
“I'll just put it this way,” he said. “When you have to change your phone number and you have to shut down your Twitter account and you have to change your Facebook account, it's sad.”
Now in this town, with a program like this, fans will always throw their two cents into the conversation. Both Craig and Cullen Neal put themselves on the biggest sports stages in this state. They surely must have known the pressure they would feel being at the forefront of New Mexico sports.
If they couldn’t handle the fans, the media attention, the criticism, then they should not have signed on. But then Craig Neal said the following, something that makes this much more than mere complaints:
“It's not fair that you get threats and you get death threats, and it's not right. So does it affect him? I think that kind of answers your question.”
When it comes to threats, changing phone numbers and deleting social media accounts no longer become a means to block out criticism. It’s taking it to the next, darker level. Craig Neal didn’t elaborate further on the threats, and no one can fault him for that. It can’t be an easy thing to talk about.
It does not appear this is the majority view among Lobo fans, and I hope any but many Cullen Neal detractors are the most vocal and go to platforms to make their feelings known. Threats should never be an appropriate course to undertake.
Of course, Craig Neal will get some backlash for showing such support for his son, but these will be the same people who already have a problem with the coach/son dynamic. But the rhetoric has become out of hand.
Fans are creatures of emotion, but they most certainly need to keep their fandom in perspective. Cheer for them, feel pride in them. If bad things happen, it’s OK to feel despondent or even angry when things don’t go your way.
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But at the end of the day, it’s sports and sports should be fun, even at the college level. It’s not worth elevating to the point where one player feels he constantly needs to prove himself to everyone and it affects his play. He especially shouldn’t have to worry about undeserving threats.
Cullen Neal is a person first, a basketball player second. Remember that.
J.R. Oppenheim is the assistant sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s basketball and women’s soccer. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JROppenheim.