Xavier, Cincinnati and the issue of race

I guess I'm wired this way. But my first thought about Saturday's Xavier-Cincinnati melee centered on race.

My initial response disregarded the pending suspensions or the blood spilled or the trash talk.

Instead, it was simply: "Dang, young black men fighting on national TV."

I wondered if other African-American viewers had the same reaction.

I thought about the social stigmas related to violence within the black community that were supported by the actions of players from both teams, who engaged in a battle royale toward the end of Xavier's 76-53 victory over crosstown rival Cincinnati.

I figured some ignorant folks would push the "that's what young black men do" stereotypes. And I worried about words like "thugs" and "gangs" that the same sort of people threw out on the Internet after the brawl. (When you hear the word "thug" used to describe an athlete, how often is that athlete something other than black?)

Others went even further by using racist language in their descriptions of the altercation.

Those were my fears.

Listen, I'm not going to play the role of moral police officer and point fingers. Officials from both programs have announced multiple suspensions, but I'm not here to discuss their severity.

As a 28-year-old African-American, I'm concerned about the backlash that will outlive the incident. Xavier and Cincinnati fed negative stereotypes about the violent nature of young black men that will last long after players serve their suspensions.

They're not true. Most young black men aren't violent. But Saturday's incident and others like it provide ample evidence for those who disagree.

Check the message boards.

Predictably, plenty have feasted on the viral violence involving multiple young black men.

After Cincinnati officials announced the six-game suspension for Yancy Gates on Sunday, I tweeted, "I figured 10 minimum for Gates. 6?"

Here's how one of my followers responded: "Only six? That's pretty soft for a gang beating."

Too often, the negative behaviors of young black men -- more than other groups -- are tied to their race. Their actions are sometimes viewed as cultural, instead of individual.

But young, African-American college athletes, such as Tu Holloway and Gates, can help rid society of those imbalanced and unfair stereotypes.

Throughout history, African-American athletes have acted as community politicians and role models, whether they deserved those tags or not. They speak, folks often listen.

Players from both teams had the opportunity to prove that the escalation of emotions in fiery competition doesn't have to result in fisticuffs or misguided postgame bravado -- and many young people from all backgrounds were watching.

Well, those players involved clearly failed to lead by example.

No, young black athletes weren't the only ones fighting at the Cintas Center, but they threw the bulk of the punches. They were the ones being pulled away as cameras focused on the action. And they spewed the verbal threats that continued even after players were separated.

Too often, similar disputes in real-world scenarios among young black men end with shootings and murders. In 2010, Cincinnati's homicide rate jumped 20 percent from 2009, in part because some young black men lacked the emotional restraint to avoid violence.

Saturday's postgame reaction from players suggested that they weren't aware of their influence and responsibility. Instead of admitting their errors, they continued to fuel stereotypes.

Holloway said he had a locker room full of "gangsters," and Lyons talked about "where we come from" and the need to react with violence in those scenarios.

Again, you watch the video and decide whether players were defending themselves or simply fighting for the sake of fighting.

I know players have since apologized. But they might not realize that the perception of this weekend's incident is significant and that it's so much larger than one player, team or punch.

They're the ones who've made it. They've earned free college educations, a chance to compete on a national stage and, if they excel, a shot at the pros.

With that comes a charge to recognize that their actions influence perspectives and opinions about many young men who look like them. It's not necessarily fair that they've ended up in this position, but it's the reality.

That's why I hope every player involved embraces their power to project positivity in the future by finding ways to avoid what happened Saturday.

It would be the only good thing to come out of this dispiriting mess.

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN