Off the Field Issues

College football kicked off this weekend with a full slate of games. Clemson and Georgia tangled at Death Valley, Alabama and Virginia Tech got things going in Atlanta and TCU and LSU met at Jerryworld. Dozens of other games kicked off as well across the country. In Annapolis, Maryland testimony kicked off in a sexual assault trial involving three former Navy football players. The defendants, Tra’ves Bush, Joshua Tate and Eric Graham are accused of gang raping a female at an off-campus football “party house.” After the alleged rape the three Midshipmen bragged about the event on social media and taunted the victim.

At the same time, just as Vanderbilt and Ole Miss were kicking off in Nashville, four Commodore football players had pled not guilty to sexual assault charges stemming from an off-campus party. JaBorian McKenzie, Brandon Banks, Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey are charged with sexually assaulting a female Vanderbilt student. Three other football players were suspended from the team for their involvement in the alleged crime including tampering with evidence.

Those high profile cases weren’t the only intersections of college athletes and the law. On a lesser note, moments before Texas A&M took on Rice in Kyle Field on Saturday, the school announced that four defensive players would be suspended for two games due to “violating team rules” and that three others were suspended for half the game due to off season arrests. The Aggies opponent, Rice, suspended its top cornerback for the game. The Washington Huskies christened their new stadium in Seattle with returning tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins suspended due to a DUI.

LSU’s Jeremy Hill is caught red handed. Hill was videoed walking up behind another male in a parking lot and sucker punching the individual. Hill was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery. The evidence was damning, the punishment was not as head coach Les Miles allowed the team to vote on Hill’s reinstatement. In a not-so-shocking result the Tigers voted unanimously to allow the near 1,000-yard rusher to stay on the team. Hill was suspended for the opener against TCU.

The evidence was damning, the punishment was not as head coach Les Miles allowed the team to vote on Hill’s reinstatement.

UTSA defensive end Will Ritter was suspended indefinitely after allegedly punching two women on sixth-street in July. He has been charged with aggravated assault and public intoxication. He joined former teammates Adefemi Adekeye and cornerback Toyin Dada who were dismissed from the UTSA team last year when a drug deal went bad and the two players pistol whipped the victim.

These are just a few of the legal issues effecting college football that we know about, the list could go on and on and on. However, most are incidents they we, as casual fans, never hear about. Instead we hear about suspensions, violations of team rules, university policy, and issues that will be handled internally or “by our football family.”

Aaron Hernandez sits in a Massachusetts jail cell awaiting trial on a murder charge. Since his arrest, Hernandez has been linked to at least two other homicides. This is now old news to us. What we didn’t know was that Hernandez, while a student athlete at Florida was suspected of two violent crimes, one of which remains unsolved, and numerous failed drug tests. We never knew any of this because Hernandez and Florida couldn’t be bothered to suspend their star tight end and the local authorities didn’t see fit charge him. Hernandez is the most notorious of the 2008 National Champs, but not the only bad apple. 41 of the 121 players on the Gators roster were arrested in college, post-college, or both.

Hernandez and Florida’s twin All-American lineman Mike and Maurkice Pouncey were suspects in a shooting after an altercation at a nightclub. Hernandez pled the fifth when questioned and the incident remains unsolved or apparently even investigated in spite of the three players involvement with the victim at the night club and an individual matching Hernandez’ description being identified by the victim.

None of this interrupted the season, Hernandez played and played well. Some have alleged that Florida coach Urban Meyer and his staff shielded his players from scrutiny and criminal repercussions. Ohio State hired Meyer last year and his penchant for players with off the field issues has continued.

A Semi-Charmed Kind of Life

More and more, college athletes act with an almost complete sense of entitlement. They’ve seen the way the wind blows. They arrive on campus, receive duffle bags full of swag from shoe companies, are allowed to register for classes early, are placed in easier degree tracks, get preferential treatment on testing schedules, have access to tutors, some of whom have been far more active in school work than is academically honest.

They are treated like kings on campus and around town. The college existence for an athlete, especially a football player at places like LSU, Ohio State, Texas A&M, and Florida, is a charmed life.

Often times this charmed existence begins long before athletes set foot on campus. Athletes are wined and dined by college coaches, have their grades manipulated and changed by high school coaches, and receive worlds of attention from recruiting services, fans, college alums, and the media.

By this time someone, usually a parent or guardian, has spent resources and time to help give these kids the best possible opportunity. Expenditures often involve trainers, speed camps, dieticians, and recruiting trips. College athletes arrive on campus feeling bulletproof. They also live above the law at times.

College athletes commit a larger percentage of crimes than their non-athlete peers. The instances at Navy and Vanderbilt, in spite of the academic reputations of both schools, are not entirely surprising, as a large percentage of crimes are directed at women. In 1995 a national study examined the campus police records and internal judicial affairs records at 20 Division I institutions, most of which had top basketball or football programs. Among other things, the study found that male student-athletes comprised 3.3 percent of the total male population, yet represented 19 percent of the perpetrators reported for sexual assault. A later case study of 125 criminal incidents involving student athletes found that women were the alleged victims in at least 22 of the 125 arrests involving basketball and football players. That's almost 20 percent, most of which, 14 in all, involved domestic violence.

College athletes commit a larger percentage of crimes than their non-athlete peers.

A CBS News study found that 1 in 14 college football players on Top 25 teams in 2011 played with a criminal record. 39% of those convicted offenses were labeled “serious” including violent crimes such as assault, sexual crimes and robbery. What’s scary is that schools and coaches had either no clue or made no real effort to find out just what baggage players brought with them to campus. Forty times were given higher scrutiny that a violent criminal past. Placed in an environment where laws and policies don’t apply is it any wonder that man college athletes find opportunities to step out of line.

Where are the Grown-Ups?

The take away from Saturday’s college football slate in some cases wasn’t the action on the field but the action off the field and more importantly how different coaches and universities handle law breaking and rule infractions. What’s worse is the way local authorities, i.e. police, DA’s, and even judges give players a pass.

After Hernandez ruptured the ear drum of a bar patron, police didn’t file a report and his sentence was deferred.

By age 19 Jeremy Hill was already on probation for pressuring a 14-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him in his high school dressing room. He was still on probation when he sucker punched the victim in the parking lot. Hill pled guilty but was allowed to remain on probation even after committing a subsequent violent offense. The judge simply increased his level of supervision. It’s doubtful this deal would’ve been struck in most circumstances but then funny things happen when football players have their day in court.

After Hernandez ruptured the ear drum of a bar patron, police didn’t file a report and his sentence was deferred.

This leniency is not new for Hill. Judge Mike Erwin, when defining terms of probation for Hill’s sexual assault plea, allowed Hill latitude on his court-imposed curfew on nights the Tigers played games. Erwin, an LSU grad, probably doesn’t normally extend such conveniences for non-blue chip citizens.

Hill’s judge on the misdemeanor assault was also an LSU grad. She kept his nights open as well.

In 2010, Oregon star running back LaMichael James was charged with menacing, strangulation, and assault after an altercation with his former girlfriend. In March of 2010 he pled guilty to a single misdemeanor harassment charge and was sentenced to 10 days in jail, but didn't serve any time. Instead, James was permitted to wear an electronic surveillance device and suspended for one game by then Ducks coach Chip Kelly.

Never forget, for the most part, judges are elected at the state level. Endangering Big State’s chances can get you unelected quick. It probably wouldn’t help your fund raising either.

Who’s In Charge?

Les Miles has taken his hands off the wheel and let the inmates run the asylum as the saying goes. "He (Hill) was not going to be invited back to practice, had they (his teammates) not voted to have him back," Miles famously said earlier this summer. "I wanted them to have the right to express themselves in a vote, and they did." Well, democracy wins out, which begs the question, where is the University in all this?

Joe Paterno famously pled with Penn State’s administration to allow he and his coaches to handle discipline for players in house and not involve student review boards or even outside authorities for that matter. After Paterno’s firing, details began to come to light that Penn State players got in trouble more often than other students, and got special treatment compared to non-athletes. Then standards and conduct officer Vicky Triponey said that Paterno preferred the University stay out of his locker room. In an email Ms. Triponey stated that Paterno “is insistent he knows best how to discipline his players ... and their status as a student when they commit violations of our standards should NOT be our concern...” And further that “Coach Paterno would rather we NOT inform the public when a football player is found responsible for committing a serious violation of the law and/or our student code," she wrote, "despite any moral or legal obligation to do so.”

Coach Paterno would rather we NOT inform the public when a football player is found responsible for committing a serious violation of the law and/or our student code

As we now know, no one on Penn State’s campus dared intervene into the affairs of the hallowed football program.

There lies the problem - who watches the watchers? Head coaches are often the highest paid state employees and are often given a wide berth to decide “internal” issues involving players. When this is the case, how does the system maintain any sense of objectivity? Head coaches are allowed to act with impunity and decide issues that often go far beyond the field of play. Football and its media rights driven dollars is big business for an athletic department and university as a whole.

Having a football coach advocate directly on behalf of a player accused of or convicted of a criminal offense is out of touch with the objectivity such disciplinary instances demand. Imagine a chemistry major at a major university gets a DWI or an assault conviction, how bizarre would it be for the head of the Chemistry Department to actively work to circumvent university policy or the legal process.

There is evidence in the Hernandez bar assault, that Florida coaches contacted the victim. The matter was settled in some form or fashion outside of the judicial process and with the alleged direct involvement of the Florida coaching staff. Universities almost always have some sort of disciplinary policy for handing disciplinary/criminal issues for its students at large. The rules don’t apply in some instances to student athletes.

In a different sport Baylor’s All American women’s basketball player Britteny Greiner, then a freshman, slugged Texas Tech player Jordan Barncastle out of frustration, breaking Barncastle’s nose. Barncastle would never fully recover from the injury and incident. Griner’s coach Kim Mulkey said afterwards, "There's no place for that in sports. I will deal with Brittney Griner, and it won't be discussed in the media." What one would hope is that regardless of how Mulkey dealt with the issue, Baylor University would have final say.

Sadly at most major colleges the coach is judge, jury, and often times, issues the pardon. Coaches have carved out end-runs around policies in an effort to protect their most valuable commodities. Some states, have attempted to limit the influence of coaches by passing laws that prohibit athletes charged with a felony from competing in intercollegiate athletics until the case is resolved. But, as in the Hernandez case, if a crime is never reported, do these laws actually matter?

...most major colleges the coach is judge, jury, and often times, issues the pardon.

This is not to say that college football is amuck with thugs, but it is to say that when these fringe individuals show up on college campuses and are pampered and catered to, they learn that the rules don’t apply.

Posted on September 4, 2013 and filed under Sports.