BEARING THE COSTS OF HIGH-RISK ATHLETES

Posted by Dr. Ken Pendleton

Let me see if I can summarize what USA Today recently reported about an incident involving Aaron Hernandez and, believe it or not, Tim Tebow. The two of the them were at a night-spot, called the Swamp, at one in the morning, on a weeknight during the University of Florida’s spring semester. The then 17-year-old Hernandez successfully ordered and consumed two drinks (and I assume by drink we mean adult beverage), refused to pay, and slugged an employee in the side of the head, breaking his eardrum. Tebow tried to convince Hernandez to leave before the incident occurred, and even offered to pay the bill, and agreed to serve as a police witness. The police were all set to charge Hernandez with felonious assault, but the person with a broken eardrum withdrew the charges, after having contact with officials from UF’s athletic department.

Florida’s and coach Urban Meyer’s handling of this situation is, to put it as mildly as possible, troubling. In fact, incidents like these, which occur all too regularly, raise basic questions about the nature of football, the character required to succeed, and the steps that the NCAA can and should take to compel coaches like Meyer to make better decisions about how to discipline players.

The Nature of Football: You might be surprised to learn that most coaches have defended the extraordinary violence that is part and parcel of football on the grounds that it does, or at least can, build character. The ability to withstand, and persevere in the face of constant punishment is supposed to inculcate the toughness that will teach players how to keep moving forward in life no matter the number of obstacles. As Bear Bryant used to tell his players by way of explaining what it means to fight: “I mean, some morning when you’ve been out of school 20 years and you wake up and your house has burned down and your mother is in the hospital and the kids are all sick and you’re overdrawn at the bank and your wife has run off with the drummer what are you going to do? Throw in? “ Bryant and his coaching brethren would probably not go so far as to claim that playing other sports cannot build character, but most of them believe that football forges the stoutest men.

The Character Required to Succeed: The problem, of course, is that football doesn’t just teach young men how to endure and overcome, it also puts a premium on one’s ability, and willingness, to administer violence. The ideal calls for vicious but fair play on the field and law abiding citizenship off of it. But, as former Notre Dame running back Alan Pinkett recently explained, being law abiding sometimes has to take a backseat: “You have to have a couple of bad guys that sort of teeter on that edge to add to the flavor of the guys that are going to always do right because that just adds to the chemistry of the football team. You have to have… you look at the teams that have won in the past, they have always had a couple of criminals.” Tebow embodied the possibility that ferocity on field can be coupled with gentlemanly comportment off of it, but Pinkett’s comments suggest that success requires some players like Hernandez and the 30 other UF players who were arrested between 2007 and ’10.

Steps the NCAA Can and Should Take: The suggestions I am about to make are based on the premise that coaches are usually going to place more emphasis on winning than doing what’s right. Meyer obviously should have allowed the criminal justice system to run its course in Hernandez’s case—and undoubtedly he would have done so if he had witnessed one neighbor punching another in the ear—but the pressure to win often compels supposedly God-fearing coaches, like Meyer and his predecessor at Ohio State Jim Tressel, to put the Good Book in their pockets.

Coaches constantly tout the virtues of tough love, but most share Pinkett’s view that, “You don’t hand out suspensions unless you know you’ve got somebody behind that guy that can make plays.” And, striking a similar pragmatic note, you don’t recruit troubled players unless you think the potential benefits are worth the potential risks.The goal of these suggestions is to force coaches to calculate the cost/benefit ratios differently:

  • Any player charged with a misdemeanor, let alone a felony, must be suspended until charges are dropped or the sentence is served.
  • Two strikes and you’re out: Any player convicted of more than one crime loses his scholarship, period.
  • The minimum suspension for a misdemeanor should be four games, and one season for a felony.
  • The four-game suspension should apply to conference and bowl games so that teams don’t whittle down their impact by scheduling out of conference games against Lamb-to-the-Slaughter U.
  • The personnel from universities should be strictly prohibited from establishing contact with someone, like the manager at the Swamp, who is contemplating criminal action against a student-athlete. This should constitute a major violation with a five-scholarship deduction from the next recruiting class.
  • Universities should be required to compile a list of all players who have been arrested and turn it over to the NCAA. The NCAA should then publish these statistics and grade each program.

The point of these suggestions is to compel coaches to absorb more of the risks and costs that come with recruiting and retaining athletes that do not embody the student ideal. As it stands, PR hit and possibly pangs of conscience aside, Urban Meyer has not had to bear the costs of the risks he took on Hernandez. Sadly, and perhaps tragically, those costs have been borne by others while Meyer has moved on to an even bigger salary at another elite program. I am not sure that he would have even recruited Hernandez if there had been mandatory suspensions, which would have been applied to conference games, clear criteria for dismissal, the inability to intervene in any potentially criminal matter, and a report card that would publicize and penalize any wrongdoings.

I know coaches would probably lobby against these kinds of proposals, because they don’t like change, especially when it requires more bureaucrats, and chafe at any loss of authority. But I think that, so long as these rules were applied uniformly, coaches would be better off because they would not be nearly as tempted to take chances on players who cost them so much of what little sleep they now get. I would like to think that both Meyer and Tressel are sincere in their religious convictions, even though they badly lost their respective scriptural plots. They were put in a position where there was a stark choice between serving worldly concerns and serving God, and we should take every step possible to reconcile serving both.