Dear college football: Please do better
Dear keepers of college football:
Why do you keep making it so hard to love your sport? More to the point, why do you find it so hard to just do the right thing?
I’ve been covering this sport for a decade-and-a-half, during which time I’ve seen more than my share of stupefying leadership. Remember the BCS? What a perennial train wreck that was. And conference realignment? Only you guys could kill Texas-Texas A&M but give us Ohio State-Rutgers.
End of day, though, that stuff was all pretty harmless. It didn’t make tailgating on a fall Saturday or watching 14 straight hours of football any less enjoyable.
Some of the events of the past two weeks, on the other hand, have been both infuriating and depressing, frankly causing me considerable guilt for writing so many articles that glamorize your sport.
Most stunning of course was the complete absence of basic humanity by those in charge at Baylor University in regards to sexual assault allegations against football players. We all read the disturbing Findings of Fact by law firm Pepper Hamilton that implicated not only Art Briles and his coaching staff, but those who should have exercised oversight of the program.
Like, for example, the university president.
In an embarrassing set of interviews since his demotion and subsequent resignation as chancellor, Ken Starr has exhibited a continued level of cluelessness about the entire situation. He pleaded ignorance to the extent of the problem because the incidents in question purportedly happened off-campus, only to be discredited immediately by an ESPN reporter. And as Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel noted, even now he seems to view Briles as possessing some sort of mythical character.
"… He has real gifts and he wants the best for these young men," Starr told Joe Schad. "He wants them to get an education. He’s a great encourager. That’s what that program is. But clearly there were things that were extremely disturbing and disquieting."
How can a president operate a university with such a level of naivete and fawning? Is it any wonder that a crisis like this could have happened under his watch? Most of all, how frightening is it that Starr, as the head of a school with a Power 5 athletic department, was one of a finite group of leaders who govern college sports? Case in point: He was chair of the Big 12 committee exploring expansion.
I can’t believe I ever took him seriously about anything related to athletics.
In light of Briles’ ouster, many of us postulated that the Baylor scandal could be a wake-up call to other schools about their handling of violent crimes against women. It took barely a week for the folks at Mississippi State to prove that wrong.
On Thursday, the school announced it would still admit five-star signee Jeffery Simmons despite video of him pummeling a woman on the ground during a parking lot fight — with conditions. The first condition? Simmons, who’s facing a misdemeanor assault charge for the incident, must sit out the Bulldogs’ first game against Sun Belt foe South Alabama.
Why not two games? Beause Dan Mullen’s team opens SEC play the next week against South Carolina. Duh.
Shortly after the announcement, reporters justifiably grilled AD Scott Stricklin during an appearance at conference meetings in Destin, Fla. (He felt the brunt because Mullen conveniently exited town shortly before the release.) He said the school did a thorough investigation of Simmons’ background and felt confident his behavior was an aberration. He made sure to note that this was not an incident of sexual violence against a woman — just violence.
"Does five seconds of a bad decision that happens to get caught on videotape when you’re 16 or 17, does that change the trajectory of your life?" said Stricklin.
This is a common refrain we keep hearing in these situations, how it’s unfair to kick a guy to the curb over one bad moment, that it could severely damage a young man’s life. Somehow they keep failing to grasp the damage these incidents do the women on the other end of them.
And by the way, there are a whole lot of other options short of parting ways with a kid completely and, as SI’s Andy Staples pointed out to Stricklin, giving the equivalent of an on-the-field targeting penalty (one game) for repeatedly hitting a woman on the ground. But of course, if they suspended him for a season he might himself opt out and go become someone else’s five-star signee.
I’ve had nothing but pleasant dealings over the years with both Mullen and Stricklin, but if Simmons ever lays a finger on a student at Mississippi State they deserve the same fate as Baylor’s Briles and athletic director Ian McCaw.
And you know what’s really maddening about college athletics leaders? That some are more willing to forgive a football player for striking a woman than they would if that same player wanted to transfer to another school.
As of this writing, Baylor was refusing to release any incoming freshmen from their letters of intent. An antiquated and near-universally enforced rule prevents an 18-year-old from changing his mind about enrolling at a university if by chance his future coach gets fired amidst a massive sexual assault scandal just days before enrollment.
"We will follow NCAA protocol (on releases)," acting coach Jim Grobe said Friday. The same school that failed its students by failing to follow protocols is now using them to make potential students’ lives more difficult.
Elsewhere in the Big 12, faculty athletics representatives met last week to decide whether a player like Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield — who Texas Tech refused to release in 2013, thus costing him a season of eligibility — should be exempt from that rule if he’s going from walk-on at one school to scholarship at the next. Seems like common sense, right?
Only they didn’t pass it initially. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said leaders were weary that schools would start poaching others’ walk-ons. This was apparently a real conversation. Only after public pressure — including from OU coach Bob Stoops and AD Joe Castiglione — did they reverse course the next day.
But how could they be so tone deaf in the first place? I wince at the extent of disconnect between administrators and the athletes they portend to protect.
But don’t worry, everybody. All is not lost. Some very powerful people are, as of this very moment, addressing some of the sport’s most pressing crises.
For example, Ole Miss two weeks ago released a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA. After nearly three years of work, investigators managed to unearth such atrocities as an assistant coach providing $33 worth of free lodging to a recruit and holding a 10-minute conversation with some recruits during a time of year when that’s a no-no.
Justice will soon be served.
Elsewhere, the sport’s most prominent coach, Nick Saban, delivered a fiery lecture in Destin about the sport’s undisputed No. 1 evil right now: satellite camps. The explosion of these events — where college coaches instruct high-school players outside of their own campuses — are "the Wild, Wild West," per Saban, a simmering cauldron of potential NCAA recruiting violations.
To be fair, he’s right. Since the SEC and ACC’s crusade to ban the camps got overturned so close to summer, they’re sprouting up faster than leaders can regulate them. And lord knows coaches can’t do anything without regulation.
But you’ll have to excuse me if I’m having trouble getting worked up about policing of registration fees amidst the industry’s larger lack of policing over actual serious crimes.
To be clear, I was hardly enamored with Jim Harbaugh’s "gotcha" Twitter response, either. I miss the day when football coaches traded barbs about the performances of their teams, not the ethics of summer camps.
So, to sum up where college football stands after the events of the last two weeks:
• Everyone’s out at Baylor over a massive institutional failure, but Starr still thinks Briles is the salt of the earth, while Briles thinks Baylor’s board was out to get him.
• Leaders at Mississippi State, after seeing what happened at Baylor, still thought it a good idea to take a player who hit a woman — on video — and try to sell a one-game punishment as sending a message.
• Leaders in the Big 12, whose universities charge tens of thousands in tuition, had to be shamed into allowing a walk-on paying his own way to accept a scholarship from another Big 12 school without repercussions.
• Nick Saban used his pulpit to complain about satellite camps. Jim Harbaugh used Twitter to issue the equivalent of, "He started it!"
Do better, guys.
Please. For the love of the sport.