Indefensible

Below is an article provided in its entirety. It originally appeared on the Bench Points Blog. It’s important to me, and I wanted to share it.

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This article has taken days to write. It’s because I didn’t know where to start – I still don’t, but here goes. This week two athletes from Florida State received discipline for violence against women – the quarterback caught on camera has been dismissed, the running back has been suspended indefinitely pending investigation. Florida State players are banned from bars – which treats a symptom, but what exactly can Fisher do at this point? Earlier this summer, a football player from the University of Florida received an indefinite suspension and subsequent dismissal after being charged with armed robbery. Joe Mixon, an Oklahoma football player, was caught on camera in 2014 committing violence against a woman that objectively exceeds the severity of either of the reports out of Tallahassee. Mixon was suspended for the 2014 season for the assault and allowed to remain in school; the video, however, has yet to see the light of day – because OU knows that if it does, the pressure to dismiss him will be too much to ignore. These are the higher profile incidents, yes; but they only account for a fraction of the total off-field incidents endured by college athletes in the past year. Everyone’s favorite teams have had at least one idiot in trouble off the field – if not this year, at some point in the near past.

That said, we, as fans, can no longer be staunch apologists for moronic and criminal behavior solely because the guy in question wears our team colors.

This offseason for college football has been one of the worst in recent memory, maybe ever – anecdotally, I have no specific data that I can point to because the scope is too broad, but I’ll add what I find later, if anything. These athletes lack what seems like any accountability or structure once the football season concludes. Even if something is in place, these kids naturally have tons more idle time than they did when they were in season. Couple that with the fact that many places that are big on football are smaller towns, and you’ve got a perfect storm for – let’s face it – entitled young men between 18 and 25. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Moreover, information has never traveled faster or in a more volatile way. Social media broadcasts information nearly the instant it’s known. We don’t have to wait for 1000 word articles anymore; 140 characters can be parsed much faster. Tweets and Facebook posts deliver the basic information without much of the context – it’s great for spreading the word, not as great for providing important nuanced discussion. But, that’s the world we live in. Because of this, wrongdoing by celebrities, such as college athletes, is incredibly more publicized than it used to be. These kids, as a class, are likely no worse than their peers from two decades ago; they’re just more visible. Despite the fact that we can explain why, it does not change the fact that college athletes must be better in these times. No one said it was fair, no one cares that it’s not.

Although the landscape has shifted and these kids are being asked to mature very quickly, they are neither victims of circumstance nor a group to be pitied. Athletes have a station and power seldom reserved for people their age. It’s an unwelcome liability for most, and turns a small fraction of the athletes into loose cannons just waiting to be caught – and caught they will be, if this summer is any indicator.

And when they’re caught, they are currently defended tooth and nail by a lot of fans. Many of these fans claw and search for justifications for the players’ idiotic actions. When it’s our team, the situation is “different” and “we don’t have all the facts yet.” When it’s a rival, it’s “cut and dry” and “obvious” and the player is the worst person to walk the earth since Stalin. Falling too far either way is problematic, but the blind defense and besmirching of the victim while propping up the culprit is the worst of all.

It’s only natural for us to want our teams to succeed, sometimes we want it to a fault. We create in our heads this idea that our team is superior in both ability and in integrity and that our coach is the most upstanding man in his profession. The problem is that it’s all a crock.

Consider Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal. No coach was more universally loved than Joe Paterno, nor did any coach have a reputation of integrity anywhere close to his. Then, news broke that Paterno may have had a hand at covering up the Sandusky abuse and his spotless legacy came crashing to the ground. The NCAA responded by levying heavy punishments for the athletic department’s complacency and willingness to turn a blind eye. This, of course, all unfolded live on ESPN. The sports world watched as ESPN held live looks-in on Penn State students appalled by the severity of the punishments when they didn’t believe their current athletic team should be held accountable for the actions of a former coach. The students literally rioted; and over the following days, countless opinions from pro-Penn State sources pointed out all the ways the had been wronged while refusing to acknowledge a modicum of the school’s responsibility for the actions of a former coach.

If you’re thinking, “Well, come on. That’s Penn State. My school and fans aren’t like that.” News flash: you’ve fallen prey to that lazy thinking; they are all exactly like that. Fans and students often search for ways to mollify a negative situation for their team, often at the expense of the victim. We regularly blame the victim and shield the culprit because he’s on our team, and he means something to our football program. Phrases like “she shouldn’t have done x” or “people are just hating on us because y” or “he was in the wrong place at the wrong time” are incredibly commonplace from supporters of the school and team in question. It’s always someone else’s fault.

This has to stop. I want badly for no one on my teams to ever get in the kind of high publicity, criminal trouble that has peppered the news this offseason – but that’s unrealistic, and I know that. In fact, my first instinct is to prop up the athlete because it protects the team. Here’s the problem, we have created an environment where the critics and victims are blamed, while we rationalize and justify the actions of the criminal as something they’re often not. Criminals exist in every age band, every race, every region, and every creed. And sometimes, these criminals play football in their spare time. The time that we begin holding these players accountable for their individual decisions and actions is long overdue.

It’s not about our teams, it’s not about our schools. It’s about advocating for the actual victims and focusing on the actions of the individual culprit. It’s time that we stopped propping up criminals because they have value to our sports teams.

No longer can we settle for convenience over conscience.