“I don’t want our guys to smoke marijuana. I don’t want our guys to do anything illegal. I don’t want our guys to do anything that they shouldn’t be doing. So when you have policies that have a lot of teeth to it ... The No. 1 thing our guys want is what? They want playing time. Well if I take that away from them, then that might teach the lesson a little bit better than not. You know what I’m saying?”
-- UGA Head Football Coach Mark Richt
If we dare wonder why so many professional football players find themselves on the wrong side of the law, all we need do is look at their behavior in college and many times high school. They are the privileged athletes that start getting too big for their britches long before they set a cleat on an NFL field. To be fair, football players are not the only athletes who find themselves making bail for one reason or an other, but football players do stand out for more than their size and agility. Sometimes it makes us wonder if they learned anything while in college? Some only found out that they were special and would be treated as such by their adoring fans.
Thirty-one NFL players have been arrested since Super Bowl XLVII, the most serious charges have come against New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez for murder. According to a Time magazine report, “From 2000 to 2006, the NFL averaged 17.7 player arrests during the off-season. ... From 2008 through 2013, the NFL has averaged 28.5 arrests per off-season.” A 61 percent increase.
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It’s hard to point to many of these athletes’ impoverished backgrounds. By the time they hit the pro ranks, many are multi-millionaires. Hernandez had just signed a contract for $40 million.
So what say fans of college football when they see their teams dragged through the media mud when one of their former players is arrested on serious charges? What do they say when they find out their head coach covered for a player who is now in much bigger trouble than any coach can erase? Some fans seem to follow the Al Davis adage of Oakland Raider fame, “Just win, baby.” But is that what we’ve come to?
Richt’s stance is admirable. Georgia has had its share of disciplinary problems this year with one player arrested for boating under the influence and another dismissed from the team for marijuana use. Another teammate was suspended for one game for the same offense. The commitment of the Bulldog Nation will be tested if Georgia falls from its No. 5 position in the polls or drops its opening game to Clemson. Whether it’s true or not -- if that happens -- some fans will point to that suspended player as the reason and at Richt’s policy for keeping him off the field.
So how should athletes be treated? They are young men after all, and young men don’t always have their heads screwed on right. Richt’s policy should address some of the disciplinary issues. However, coddled athletes seem to always find a way to skirt the rules. For some, good home training was absent. For others, their athletic maturity jumped far ahead of their moral maturity.
Until college coaches stop overlooking obvious character flaws in the athletes they pursue for scholarship, the string of athlete perp walks will continue. What sports needs in general, to mangle a line from “The Dark Night,” “is a better class of athlete.”