This punishment is a crime
Gators' creative suspension rescheduling makes school look spineless
Posted: Friday September 10, 2004 2:42PM; Updated: Friday September 10, 2004 2:42PM
As Florida Gators faithful know too well, the season opener wasn't played last Saturday, thanks to the nasty doings of Hurricane Frances. So the Gators officially kick it off Saturday against Eastern Michigan, right? Well, yes and no.
The Swamp will be packed in a sea of orange and blue, for sure. But from the sound of things, the Florida athletic department may have consulted President Clinton on the varied and agenda-fitting meanings of season opener. Yeah, it's the opener for Ron Zook's bunch, though not technically for Florida star linebacker Channing Crowder and free safety Jarvis Herring. But both will still suit up and play.
The background is the two players were suspended for the "opener" after a summer fracas in downtown Gainesville that involved local cops, which reads like a repeat performance of a year ago for Crowder. Here's where it gets funny: the hairsplitting between old opener vs. new opener. Florida officials now say the suspensions don't apply to the new opener, a final tune-up before a key SEC contest at Tennessee next weekend, rather they will be served during the game to be made up against Middle Tennessee on Oct. 16.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley, a standup guy, says it was his call and he'll shoulder the criticism. "I learned a long time ago, when it comes to discipline you don't get 100 percent acceptance of what you do,'' Foley offered.
So the old opener is the game they were to miss, and by golly it'll be the Middle Tennessee game they sit out. That sounds good, but you wonder if Zook is being given every advantage by a boss whose own security is tied to the Gators' win-loss record. By playing in the new opener, Crowder and Herring -- who last played in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl loss to Iowa -- get on the field with the defense before the big game against No. 14 Tennessee.
And what happens if, heaven forbid, one of the players is injured and can't play against Middle Tennessee? Herring is a senior so he's free to walk. Are we to assume Crowder, the sophomore All-SEC linebacker, would sit out next year's season opener? Or wait untilMiddle Tennessee returns to the schedule?
But hey, this isn't solely a Florida joke. I mean, you can pick up the local sports section and see off-the-field garbage in every program, big and small, from USC to UConn. The problem is there are no uniform guidelines on treating miscreants.
The NCAA hands down sanctions on athletes scoring free airline tickets or extra T-shirts, yet its member schools have intentionally left it powerless to touch real criminals. That remains for in-house folks to deal with, i.e. coaches and athletic directors. And what you end up with is all over the lot.
Consider the range of punishments for recent thuggish or drunken indiscretions:
Miami All-American cornerback Antrel Rolle and Florida State offensive lineman Bobby Meeks are playing in Friday night's rivalry game despite summer run-ins with the law. Rolle allegedly pushed a police officer and refused to be handcuffed during an argument outside a bar at 4 a.m., while an arrest report says a stun gun and pepper spray were required to subdue Meeks after he tried to punch and kick police during a disturbance outside a nightclub. Prosecutors chose not to file formal charges against Rolle, and Meeks pleaded guilty to reduced misdemeanor charges and is serving a year's probation.
Tennessee star receiver James Banks, cited for underage drinking this summer, was to miss the first three games -- including the Florida showdown -- before knee surgery last week sidelined him for the season. The same allegation got Penn State punter Jeremy Kapinos suspended from spring practice and drew teammate E.Z. Smith a one-year university suspension.
Georgia All-SEC linebacker Odell Thurman violated team rules and is out three games -- including Saturday's conference game at South Carolina. Fullback Jeremy Thomas is also missing a second game after being charged with public intoxication.
Nebraska center Richie Incognito is sitting out a second Saturday and perhaps more after getting in a couple of fights, the most recent reportedly with a teammate after practice.
Southern Cal offensive tackle Winston Justice, a two-year starter, is done for the season after allegedly pulling a pellet gun on a student.
The solution? It could be suggested that all these fine academic institutions, through the NCAA, finally set some hard and fast standards of punishment. Problem is you'd run into a sea of red tape and likely even more chaos. A felony in one case might be a misdemeanor or conveniently dropped in another. And the system would be further handicapped by hometown justice and pressure on campus cops to go easy on athletes.
So might we suggest not going so far as to spell out specific punishment. Just gather folks in a room and see if they can't agree on some universal guidelines or recommended practices on discipline. No requirements or anything that might be seen as threatening the heavy hand of the NCAA. But if coaches or programs prove habitually soft, then they'd be fair game to be publicly called on it.
"Obviously, guidelines could be helpful,'' Foley admits. "But I think they'd be hard to draw up, because you'd have trouble getting universal acceptance on that. What gets done at the NCAA level is not the NCAA office telling you what to do. It is the membership saying this is what we want to do. And you'd have trouble getting that done in this league [SEC]. I just think it'd be hard to get 12 coaches or 12 athletic directors to agree on this is what they should be.''
That's tough. Whether it's East Lansing or Gainesville, the Pac-10 or ACC, you'd like to think a public intoxication citation or a skirmish with the local cops might draw similar response.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.