In Blount case, fairness should trump discipline and consistency
Oregon coach Chip Kelly has opened the door for LeGarrett Blount to return
It's a prudent move because the original punishment failed to fit the crime
Kelly isn't just trying to improve his team's chance to win -- he's being fair
So LeGarrette Blount may not be done as an Oregon Duck, after all. After terminating the star running back's season, coach Chip Kelly has partially reinstated him, and is now on board with a plan that could get Blount back on the field sometime after Halloween.
Surely you recall Blount's meltdown-for-the-ages at Boise State on Sept. 3, and Kelly's subsequent suspension. Well, Oregon announced last week that if Blount continued to follow through on a series of corrective steps, he could get back on the field by Nov. 7, a week too late for Ducks' home game against USC, but in time to suit up for the last four games of the regular season.
Good for Kelly. He made the right call.
The news that Oregon pursued a two-track policy on this issue -- announcing Blount was done, even as it privately left open the possibility of reinstatement -- has left some of our preeminent opinion makers outraged, confused, wringing their hands. What kind of message does this send? What of public perception? How will this flip-flop look to the rest of the world? The coach ... changed his mind!
While I agree that discipline and consistency are high-minded and noble-sounding ideals, I also feel they should be trumped by this one:
The original punishment never fit the crime. Blount didn't drive drunk or deal dope or drag a woman down a flight of stairs by her hair (the most memorable of the many crimes perpetrated by ex-Nebraska running back and world-class misanthrope Lawrence Phillips, to whom some columnists -- in a Manute-Bol-like reach -- compared Blount).
Here's what he did: While still on the field, before his sweat had dried, he punched a Boise State player who went out of his way to tap on his shoulder and taunt him. At that point, yes, Blount flew off the handle for several minutes. He smacked a teammate who was trying to cool him off. It took a village to get him off the field, during which time he lunged toward Boise fans (one of whom struck him in the face). He needed to be punished. Ending his college career -- and possibly extinguishing in the process a promising NFL career -- though, was excessive. Now, Oregon has corrected that excess.
As Blount's YouTubed paroxysm went viral the next day, it became apparent his timing had been as lousy as his judgment. He wigged on national TV after the Thursday night game that kicked off the 2009 college football season. Millions were watching, just as millions were waiting the next day to find out how hard Kelly would come down on him. Exactly one game into his tenure as a head coach, Kelly felt intense pressure to mete out some Old Testament justice. And he did. Blount was done as a Duck.
Cable news couldn't get enough of it. I sat stranded in an airport the following day watching serial repeats of The Punch, then listening as one anchor after another asked, Whatever happened to sportsmanship? I guess they've never been to a hockey game.
Whence sportsmanship? By all means, pose that question to Blount. But pose it also to Byron Hout, the Boise State defensive end who tapped taunted Blount. Frustrated and humiliated by Oregon's loss and his contribution to it -- eight carries for minus-five yards -- Blount hit Hout with a right to the jaw.
The blow has been described as a "sucker punch." Wrong. Blount's punch was in the mail before, or a millisecond after, Hout decided to look away. (He turned to Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who was yelling at him -- I'll speculate here -- not to be such an idiot).
There's no question Blount did a really bad thing, then compounded it with a Ron-Artest-caliber meltdown. He appeared minutes later, apologizing before the media, and hasn't stopped apologizing. As the original furor subsided, Kelly did some homework and got on the phone. Blount has since consulted with Kermit Washington, Tony Dungy and Dr. Harry Edwards on how he can learn from his mistake and move on. In addition to calling Hout and Petersen to apologize, he's written them letters, just as he wrote to the student paper, the Emerald, asking the Oregon community for its forgiveness. Each of these steps represents a rung on the "ladder" back to the playing field.
The ladder metaphor comes courtesy of Edwards, the renowned sociologist who flew to Eugene at Kelly's request. After spending time with the team and with Blount, Edwards suggested a series of "mandates" that the athlete must meet in order to even be considered for reinstatement.
"As I told LG," Edwards recounted in a phone interview, "you will never expunge that incident from your resume. But what you can do is create alongside of it a record of activities and involvements and commitments that show you are a better human being for having gone through it."
By living up to "a rigid set of conditions," as Kelly put it, Blount can provide himself "the opportunity for my reconsideration in the future." Even if the Ducks decide to take him back, they'll have to clear it with the Pac-10 -- no rubber stamp. Two days after Blount's self-immolation, I was in a scrum of reporters around Larry Scott, the Pac-10's new commissioner, at halftime of the USC-San Jose State game. I was struck by how pleased the young commish seemed by this opportunity "to send a very clear statement about how the conference office is going to look at sportsmanship."
I asked Scott if it struck him as unfair that Hout might not be punished at all. "It takes two to tango," he replied. He recounted how, when it appeared the instigating Bronco might get off scot-free, he'd called his WAC counterpart "to let him know how seriously we were looking at" the situation, and to alert him to "the message that was going to be sent."
Here, clearly, is a man who attaches great importance to the sending of messages. Will he be inclined, in that case, to be merciful toward Blount? What kind of message might that send? Will it make me look weak? No, commissioner. It will make you look compassionate. And reasonable.
With Oregon 5-0 since the Beatdown in Boise, Kelly's critics, predictably, are howling about how the Blount rehabilitation is a bottom-line decision, a cynical ploy to get his best player back on the field. They scoff at his insistence that "It's not a football decision, it's a human being decision."
But I know Kelly a little, and I believe him. I thought he overreacted on Sept. 4, and I respect the fact that he's now willing to reverse his field.
It's only fair.