College football's morality contest doesn't square with reality
HOOVER, Ala. -- College football won't have an on-field playoff until 2014, but the Moral Superiority playoffs have been a staple of every offseason in the internet age. Across the nation, fan bases and sportswriters debate which teams have the finest collection of human beings and pass judgment on the coaches who don't recruit rosters full of blocking, tackling Mother Teresas.
While it would be wonderful if every college football player abided by society's rules and coaches cared first and foremost about character, that simply isn't realistic. College football is a multibillion-dollar business, and college coaches are millionaire CEOs. Competition is cutthroat. As in any other business, advantages are not always gained through ethical means. Yet for some reason, a healthy chunk of the fan base who loves college football and the media who cover the sport holds an annual competition to determine which teams and coaches can live up to an always-in-flux standard of behavior that, while noble, doesn't square with reality.
The relative decency of coaches and their players was a pressing issue on Thursday at SEC Media Days. LSU's Les Miles, Alabama's Nick Saban and Vanderbilt's James Franklin all had to answer questions about their disciplinary processes. Meanwhile, former Florida and current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer hangs like a specter over all disciplinary questions because of the line drawn between Meyer and one former player.
Miles faced questions about his failure to boot tailback Jeremy Hill, who recently pleaded guilty to a crime for the second time in less than two years, from the team. Saban faced questions about his disciplinary procedures after he tossed four players this offseason when three of them were accused of attacking another student and a fourth was accused of fraudulently using the credit card the other players stole from the student. Franklin, who recently jettisoned four players who are the focus of a rape investigation, was asked if coaches must take more character risks to win. Meanwhile, everyone with an internet connection has read accusations that Meyer helped create a monster by enabling Aaron Hernandez at Florida.
Despite what many college football coaches would have you believe, they are not in the soul-saving business. They are not, as former Arkansas and Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt once called it, in the "people-helpin'" business. They are in the game-winning business. Not one of them has kept a job because he graduated the most model citizens. Not one of them has lost a job for because too many players got arrested on his watch. Still, some fans and sportswriters seem to consider the offseason to be a character contest. During the long months between games, these groups keep score as if some school will be awarded a trophy the day before preseason camp begins.
My school's coach does it the right way.
Your school's players are thugs.
Maybe, in the absence of actual competition, competition must be manufactured using whatever means are available. The police blotter might be the most convenient form of comparison, but here's the truth: Most of these coaches aren't all that different. One team's players probably aren't that different from some other team's players. Coaches everywhere have to take chances on talented players that they wouldn't take on less talented ones. Sometimes those chances pay off. Sometimes, they end in disaster. Ultimately, Meyer is not to blame for Aaron Hernandez. Aaron Hernandez is to blame for Aaron Hernandez. Millionaire coaches have a lot of power, but some people are destined to be horrible. Not everyone can be saved.
But coaches can avoid looking hypocritical. If Meyer is to blame for anything, it's the rhetoric he has offered for most of his career about "core values." It's calling his Florida players "the top one percent of one percent" -- implying that they were superior human beings when compared to the human beings populating the rosters of the other teams on his schedule. That's why people struck back so hard when Hernandez was arrested and everyone reexamined the second and third chances offered to Hernandez by Meyer. Had Meyer spent his entire career saying "I'm just trying to win some games" instead of suggesting that he was attempting to build better people, the backlash against him wouldn't have been nearly as harsh.
Maybe that's why Miles has received so much less negative publicity than Meyer. On its face, the way Miles has handled Hill's situation isn't all that different from the way Meyer handled many of the screw-ups on his Florida teams. But Miles never seems to pretend that he's trying to do anything but win championships. Maybe it's because we can't understand half of what he says, but Miles doesn't seem to offer any illusion that he's in the soul-saving business. He threw a returning Heisman Trophy finalist (Tyrann Mathieu) off his team last year -- although that may have been a requirement of LSU's substance abuse policy that took the decision out of Miles' hands -- yet he has insisted he'll let the judicial process play out before rendering a verdict on his best tailback.
Hill, a sophomore, had to wait an extra year to enroll at LSU because shortly after his senior year in high school he pleaded guilty to unlawful carnal knowledge of a minor. In that case, Baton Rouge police accused Hill and another 18-year-old of receiving oral sex from a 14-year-old fellow student at school. For that crime, Hill received probation. While on probation, Hill sucker-punched a man outside a Baton Rouge bar. Last week, Hill pleaded guilty to a charge of simple battery. East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney Sue Bernie has filed a motion to revoke Hill's probation in the first case -- which would send Hill to jail. Hill will learn his legal fate at an Aug. 16 hearing. If Hill's probation is revoked and he is sentenced to six months in jail, Miles won't have much of an option. If the judge elects to modify the probation and stops short of jail time, Miles will face a choice.
"We've visited with Jeremy Hill on a routine basis," Miles said on Thursday. "He's not been in any team meetings, not been in any workouts. We've not allowed him in our facility. It's been very hard on him, I know. Again, we recognize there's an ongoing process that's going to be fulfilled. We're going to sit on the perimeter and watch."
Why will Miles think hard about what to do with Hill, who has two serious strikes against him? Because Hill stands 6-foot-2, weighs 235 pounds and runs the football better than almost any other back in the SEC. In 2012, Hill averaged 5.3 yards a carry behind an offensive line that didn't meet LSU's usual lofty standards. If Miles throws Hill off the team and LSU goes 7-5 in 2013 because it can't move the ball, well, no one in Baton Rouge will be less angry at the mediocre result because Miles made the morally upstanding choice. If Miles keeps Hill and LSU rips off another 10-win season, Miles will be more beloved by the people who pay his salary.
Given those options, it seems Miles has zero incentive to kick Hill off the team. But that isn't entirely true. Players pay close attention to how coaches handle what Alabama's Saban calls "blinking lights." What's a blinking light? "If you look at a Christmas tree, when all the lights shine bright, it's beautiful," Saban said. "If one light is [blinking], your attention is just to that light." Those blinking lights can distract coaches and waste their time. If coaches keep letting those lights blink with no repercussions, then the lights that shine correctly get upset about a double standard or start blinking themselves because they know they can get away with it. Keeping one problem often creates more. So there is some incentive to remove criminals from rosters. But often, that incentive isn't as great as the incentive to keep them.
Saban has created the best way to eliminate blinking lights. He has stocked his roster with so much talent that there isn't a single player on his team so important that he's worth a double standard. Shortly after Alabama players Eddie Williams, D.J. Pettway, Tyler Hayes and Brent Calloway were arrested in February, they were gone. Saban doesn't have to offer second chances because so many excellent players are clamoring for an available spot at Alabama. Few other teams in the country have that luxury.
Most coaches must perform a cost-benefit analysis. That's what Miles is doing with Hill. But that isn't unique to football. Great basketball players get more chances than most. Great musicians get more chances than most. Great writers get more chances than most. Great engineers get more chances than most.
But we don't judge Apple or Google by the behavior of their engineers. We judge them by their earnings. Athletic directors and university presidents may talk a big game about personal development, but at the end of the day, they keep the coaches who win and fire the coaches who lose.
So while that Moral Superiority crystal football may shine bright in July, it doesn't grant a coach any more job security or help him get a raise. So let's stop acting surprised when coaches make the choices that help them achieve both those goals. And let's choose not to believe coaches when they tell us they're trying to save souls instead of simply trying to win games.