My attention was recently drawn to a TED talk given by Bryan Stevenson, a professor at NYU Law School. His talk was about unfairness in our criminal justice system, and I couldn’t help but think about how his musings applied to college sports.
Stevenson explained that justice in this country is often distorted by race and poverty. Add athletic prowess to that list. Good athletes are often spared punishment, while worse ones face the full brunt of the law, or unfair applications of it. Universities cradle their star athletes from often-deserved consequences because they are moneymaking machines.
At its root, this is not solely a problem with our criminal justice system, but rather with the value system of college coaches, administrators and the NCAA.
At Alabama, four football players recently beat up and mugged two students on campus. Although the four have been suspended from the football team indefinitely, and three of them have been charged with second-degree robbery, there is reason to believe that, for some of them, this will all just “blow over.”
That’s what happened to LaMichael James in 2010. James was the star running back for the Oregon Ducks. After pleading guilty to a misdemeanor harassment charge — James had allegedly choked and thrown to the ground a former girlfriend — James was sentenced to 10 days in jail and served none of them. He was also suspended for just one game, Oregon’s season opener.
Of course, James was a Heisman Trophy contender, and now plays for the San Francisco 49ers.
Meanwhile, there were several players kicked off that same Oregon squad for far lesser infractions who were not allowed to return, including wide receiver Jamere Holland. All Holland was guilty of was an expletive-ridden post on his Facebook page. He had caught just 17 passes in his two years with the Ducks.
That wasn’t all. Matt Simms had walked on to that Oregon team as a defensive end, and was a practice squad player. After he was charged with misdemeanor assault, coach Chip Kelly dismissed him from the team before his trial, and before his culpability was established
It is up to Oregon (and any school) to choose whom to punish and how severely, but it’s difficult not to see that better players are let off the hook rather easily.
I don’t wish to pick on Oregon, but just one more example. The year before James’ lenient suspension, starting running back LeGarrette Blount returned from a season-long suspension … in the middle of the season. Blount had been suspended, supposedly for the entire year, after sucker-punching a Boise State player following the teams’ meeting in the first game of the season.
Oops, I misspoke. Blount didn’t come back in the middle of the season, exactly — it was the week after the No. 13 Ducks had suffered their first Pac-10 loss of the season.
Last year’s Penn State scandal is the ultimate example of allowing athletic prowess in amateur athletics to delay or distort justice. Although when Jerry Sandusky’s exploits became public knowledge, he was punished accordingly, the university’s nearly 15-year cover-up was a direct product of the football team’s success. Sandusky was a coach of the Penn State football team, the university’s pride and joy. Even when presented with evidence of Sandusky’s child molestation, Penn State President Graham Spanier knew to keep his mouth shut.
The NCAA saw that justice had been obstructed to protect catches, rushing TDs and interceptions, and so they moved to punish Penn State. NCAA President Mark Emmert wrote that his goal was “to make sure the University establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.”
It sounds well and good, but the NCAA itself is frequently accused of obstructing justice and acting in an extralegal fashion. Joe Nocera has chronicled several of the NCAA’s distortions of justice in his column for The New York Times.
For example, the NCAA declared a UCLA freshman basketball player, Shabazz Muhammad, ineligible in November of last year because he supposedly received “impermissible benefits” during his recruitment. His eligibility was restored after it became clear, through a fortuitous overheard conversation, that the NCAA’s assistant director of enforcement held an unabashed bias against the helpless Muhammad. He was essentially being held off the court and ordered to pay a $1,600 fine because of one woman’s twisted personal agenda.
There are myriad other instances of the NCAA convicting players of violations and meting out punishments entirely too large for the crimes, if there even had been a violation in the first place. Because the NCAA is technically a voluntary collection of institutions, it gets away with virtually whatever it pleases.
After the four Alabama football players were charged, the university’s athletic director said: “This is a very serious matter. … In this type of situation, the Athletics Department works in conjunction with the university. We will have more to say at the appropriate time.” It remains to be seen whether what is said at the appropriate time will be appropriate. I’m not sure that it will be.