MAXWELL:  Too eager to punish players

9/15/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


After the final whistle blew, the University of Florida football players and head coach Steve Spurrier did not celebrate with the fans. They simply trotted off Florida Field. This was an unexpected turn of events because until now, at the end of each home game during the Spurrier era, the players and staff always remained in the Swamp to croon the school song with fans.

Why did the nationally ranked Gators not whoop it up after an impressive 62-14 victory? He and his charges were not “in an alma mater mood,” Spurrier said. As agreed upon during their pregame meal, the players did not sing to protest the way university officials were punishing two of their teammates for minor on-campus infractions.

Linebacker Keith Kelsey, for example, had been suspended for two games. Although university officials will not give specifics on the case (the Buckley Amendment guarantees confidentially of student records), players report that Kelsey was punished for moving a chair from a dormitory lobby or a pool deck into his room.

Another player, cornerback Dock Pollard, was suspended for the first game, for undisclosed reasons, and may face more punishment, according to a player quoted in the Gainesville Sun.

In a locker room interview with the Sun, co-captain Lawrence Wright summed up the team’s sense of being singled out: “We just felt like a couple of players are getting a raw deal. We are one university. We are one. Don’t punish us just because we play football. Don’t punish us more than you would anyone else. . .We feel it’s an unfair punishment. What would you do to a regular student? Slap on the wrist?”

Senior guard Donnie Young agreed: “It’s really not fair. If the kid (Kelsey) beat the hell out of somebody, that’s one thing. But all Keith did was move a chair. It didn’t even leave the building.”

I do not automatically agree with athletes who complain that officials pick on them. I, too, know about Lawrence Phillips of the University of Nebraska who was convicted last year of assaulting his girlfriend. And I have read about Riley Washington, the Cornhusker charged with attempted second-degree murder. I certainly am familiar with the swaggering, uniformed thugs at Miami and Clemson charged with big league crimes.

Even so, I agree with Gators players that many of them are victims of an official double standard born of an emerging anti-athlete fervor on the nation’s campuses. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of cutting jocks down to size. In trying to morph players into Everyman on campus, though, officials often commit abuse.

Irene Stevens, assistant dean for Student Judicial Affairs, represents the university’s overzealous get-tough policy toward football players. “Our probation is defined as “You can’t be a role model or leader because of choices you have made,’ ” she told the Sun. “We take into consideration a student leader’s position. A two-week probation for an athlete is equivalent to a semester probation for a regular student. . . . The football team has been unhappy with sanctions in the past, and I’m sure they’ll be unhappy with sanctions in the future.”

Student Services Dean Thomas Hill, voiced similar arrogance in the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper: “If an athlete comes in and says “I’m going to play football here and I’m going to get treated like everybody else,’ that’s crazy. No, the student athletes are not treated exactly like everybody else. They are high-profile people and they’re constantly in the newspaper.”

Hill is to be complimented for wanting to control violent and criminal behavior of football players. But he speaks out of both sides of his mouth. On the one side, he scolds players for naively wanting to be treated like other students, especially when they run afoul of campus laws. On the other side, he does not acknowledge that UF is taking away the very privileges that have made football players different.

This year alone officials took away the football team’s separate dormitory and cafeteria. No big deal? Think again. Such amenities did, indeed, set the players apart from their schoolmates. Ironically, taking away these privileges makes the players like everyone else, while their punishment grows disproportionately severe.

“Guys go out and they’re going to class and they feel like normal students, but sometimes that works against us,” senior linebacker James Bates told the Alligator, accurately describing their dilemma. “It’s fun to blend into the crowd, but when something bad happens, it blows up. No matter how trivial it is, it’s going to blow up because people want to know.”

Bates is right that Gators football players are under the microscope, and he and others are right also that matters at UF have reached overkill.

Officials need to remember that they are dealing mostly with immature teenagers _ yes, teenagers. Most of them are not ego-maniacal super-jocks who see themselves as being above the law. Most are nice kids, future leaders who deserve equitable treatment.

Am I saying that Gators football players should not be punished when they violate the rules of campus life or the rules of the team? Of course not. I am saying that, because football players face dual systems of rules and punishment _ coach Spurrier also can punish them separately _ officials should not approach them with a negative predisposition as is currently the situation in Gainesville.

How can fairness exist for student-athletes when officials such Stevens and Hill proudly acknowledge that they treat football players more harshly than they do other students? Do not be surprised if the Gators and Spurrier still are not in “an alma mater mood” at the end of their next game in the Swamp.