MAXWELL:  Student athletes deserve to be treated fairly

9/10/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Leaves are changing colors, evening temperatures are falling in many parts of the nation and days are getting shorter. It is college football season, time for the autumn rumble that ends with the championship bowl game in January.

We also know that the college pigskin ritual is upon us because the names of muscle-bound young men who have committed stupid crimes or otherwise have done childish things are in the news. The most recent scofflaws down here in the Sunshine State _ where many athletes seem to major in petty crime _ are University of South Florida players Charlie Jackson and Greg Walls.

Police accused Jackson, a 22-year-old star wide receiver, of trespassing after warning and possession of marijuana. Walls, a 20-year-old sophomore lineman, was arrested for disorderly conduct. According to police, Jackson and Walls were among a crowd of as many as 400 people at 4:15 a.m., Sept. 3, at a 24-hour McDonald’s near campus. Many in the crowd, including Jackson and Walls, refused to disperse after an off-duty officer hired by the restaurant ordered them to do so. Because the two players acted suspiciously, officers searched them and allegedly found the drug.

Here is where the incident gets interesting, and why I write about it. Without messing around, head coach Jim Leavitt suspended the players for the University of Kentucky game, the biggest game in the team’s four-year existence. Jackson, the Bulls’ leading receiver, would have been vital against the SEC’s Wildcats. Under similar circumstances, many other coaches would have finagled a way to play Jackson.

Not Leavitt.

“The thing I want to make real clear is that I care for these two guys a great deal,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “But we’re going to suspend them for this game. It’s a strong statement. The program is going to stand on the things that are done the right way. These are good people . . . and they have done a lot of good things for us. When anything happens, you always have two sides to the story.

“As a head football coach, you want to try to be very, very fair. . . . The difficult thing for me is the fact that no matter what side of the story you look at, it’s 4:15 in the morning and we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the bottom line. I can’t justify that any way you look at it.”

Amen. Jackson and Walls, athletes representing the university and their teammates, should not have been where they were when they were.

All that said, I caution that we resist going to the extreme by treating athletes more harshly than we do other students _ which has been and remains the case at many colleges. A good example is the University of Florida, where a double standard has existed for a long time.

A few years ago, for example, school officials suspended then-linebacker Keith Kelsey for two games. His crime was moving a chair from a dormitory lobby or a pool deck into his room. He was not the only player suspended during the season for petty reasons.

At one time, football players may have been above the law. Today, however, the public wants them treated harshly. No, I am not referring to the likes of Lawrence Phillips, formerly of the University of Nebraska, who was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Or Riley Washington, the former Cornhusker charged with attempted second-degree murder. Or the swaggering, uniformed thugs at Miami and Clemson charged with big league crimes. Or Florida State University’s Peter Warrick and Laveranues Coles, who made off with $412.38 worth of designer clothes for $21.40 from a Tallahassee Dillard’s.

Honest observers acknowledge that many football players are victims of a double standard in the media, on campuses and in public opinion. This double standard is born of anti-athlete sentiments. On many campuses, of which the University of Florida is one, the pendulum has swung too far toward clamping down on jocks. In trying to mold players into being Everyman on campus, though, officials often commit abuse.

Irene Stevens, former assistant dean for student judicial affairs at UF, said a few years ago that the university’s probation for athletes “is defined as “You can’t be a role model or leader because of choices you have made.’ 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.”

Corey King, who replaced Stevens, says that UF does not not have a double standard in its student judicial process. Athletes on scholarships who commit infractions are suspended and lose their scholarship. They are treated like other students who hold elective office or other leadership positions. These students are removed from office.

Most athletes with whom I spoke disagree with King, arguing they are singled out. University officials and coaches are to be complimented for wanting to control violent and criminal behavior of football players, but they often go too far.

A UF player told me recently that “guys go out and they’re going to class and they feel like normal students, but sometimes that works against us. 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 about athletes.”

He is right. As a former football player, I know that jocks, especially the superstars, are under the microscope. Officials need to remember, like USF’s Leavitt, that they are dealing mostly with immature young adults _ many of them teenagers _ who do not see themselves as being above the law. Most are nice kids, future leaders who deserve equitable treatment.

Am I saying that players should not be punished when they violate the rules of campus life or the rules of the team or commit crimes in the community? Of course not. I am saying that because athletes face dual systems of rules and punishment, officials should check their own predispositions for punishing jocks.

As of this writing, coach Leavitt is awaiting the results of Jackson’s voluntary drug test to determine if the stand-out receiver deserves further punishment. Whatever the outcome, I will bet a week’s salary that Leavitt will do the right thing.