What to expect from college athletes
These days it seems like scandals and sports go hand in hand.
In the past several years, the institution of American college football has seen iconic players, the likes of Reggie Bush, Lawrence Phillips, and most recently, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, involved in scandals that made national headlines.
Prior to the 2006 NFL Draft, current Detroit Lions’ running back, Reggie Bush, was accused of allegedly accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts from a sports agent without repayment during his college career at the University of Southern California. Though he denied the charge and bid for confidential arbitration, Bush stood trial in April 2010 where it was discovered that he and his family had accepted countless gifts. The charge meant that Bush had knowingly compromised his integrity as an amateur player at USC. The university was penalized for a “lack of institutional control.” The penalty ultimately resulted in the forfeiture 14 victories, in which Bush played during the 2004-2005 season, including the Trojans’ 2005 Orange Bowl championship title, the loss of 30 scholarships, and a ban from bowl games for two subsequent years following the trial. Bush, himself, had to relinquish his title as the 2005 winner of the Heisman trophy.
Lawrence Phillips started his college career at the University of Nebraska in 1993 where he proved himself to be a promising player. During his junior year, Phillips had established his reputation as an outstanding running back and was in contention for the Heisman trophy when he was arrested for assaulting his then-girlfriend. Head coach Tom Osborne suspended Phillips from the team, but refused to kick him off, insisting that the structured nature of the football program was what he needed. In an even more shocking turn of events, Osborne reinstated Phillips later that season, even naming him a starting player in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl. Phillips went on to play one season in the NFL for the St. Louis Rams; he was released in 1997 for insubordination. Phillips was arrested again in 2005 for assaulting his then-girlfriend, driving his car into 3 teenagers, and 7 counts of assault with a deadly weapon. He is currently serving a 31-year sentence.
The most recent scandal to hit the NFL involves Aaron Hernandez, the former New England tight end. Hernandez entered the NFL as the youngest player in the 2010 draft, forgoing his senior year season with University of Florida. He played 3 seasons with the Gators and eventually received the John Mackey award, given annually to the best tight end in the country, during his junior year and final season.
However, Hernandez had a notorious history of violence and drug abuse in college. In 2007, he was involved in a bar fight in Gainesville, which escalated to the point that he punched an employee in the head, rupturing his eardrum. In lieu of appearing in front of a judge, Hernandez received deferred prosecution.
His violent history encompasses more than just bar fights: In 2012, Hernandez was investigated in relation to a double homicide case in Boston. In June 2013, Hernandez was once again investigated in relation to a shooting incident in Miami; a friend of his alleged that Hernandez had shot him while the two were driving together. Just days after being charged with the allegation that he shot his friend, Aaron Hernandez was arrested in his home in North Attleboro, Massachusetts in connection with an ongoing murder investigation of Odin Lloyd, another friend of Hernandez’s.
As soon as news of Hernandez’s arrest broke, the Patriots responded (a mere 90 minutes after the news broke), deciding to release the tight end from the team. They issued a press release stating:
“A young man was murdered last week and we extend our sympathies to the family and friends who mourn his loss. Words cannot express the disappointment we feel knowing that one of our players was arrested as a result of this investigation. We realize that law enforcement investigations into this matter are ongoing. We support their efforts and respect the process. At this time, we believe this transaction is simply the right thing to do.”
Though the Patriots made a responsible decision to release Hernandez, rumors quickly began to float around suggesting that head coach, Bill Belichick, might have known that his tight end’s life was in danger.
Evidently, it may have been known that Hernandez was engaged in gang-affiliated activities. Belichick may or may not have known that his star tight end had begun using the drug PCP, and as a result, was paranoid to the point that he began to carry a gun with him wherever he went.
The notion that a head coach or the overseeing organization may have known about compromising behavior is a recurrent theme in the respective scandals involving Reggie Bush, Lawrence Phillips, and Aaron Hernandez. Is this merely a coincidence or does it reveal something sinister about the nature of organizations to protect their players even in the face of scandal? Do cases like the ones mentioned justify behavioral issues and the like for younger athletes? In a society where athletes are constantly surrounded by various investigations and scandals, what kind of on-field and off-field behavior can we realistically expect from our college athletes?
Though scandals seem so pervasive in the world of sports, college athletes should still hold themselves to the highest standards of behavior both on and off the field.
Ben Mendelson, student assistant coach of the Ithaca College Bombers football team, said, “There’s a saying: ‘You’re always wearing your jersey when you’re an athlete.’ It means that you should always be representing yourself as a student of a particular school and as an athlete of a particular program.”
In fact, there are a number of rules in place to assure that college athletes are representing their team and their school in a positive way. Players are bound by rules of their team, rules of their school, and even more broadly, by the rules of the NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association. For the most part, all three of these organizations have very similar rules, such as the necessity to resist drug usage and abstain from alcohol usage during their sport’s season, though specific rules may vary from school to school, and even from team to team.
Though the rules are in place, it’s ultimately up to coaches to make sure that college athletes are behaving in an appropriate manner.
Sophomore varsity basketball player Kristen Gowdy said, “Our coach [Dan Raymond] is very on top of what we’re doing. He knows what we’re up to, and if we get in trouble he’s not just going to turn a blind eye to it.”
Unfortunately, not all coaches are as diligent in monitoring their athletes’ behavior. In higher levels of competition, such as Division 1 or Division 2 college-level athletics, some coaches are purportedly even willing to turn a blind eye to unfavorable off-field behavior in order to accommodate talented athletes who don’t necessarily have the best behavior.
Ian Stone, a writer/intern at FantasyBuzzer, a site dedicated to delivering fantasy football news, said, “the coaches and the rules [in various levels of play] are more [or less] lenient toward allowing for second chances after unfavorable off-field decisions.”
Considering the possibility that Belichick, may have known that Hernandez was repeatedly engaged in unfavorable off-field behavior, Stone’s statement proves especially poignant.
“The leniency of the NFL allows for the behavior to continue,” Stone said. “It’s not something that is touched upon at an early stage and it allows for players to develop attitude problems and behavioral problems.”
Though coaches and organizations may sometime be willing to ignore players’ behavioral issues, athletes should still pride themselves on acting responsibly.
Bush, Phillips and Aaron Hernandez may have acted irresponsibly off the playing field while they were in college (and, for Phillips and Hernandez, even while they were playing professionally in the NFL), but, ultimately, their irresponsible off-field behavior was settled off of the field.
“[Hernandez] got in trouble with the law, it wasn’t like he broke one team rule and was dismissed,” said Mendelson. “His problems stemmed from something that began before he was in college.”
In a similar vein, Stone said, “it should be a wake-up call [to college athletes] that regardless of how good you are and how much you mean to your team and maybe even how much effort and hard work you put into bettering your skill set or your game, that it doesn’t matter. If you do something wrong, if you do something to that degree, then you will not be protected for it. The corrective action will be taken to make sure that you are not involved [with the behavior and/or the sport] any more.”
While Hernandez did behave irresponsibly off of the field, his reckless behavior eventually caught up to him. Even though Belichick, who may or may not have known about the athlete’s notorious history and activity with gangs and drug abuse, did not incriminate his player, the law clearly had the final say on not only his future, but his ability to play professional sports.
The Patriots took appropriate action in releasing their tight end from the team as soon as he was taken into custody. Should the Patriots have proceeded any other way, it might have sent a message to college athletes that professional sports teams are tolerant of not only unfavorable, but illegal, off-field behavior.
Though league and team rules may not always be enforced by organizations or coaches, this does not change the expectations that college athletes should have for themselves. If players choose not to hold themselves to the highest standards of behavior both on and off of the playing field, the law will ultimately intervene, as in the case of Hernandez.
“Even if you succeed in athletics at the professional level, you could still not be a nice person or have [had] problems in the past…and that won’t let you succeed in life necessarily,” concluded Gowdy.
Kimberly Capehart is a sophomore documentary studies and production major. Email her at kcapeha1[at]ithaca.edu.