RBR Reading Room: A Lynch Mob Mentality

Photo: Tuscaloosa News | Jason Morton

Prior to the arrival of Nick Saban, no single person defined the decade of the 2000's for Alabama football quite like Albert Means. While other individuals garnered their fair share of attention for various reasons, it was Albert Means and all the hellstorm that followed his signature with Alabama in February of 2000 that dominated the headlines in a way that was unrivaled. From message board speculation to letters of inquiry to NCAA sanctions to appeals to civil lawsuits, for all intents and purposes Means was the epicenter of the Alabama football program for years on end.

In the years after Means began to recede from the Alabama consciousness, however, there is almost a complete dearth of quality, objective writing on the subject. Hence this 152-page softcover written by Judge Steve Wilson, the retired circuit judge who presided over Ronald Cottrell v. NCAA, takes on greater relevance.

The easy initial impression is to simply dismiss this book entirely. The book makes no mention whatsoever of a publisher -- in all likelihood it was self-published -- and the presentation and style are amateurish. An editor may have read this book at some point, but if so it was only after purchasing it from a bookstore like everyone else. Moreover, the book starts at a crawl, beginning with a pointless, awkward dialogue between Wilson and a dumb black courthouse janitor that later turns out to be pure fiction and which comes off as extremely racist, and it doesn't get any better in the next few chapters.

In fact, the first thirty or forty pages of the book is easily some of the worst writing I've ever read. I highly doubt it was even written by Wilson given how much it differs from the latter portions of the book, and in any event it's nothing short of painful to read. Truth be told, you don't so much read the opening pages as you bleed through them. The author tries to provide the necessary background on the Albert Means pay-for-play scheme and the subsequent NCAA investigation, but it's a poor effort that struggles to meaningfully convey details and keep the reader interested.

Dismissing the book entirely based on the opening sections, though, would be a mistake. If you can somehow survive the opening pages, a revealing and insightful book eventually emerges. Beginning around chapter twelve the book turns from the necessary factual background to the actual litigation, and at that point Wilson's judicial expertise and experience begins to shine through. The writing becomes more lucid and the storyline quickly develops its own flow.

Over the remainder of the book, Wilson meticulously recounts Cottrell v. NCAA, and piece-by-piece destroys Cottrell's arguments at every turn. The much-ballyhooed NCAA conspiracy theory is the first casualty, as Wilson goes at great length to establish there was never any evidence whatsoever to support such a theory, and eventually he moves on to how neither Cottrell or Ivy Williams could really prove the NCAA was the actual or proximate cause of any damages (i.e. their trouble finding gainful employment afterward had more to do with the fact that they were questionable-at-best football coaches who had both lied to the NCAA than anything to do with the NCAA slandering their supposedly good names).

In the end, he calls a spade a spade, arguing vehemently that neither Cottrell or Williams had any legitimate claims but that they were instead just a couple of guys who played on the emotions of a jury and got a massive award of punitive damages from some hometown homers looking to punish the NCAA for the fallout of the Means investigation. The verdict and the damages awarded were both without merit, hence why they were vacated on appeal. It's largely common sense once you become detached from the emotion of the entire melodrama. The reality of the situation is fairly obvious when all is said and done, and Wilson generally conveys that point nicely.

And beyond the substantive arguments, at its heart this entire melodrama was at times highly amusing, something that occasionally jumps off the pages. Wilson on pins and needles at the bench as Paul Finebaum tries his best to cause a mistrial on the witness stand ranks highly, among others. And as much as I couldn't give a damn if he dropped dead tomorrow, the thought of Roy Adams showing up to testify at his deposition in a puke orange suit wearing a coon skin cap while toting around a fifth of Jack Daniels is easily one of the funniest mental images I've had in quite some time.

In the end, the book does have its flaws. Even notwithstanding the poorly written opening, the book really gives short-shrift to the Means saga itself, and the end-all, be-all book about that scandal still remains to be written. But then again Wilson never really intended to write that book, and I think it's fair to say that the only reason he wrote anything about the background of the Means scandal was because it was necessary factual background before he could move on to the litigation.

Based on his own words, Wilson is clearly frustrated at the criticism leveled at him as a result of the trial -- a trial he admits from the beginning that he never wanted in his courtroom -- and if I had to venture the main reason he wrote this book was to serve as a defense to his actions throughout the course of the litigation. Wilson seemed content to carry on a quiet, private legal career far away from the spotlight, and the Cottrell trial destroyed any semblance of that. His goal in writing this book was seemingly to detail at length the lack of merit to Cottrell's claims, and in the end he sufficiently did just that.

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