It's a movie we've all, unfortunately, seen before.
Athletes in the prime of their lives who throw away their best chance at success in life, leaving a legion of fans shaking their heads and ruminating upon the "could-have-beens."
At Alabama, this kind of thing once happened with greater frequency. At other SEC programs (read: Auburn), we've seen the same meme rear its ugly head time after time. The math is simple: Entitled player + thug mentality + supposed 18 year old bullet-proofedness = sad ending.
During the tenure of Nick Saban, instances of player thuggery at Alabama have dramatically decreased. Gone are the days of Jimmy Johns, when a player could literally get away with selling crack beneath the noses of the UA coaching staff. Call it Saban's heavy-handedness, his control-freak demeanor, his recruiting of the "right kind of kids" or the positive peer pressure from team leaders like Barrett Jones. Regardless, Saban has tightened the reigns, and he has instilled a mentality of accountability and success in Tuscaloosa.
Saban tends the football program much as gardener tends his plot; pulling the troublesome weeds, relegating the sick plants to the background, bringing the heavy bloomers into the sunlight. Of course, he's done the tilling and heavy-lifting required to get the garden in the ground and ensure success. However, it is his constant tending that keeps everything in place and flourishing as planned.
Unfortunately, into every garden, some weeds will sprout. They are a byproduct of the practice of gardening, an ever-present pest that can destroy one's hard work if allowed. The very thing that gives life to the garden also gives rise to the weeds-sunlight, soil, warmth, the promise of future bounty. Even the lushest garden can be degraded by the presence of unwanted weeds.
Four weeds sprang anew into Saban's garden with the announcement of the arrest of four Alabama football players on February 12. All are charged with felonies of varying degrees, and all have indubitably altered their respective life paths in the matter of mere moments. Saban announced that the players involved were "indefinitely suspended" from the team. Future punishment could run the gamut from the not-so-friendly confines of Saban's doghouse to dismissal from the university.
The details of the case are what they are. But a few points made the incident especially shocking and are worth further consideration. They are:
- The act of violence perpetrated by the players was against fellow students. Let that sink in: fellow students. These students who were so viciously threatened and beaten were probably some of the same students in the stands on Saturdays each fall, rooting for the players.
- Just because a weapon was not involved in the attacks per se does not mean that lethal force was not used. A physical beating at the hands of a primed and powerful football player, someone whose physicality has been refined by UA's strength program, could very well be life-threatening. At what point does an act of simple assault escalate to attempted murder? Because of their physical talents, should football players be held to a different standard in assault cases such as this one?
- The team has a dim light cast onto it thanks to the actions of a few stupid young men. One of the strengths of the Tide is that it is truly a team. What does the incident mean to the team and coaching staff? The players and coaches depend on one another. They play as a unit. They execute as a precision machine, each part humming in unison. The actions of the players in question betray that team dynamic, putting their own "instant gratification" ahead of the team ethic. While in the eyes of the law, this is a non-punishable offense, in the Court of Saban, such things can earn a player a trip down Regret Row.
It would seem the path for the UA athletic department is fairly clear. These kids must be cut away the program like a melanoma before it is allowed to metastasize. The heinous offense makes this action justifiable, as a civilized society cannot tolerate such acts of thuggery.
Will dismissing them really make them learn the hard lesson, that, in congruency with the principles of physics, every action begets a reaction? Take the case of Isaiah Crowell, former freshman sensation at UGA. After a litany of charges was filed against him in his short stint in Athens, he was dismissed. But because he is an excellent football player, days later he was on the roster of another NCAA football team, on another free-ride scholarship, his shot at the NFL tarnished but intact. Lesson learned? Or Golden Parachute deployed?
Those are questions we all must ask ourselves, as they define not those who committed these crimes, but the rest of us, society as a whole. The jailhouse is full of 18 year olds who have committed similar illegal acts, and under less perplexing circumstances. Do these players get a pass simply because they're good at football? And if so, what does that say about our society?
As long as college football involves 18-22 year old males, there will be players who disconnect from ethics, good sense and reason in the pursuit of life-altering foolishness.
Make no mistake, these things will occur in the future, even at Alabama, just as those pesky weeds keep poking up in even the most well-tended garden. They are just a part of the Process. But having a consistent method for dealing with them, and instituting it with swift justice, is the way to protect the remaining splendor of Alabama's Eden.