Barnett Discusses Punishment in NCAA Football

If you had access to ESPN a week ago, you would have witnessed the violence stemming from New Mexico women’s soccer player Elizabeth Lambert (and if you didn’t have access, you can always check YouTube). Lambert punched, tripped, tackled (in football, not ftbol, fashion), and even yanked a player down with a violent tug of the ponytail. Watching closely, it appears Lambert may have been provoked, but nothing justifies her actions—and the University of New Mexico agreed, suspending her indefinitely. This got me thinking about college athletics and punishments … it seems that women’s soccer has been doing a better job protecting its athletes than college football—one of the nation’s highest profile sports.

This past spring and summer, Tennessee’s first-year head coach, Lane Kiffin, violated numerous NCAA rules. Many believe Kiffin welcomed smaller recruiting violations (of which there were many, even though the consequences were few) as a way to bring publicity to his program—any press is good press. The tactics seem to have worked too: the Volunteers currently have the sixth-ranked incoming recruiting class according to—but at what cost? NCAA recruiting rules seem silly to some, but they are in place to create fairness between programs and to protect the recruits, most of whom are under 18.

Kiffin set the tone for this college football season—especially in the SEC. Four of the 12 SEC head coaches have been fined or reprimanded already this season (Urban Meyer of Florida, Dan Mullen of Mississippi State, Bobby Patrino of Arkansas, and Kiffin). SEC Commissioner Mike Slive even announced publicly that, from now on, coaches will be fined immediately in most cases rather than receiving warnings. But to see Slive’s response as a way of cleaning up a conference ripe with tradition but lacking in discipline would ignore what’s happening on the field.

College football programs, perhaps more than ever, are so obsessed with winning that they are letting the coaches take all the heat so the players can stay on the field. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State’s head coach, may have been right when he criticized the media for scrutinizing one of his players back in 2007, and the college football world certainly seems to have followed his powerful advice: “Come after me! I am a man! I’m 40! … I’m not a kid.” College coaches are rightfully held to a higher standard than college students, but let’s not kid ourselves—these are not kids, coach Gundy. Treated like royalty on campus, pampered by the athletic department (and in some cases by the academic departments as well), and living an absolute dream, it seems awfully hypocritical to say that these players should have the privileges of national television, a huge spotlight, weekly media attention and deity status, but still be free from real consequences.

Oregon coach Chip Kelly seems to understand this hypocrisy—at least he did. On Sep. 3, after the Boise State Broncos dismantled the Oregon Ducks, Oregon’s senior running back, LeGerrette Blount, punched Bronco defensive end Byron Hout in the head during some post game trash-talking (which, by the way, Blount had no right being a part of in the first place—he had -5 yards on 8 carries that night). Blount was immediately suspended for the season. We should applaud you coach. It was even a good football decision; the Ducks ran off seven straight wins before being bested at Stanford last weekend. This week, however, Oregon reinstated Blount, immediately after a loss (coincidence?). Back-up running back LaMichael James has been a revelation for the Ducks, but surely Kelly now realizes his Ducks could use more versatility in the backfield as they fight for their PAC-10 title lives. Message sent: if we need you, it does not really matter what you do—oh, and by the way, the word of the coach means nothing.

Florida coach Urban Meyer has no qualms about this win-first attitude; he does not really care much for punishment (or politics). Two weeks ago, star linebacker and team captain Brandon Spikes attempted to gouge the eyes of Georgia running back Washaun Ealey. Meyer’s response? A half-game suspension. Worse yet, the SEC approved. That’s right; the same commissioner who fined multiple coaches tens of thousands for complaining about (obviously bad) calls agreed to a one-half suspension for a man who could have caused irreparable damage to another player’s eyes (who, by the way was lying helplessly in a pile well after the whistle was blown).

Spikes ended up pulling himself out of the entire game the following week, feeling that that was a more appropriate consequence—and good for him. Spikes gets it. He knows his actions were unacceptable. Unfortunately, not all the players do. Ealey, the victim of the attack, thought Spikes should have gotten off completely, as he told one ESPN writer: “he shouldn’t, I think, get suspended at all. We were just out there playing football … we probably do it and other teams do too. It’s all football. We’re just out there trying to have fun.”

I understand that football is a contact sport, and vicious things happen on the field, but that is hardly an excuse for deplorable and dangerous action. And fun? I fail to see how pulling a Bobby Boucher-esque Captain Insano eye-gouge is fun (funny, maybe—but probably only in movies, when done by Adam Sandler). Ironically, Ealey comes out of this situation maybe the worst of all parties. But more important, Meyer’s message is clear: we will punish you as much as we must to avoid sanctions, but winning is infinitely more important.

As steroids in baseball continue to taint the sport, NASCAR is embroiled in scandal over a possibly false-positive test that ruined Jeremy Mayfield, and Andre Agassi recently admitted to taking methamphetamines while playing while the ATP tacitly condoned his drug use. The message from professional sports is clear as well: punish only when we must and for political reasons.

College football has, sadly, lowered itself to the same level by flirting with the same policy. Oklahoma State WR Dez Bryant was ruled ineligible after he supposedly lied to NCAA officials about a meeting with former NFL star Michael Irvin. Bryant’s high school coach is not so sure about Bryant’s punishment, going so far as to speculate publicly that the NCAA was simply making an example out of him.

In one light, he is right: Bryant still maintains he did not violate NCAA rules (presumably, there was an agent at the meeting with Irvin, which would have been a violation), and the punishment seems especially harsh regardless. At the same time, perhaps the NCAA is attempting to bring back integrity to a sport that the coaches and conferences are constantly destroying.

It’s hard to be too critical though; these coaches are being paid a ton, and there is so much pressure to win. College football (and basketball) are as big or bigger than almost all professional sports in terms of money and popularity. As fans, but more importantly as Americans, we must realize our universities are ultimately for cultivating citizens—not entertaining us once a week for a few hours. We must not be willing to put up with meager punishments for the sake of victory, and as long as we do, college football will continue, unfortunately, to treat itself as the quasi-professional sport that we have all helped it become.

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