“Hey dude, worry about the arrests coming to your program based on Florida under Meyer.” – Pete Prisco, via Twitter.
Okay, Prisco is kind of a jerk. His comment on Twitter, made last week to a devoted Buckeye, sparked a small social media firestorm. But his comments are useful, if only because they reveal a deeply held misunderstanding that’s pervasive among sports media and fans.
I’m talking about discipline. The kind Urban Meyer handed out judiciously at Florida. The kind he laid on Jake Stoneburner and Jack Mewhort as a result of their recent arrest. The kind that supposedly failed him during his time with the Gators.
When Meyer was hired by Ohio State in November, Buckeye fans were treated to two commonly levied criticisms. First, Meyer would bolt at the first sign of trouble. Second, his presence would somehow inspire the team to turn to their baser instincts and cut a swath of crime across Columbus. While we don’t have the perspective to evaluate the success of those two predictions, the second is a indicator of a troublesome mindset.
Dozens of Gators were arrested during Meyer’s time at Florida. Most of the incidents were relatively minor and were dealt with swiftly and fairly. Others were more severe. Meyer suffered heavy, near-universal criticism as a result. It was said that he should have thrown the kids out, not suspended them. That he let them off easy. Criminals don’t deserve scholarships, right?
Wrong. We’ve seen at the beginning of his Ohio State tenure that Meyer’s discipline style is remarkably fair. Stoneburner and Mewhort got exactly what was coming to them, a semi-serious punishment for a semi-serious offense. When more serious issues arose, he dealt with those in a proportional manner. Two cornerbacks lost their positions on the team as a result of their indiscretions.
When Meyer was hired by the Buckeyes, he made a revealing statement during his introductory press conference, one that endeared him to me even more strongly than the promise of championships. Speaking about the arrests that occurred during his time at Florida, Meyer said:
“Does that mean we had bad kids? I’ll fight that forever. No, absolutely not, we did not have bad guys. Did they make stupid mistakes. Yeah,I’ve made a few stupid mistakes. We’re going to correct them. We’re going to go really hard and try to recruit really good people to represent Ohio State. That does not mean we’re going to give up on kids. So that’s kind of the belief we have here.”
That attitude exactly what we should demand of those who run college athletics. By its nature, college football gives its players a beautiful gift. The young men that populate these teams are offered a full college scholarship in exchange for playing a game. For many of these kids, higher education is a dream that could only be realized if someone else was footing the bill. However, the flip side of the gift is darker than its shiny exterior. The NCAA, and by extension its member programs, make millions of dollars off of these kids every year. An inherently educational institution has been monetized.
That reality gives rise to the attitude that most of the sports world seems to have: the tougher the discipline, the better. If a player screws up, he must not have deserved his place at the table to begin with. Pull the scholarship and never look back. However, if universities ran their football programs that way, they’d be doing a stark disservice to the players they committed to. The sad part: some of them do.
Imagine a hyper-talented, good-natured high school cornerback who grew up in poverty. In high school, he worked hard, but the limitations placed on him as a result of his socioeconomic circumstances and broken school system meant that he achieved mediocre grades and a pedestrian ACT score. But he’s really damn good at football. Urban Meyer, on behalf of The Ohio State University, sees his potential and offers him a scholarship. After matriculation, he embeds himself in the football team. His talent doesn’t fully translate to the college game, and he settles in as a role player, contributing some on defense and some on special teams. He does so for two years. In the spring of his sophomore year, he goes to a party at a friend’s house. He brings one of his fellow football players, but the patronage of the party is decidedly non-athletic. Like everyone at the party, the football players have one too many drinks. Someone insults them, and things escalate. A fight breaks out. When the police come, our hypothetical protagonist is arrested. He cooperates, but assault charges are filed regardless. The next day, Meyer calls him into his office. His scholarship is revoked. Because his family can’t pay tuition by themselves, he returns home, only to find that, in this economy, two years of college don’t provide marketable skills. A formerly promising future is altered irrevocably.
That outcome is unacceptable. We should expect better of our universities and we should expect better of our head coaches, both of which are charged with helping their players achieve the best future possible for themselves.
Based on the quote printed above, Urban Meyer understands this. He believes in the basic goodness of people. He believes that mistakes do not necessarily define character. He believes in punishing those mistakes, but forgiving them. He believes that when he offered a scholarship to his players, he was making a moral commitment to them. He believes in the responsibility that commitment encompasses. He believes that giving up on the kids to whom he has committed himself is an unforgivable offense.
That belief is evident in the way Meyer has conducted himself since taking over the Ohio State football program. His players routinely call themselves students first and athletes second. Parents and recruits alike report meeting Meyer and coming away deeply impressed with how much he cares about them as people, not as players. He emphasizes community, camaraderie, and family. Finally, he’s handled the disciplinary obstacles he’s faced with the same empathy and class that he did while at Florida.
He’s a role model.
That’s why the criticism he faces misses the point. Yes, there were plenty of arrests during Meyer’s time at Florida. But by sticking by those players, he provided something they didn’t bargain for when they signed their letters of intent. He provided them with someone powerful who believed in them. For young adults, particularly those who didn’t grow up in Upper Arlington, that’s invaluable. It’s the kind of gift that can alter the course of a life.
So at Florida, Urban Meyer changed kids’ lives. He’s doing the same at Ohio State. Find a way to criticize that.
In light of all this, the perspective with which those arrests are approached and our general attitude towards our student-athletes has to change. Something tells me that Meyer preferred that his own reputation take a hit if the alternative was the destruction of a young man’s future. That’s a bold attitude to have in a cutthroat business. It’s also an attitude to be praised, because it’s far too rare. Someone should tell Prisco.