This year, after considerable pressure from the NFL, ESPN cancelled the hit drama Playmakers, an hourlong show about a professional football team rife with drug and spousal abuse, steroids, homophobia and grave encounters with the law. The NFL claimed that the show was an unrealistic portrayal of professional football, which, if you take the league at its word, must mean that it thought the show was too tame. After all, just a quick look at the sordid NFL careers of University of Tennessee football players alone shows that Playmakers was, if anything, about as gritty as Brian’s Song.
This week, Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, a former UT star, was indicted on federal drug charges and faces up to life in prison. One of the top rushers in the NFL, Lewis was released on $500,000 bond after being charged with conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute at least five kilograms of cocaine. Lewis is hardly a stranger to illicit drugs; in 2001, his second year in the NFL, the star running back ran afoul of the league’s drug policy and sat out four games. His career now is in jeopardy.
Lewis is hardly the lone bad orange in the UT bunch. Three years ago, Buffalo running back Travis Henry, Tennessee’s career rushing leader, pled guilty to attempted sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old girl. His lawyer called Lewis’ crime, “an error in judgment.” Astonishingly, Lewis’ sentence was a mere slap on the wrist pad; the star athlete received 100 hours of community service, during which his responsibilities mainly includedyou guessed itcounseling youth.
Then there’s former UT star Dwayne Goodrich, the defensive MVP of the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, in which UT won a national title. Last August, Goodrich, who played with the Dallas Cowboys, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide after he struck and killed two Good Samaritans in his BMW and then drove away. The victims had been trying to pull out another motorist from his burning car. Goodrich meanwhile had been driving home from a topless bar. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison.
You’d think Goodrich would have learned a thing or two from his teammate at UT, former Vol linebacker, Leonard Little. In 1998, Little, now with the St. Louis Rams, got drunk at a party, drove home and struck and killed a 47-year-old woman, after running a red light. (For this he got 90 days in jail and community service.) Then there’s former Vols defensive back Dale Carter, who was placed on indefinite suspension from the NFL last year for violating the league’s drug policy. Over the years, the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback has also found himself in trouble for a litany of thuggish offenses, including drugs, assault, gun possession and driving under the influence. He also filed for bankruptcy three years after signing a four-year $28 million contract with the Denver Broncos. We’re guessing he didn’t major in accounting.
UT’s storied football program can hardly be blamed for the actions of its players after they graduate. But it does show that it didn’t do a whole lot for them while they were there. The ability of organized sports like college football to teach life lessons and build character, especially to those from troubled backgrounds, has long been a self-serving myth. But there are few places where that myth orbits farther from reality than at UT.
Under Coach Phil Fulmer, the school’s football program has been plagued by low graduation rates, off-the-field scandals and, lately, sloppy play on the gridiron. Nobody is saying that UT’s troubled football culture is responsible for Goodrich killing two people with his BMW. But maybe it’s evidence that there’s some cause and effect between running a foul program and generating foul athletes.