It’s too early yet to render judgment on Jason Respert, but we have enough evidence to deliver a verdict on the man who would be his college football coach. Phil Fulmer is guiltier than a big dog.
We’re still working on the charge. But ”contributing to the delinquency of collegiate athletics“ sounds about right.
Let us hasten to stipulate for the record: Mr. Fulmer, the football boss at the school once described by a local recruit as ”the university of UT,“ is not accused of breaking the law, either in letter or in spirit.
Of course, that’s more than Mr. Respert can say. Here are a few particulars of the case. Respert, a Bunyanesque offensive lineman with a gift for squashing defenders like june bugs, had pledged to sign his name on a grant-in-aid form committing him to play for the Vols. Then, unfortunately, something came up.
Though he was betrothed to Tennessee, Respert made an official visit to Florida two weekends ago. On his junket, he allegedly broke into a young woman’s domicile during the pre-dawn hours of one morning and attempted to assault her sexually. For the record, Respert strongly maintains his innocence.
Florida and Alabama, both of whom sorely coveted Respert’s services on the field, promptly withdrew their scholarship offers. (No doubt, as a friend of Respert’s family suggested, the schools were emboldened to demonstrate such moral courage by their knowledge that the star recruit had already chosen to play elsewhere.) Which brings us back round to Fulmer and the U of UT.
After Respert’s arrest, Tennessee’s offer remained on the table. In fact, word was that his signing with the Vols would be delayed by only a day or two.
After some quick re-thunkin by the PR department, Tennessee privately encouraged Respert to withhold his John Hancock just a little longer.
But Fulmer has yet to do the right thing, which is to announce that no scholarship will be forthcoming until Respert is exonerated of the very serious charges he faces.
You’re correct to point out that, at first blush, such a stance seems contrary to the fundamental principle of our jurisprudence that guilt cannot be presumed.
For anyone who finds it ironic that Supreme Court hatchets Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas enjoy the title of ”justice“ (that is to say, anyone devoted to the Bill of Rights), this is a position not easily reached.
On the other hand, how would you feel about hiring an accused rapist as your church’s youth director? Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.
It’s also interesting to note how many fans who are stauncher law-and-order advocates than Dirty Harry would already have been clamoring for a fast trial and stern punishment were Respert some burger-flipper or car-washer instead of an extraordinarily gifted pass-blocker. That’s the problematic double standard that Fulmer overlooks or doesn’t care to notice.
As your physics teacher will tell you, things start behaving strangely when placed under enough pressure. In the case of college football and basketball coaches, pressure to win applied by alums and boosters often leads them to allow a player’s talent to override all other considerationsincluding grades, including character, including unruly, unsavory, or even unlawful behavior.
If you run out of examples, it only means that you have stopped looking.
Here are just a few from recent years:
♦ Dwayne Goodrich. Star defensive back for the Vols. Hero of the Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida State. Picked up for being drunk and disorderly, and for threatening the police. Whatever punishment, if any, that may have been privately imposed by Fulmer, it didn’t exactly relegate Goodrich to the bench.
♦ Lawrence Phillips. Wonderback for Nebraska. Assaulted fellow athlete and dragged ex-girlfriend by her hair in a jealous rage. Suspended for half the season by coach Tom Osborne, who, coincidentally, decided just before the national championship game that Phillips could come out of timeout.
♦ Reggie Cobb. Remember him? He pioneered UT’s ”four strikes and you’re out“ policy. Three strikes were OK, but a fourth failed drug test proved too much even for Johnny Majors, who was more tolerant than a Unitarian when it came to player deportment.
♦ Then, of course, there’s Peter Warrick, the Heisman candidate whose larcenous exploits gave new meaning to the term ”prolific receiver.“ But at Florida Statewhere ethical standards in the football program would redden the face of Tony Sopranothe felony charge against Warrick was regarded more like a speeding ticket to be fixed.
In all of these cases and scores of others, the immoral of the story is that talent rules; rules drool. And if you have enough of that magical athletic elixir, you can Houdini your way out of almost anything.
It’s an attitude that is cultivated among many athletes at a tender age. As early as high school, they begin to perceive that athletic skill may confer upon them a certain immunity, not enjoyed by non-jocks, from consequences of bad behavior or academic sluggardliness.
During their recruitment by colleges, these top athletes watch as grown men fall over themselves because of their on-field prowess. They observe how recruiting junkies seem to know everything about them, from their speed in the 40-yard dash to which schools are on their ”A“ list. They draw conclusions about life based on the women (sometimes billed as recruiting hostesses) that keep coming their way; the tutors who are provided for them (sometimes with a wink); and the gifts that sometimes fall into their laps against the rules.
After such treatment, perhaps it’s little wonder that teenagers who already think they’ll live forever begin also to believe that they possess some kind of permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. In this way, college athletics have both fulfilled Martin Luther King’s dream and stood it on its head. As he had hoped, the color of your skin doesn’t matter if you want to be a football star. But neither, evidently, does the content of your characterat least not if you’re big or fast enough.
About the only way some coaches would be deterred from signing a high-school All-American would be if the player were caught in a police raid on a crack house before signing day. Oops, my bad. Jerry Tarkanian already disproved that at UNLV.
Unfortunately, this ”untouchables“ mindset doesn’t end once collegiate stars turn prothough their immunity often does. You can draw a line from it straight to Michael Irvin (veteran of one of the all-time great outlaw programs, at Miami), who as a Dallas Cowboy has wriggled out of trouble more often than Batman.
You can connect it to Latrell Sprewell, who understood that nothing short of murdering his coach would keep him for long out of an NBA uniform somewhere. Or even to John Rocker, who assumed a 98-mph fastball covers a multitude of sins.
Maybe the line even extends to NFL stars Rae Carruth and Ray Lewis. The former was charged with orchestrating a murder; the latter, who was all set to fly to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, was charged with participating in two killings in Atlanta after the Super Bowl.
Maybe college coaches genuinely have high legal principles in mind when they refrain from passing judgment in cases like Respert’s. Given the track record of their peer group, however, it’s hard instead not to think of the residents of Animal House, who managed to turn their disciplinary hearing into an impassioned-sounding defense of the Constitution.
What Fulmer’s actions suggest is that Tennessee is waiting for Respert’s case to be resolved; whether that’s through a finding of innocence or a plea bargain to a misdemeanor doesn’t really matter. What he’s saying, much louder than any words, is that his most serious concern is the potential loss of a talented football player.
And that’s a crime.