It often seems Americans are overfed on outrage and starved for solutions.
This is true for the serious problems of the real world and the less-serious issues of sports, and it’s especially true in those moments when real-world problems and sports intersect — such as last week, when some SEC coaches had to deal with a few unpleasant questions.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was forced to defend his decision to handle punishment for offensive tackle Cam Robinson and defensive back Hootie Jones internally (meaning likely no suspension) after both were arrested in May for possession of marijuana — and for Robinson, a felony charge of possession of a stolen gun. The district attorney later decided to drop the charges against Robinson and Jones, but that didn’t stop some from suggesting Saban should still deliver a harsh punishment.
Likewise Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was asked to explain his perceived leniency toward incoming 5-star freshman Jeffrey Simmons after the defensive lineman was captured on video punching a woman.
In each of these situations, there were plenty of critics saying Saban and Mullen weren’t doing enough to penalize wrongdoing and to prevent future misbehavior. However, no one ever seems to know exactly what the coaches should do to make things better.
Should Saban have suspended Robinson and Jones for the incident in Louisiana? Maybe, but doing so would require Saban to take on the role of prosecutor in a situation where the actual prosecutor had already declined involvement.
Of course Monroe, La., district attorney Jerry Jones was mocked for his decision not to pursue charges against the Alabama players — in part because he referred to them being football players in his explanation for not seeking convictions.
This might have been a terrible gaffe by the DA, but it’s worth pointing out that in this case the system in Louisiana is accused of being unfairly tipped in favor of young African-Americans, when the state has also recently made headlines for the exact opposite perception.
In other words, football might be responsible for providing Robinson and Jones with an opportunity for a better life they might not get without the sport. It might be justice inconsistently applied, but it might still be justice nonetheless.
That said, there’s a natural distaste involved when someone is thought to have gotten away with a crime the way many assume Robinson and Jones did. That distaste can also produce a lot of cynicism.
During SEC Media Days, Saban lashed out at SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum about the arrest of Robinson and Jones. Finebaum had asked about it being a “bad look” if the players aren’t suspended, and Saban made it known that he thought the actions of the police were improper. It all seemed like a moment of unscripted drama between two well-known figures around the conference, but SI’s Andy Staples suggested it wasn’t unscripted at all.
“All of it was calculated … when they speak to recruits now, Alabama assistants can point to that segment and ask the following: Do you see how much coach has his players’ backs?” Staples wrote this week.
Maybe Staples is right and it was all done in the name of recruiting, or maybe Saban truly believes it is his responsibility to be an advocate for his players regardless of what the public thinks — especially when some of his players come from backgrounds in which support is in short supply, and even more so if Robinson and Jones were actually treated unfairly by the police.
The same is true for Simmons. Some have said he shouldn’t have even been admitted to MSU because of the violence he committed against a woman. That’s an understandable response given the nature of his actions, but banishing him from college wouldn’t make women safer.
FiveThirtyEight studied arrest rates among NFL players and found that arrests for domestic violence — while high — occurred only about half as frequently for pro football players as they did for the total population of men ages 25-29. If the goal is for Simmons to never repeat his aggression against women, then that would seem more likely to happen if his football career continues than it would if he was barred from school.
Few will be willing to give Mullen and Mississippi State the benefit of the doubt on the Simmons issue, though. They’ll assume they vouched for Simmons because of his athletic value and not out of duty to help him become a productive member of society.
Mullen and his employer may have acted self-servingly, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who’ll benefit from their decision. Simmons — like Robinson and Jones at Alabama — stands to gain much from a coach who also “has his players’ backs.”
The responsibility now rests with these players to make good on their second chances. The proper response from them would be to meet the grace they’ve been extended with a dose of humility — realizing that they’re all to some degree lucky to still be playing football.
As for the critics of Saban and Mullen, maybe it’s also time to dial down the rhetoric a bit. Yes, the coaches could’ve used these circumstances as a chance to beef up their law and order bona fides, and toss out a few token suspensions to satisfy the media.
That would’ve allowed them to avoid some outrage. But that’s about all it would’ve accomplished.