This isn’t Kevin Sumlin’s first rodeo. The coach has overseen Texas A&M football for 5 seasons, and it’s no secret that Year 6 could be his last in Aggieland.
The time for excuses passed long ago. Sumlin is coaching for his job, and clearly he’s doing everything he can to keep it. But at what point does the apparent laser focus on winning begin to damage his program?
The latest bit of controversy to engulf Texas A&M involves sophomore Kirk Merritt, a former 4-star prospect who should compete for a starting wide receiver spot this season. The Houston Chronicle reported last Friday that Merritt pleaded not guilty to 2 charges of indecent exposure after the Oregon transfer exposed his genitals to not 1, but 2 different athletic tutors in 2 days.
Merritt actually admitted to doing this, but because his lawyer argues that Merritt’s acts fall within the less-serious disorderly conduct statute, they’re fighting the charges. This same crack defense team also claims that Merritt “had a bad case of jock itch,” which somehow resulted in accidental exposure.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Texas A&M’s handling of the entire situation, according to the school, goes something like this:
- Texas A&M athletics and the university’s Title IX Office become aware of the allegations
- Three days later, Sumlin suspends Merritt, who already was forced to sit out the 2016 season because of transfer rules
- Merritt is arrested on Nov. 8
- “The university conduct process concluded on Jan. 20”
- Merritt is reinstated on Feb. 1
Merritt did not see the field during last Saturday’s scrimmage, but other outlets report that he did participate in practice this spring. Sumlin did not address the media at all after the spring game because of a previously scheduled recruiting visit, and thus did not offer any comment on the situation.
So, what exactly happened between Merritt’s arrest and Jan. 20 that led the Aggies to lift his suspension? That’s exactly what the father of one victim in this case wants to know. On Thursday, he spoke to Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle about the incident.
“Would you expect the player to just go play football again? I think I know the answer. But Kevin Sumlin isn’t in my shoes. He’s in the shoes of trying to win a championship. That’s the least of my concerns.”
Let’s call this for what it is: Texas A&M giving a good football player preferential treatment.
It’s a bad look, without question, and it’s far from the first time Sumlin & Co. have run into bad publicity. Last summer, Sumlin suspended 2 of his assistant coaches for a sexually suggestive presentation they made during “Chalk Talk”, a women’s football clinic. Another one of his assistants earned undisclosed discipline for going nuts on Twitter.
What sort of message do these shenanigans send to the players? “It doesn’t matter if I make a mistake.” “The coaches get in trouble too, so it’s no big deal.” The 2017 team is young and should feature a slew of new faces on both sides of the ball. Unity will be crucial. And this is the culture Sumlin is proud of propagating?
What about the Texas A&M fans, many of them wives, daughters and mothers who avidly support its football team? The victim who spoke to the Chronicle was a third-generation Aggie. She has now chosen to boycott school athletic events.
In a twist of irony, Texas A&M happens to be among those celebrating Sexual Assault Awareness Month this April. Talk about mixed messages.
Instead of facing the music and addressing Merritt’s suspension on Saturday, Sumlin chose to spend the day recruiting. He’s focused on winning football games, and anything that doesn’t help him achieve that end — be it media, or tutors, or whatever — apparently qualifies as a distraction.
Down the road in Waco last year, Baylor recently fired its football coach amid a year-long sexual assault scandal. The school’s athletic director and chancellor also resigned.
Wouldn’t that serve as the ultimate cautionary tale for Texas A&M? Is it really worth it for the athletic department to dismiss this so quickly? What’s the risk/reward here?
Maybe Merritt turns out to be the cure-all for Texas A&M’s chronic case of November Collapse-itis. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Sumlin goes 15-0 and wins a national championship (spoiler: he won’t). We can list hypotheticals all day.
But sustaining success in a win-at-all-costs environment? The long-run outlook for that approach ain’t great. Sumlin needs to nip this incident in the bud and prevent it from becoming a trend.