ATHENS, Ga. - The news report may have been a mild surprise. The reaction was entirely predictable.
When Georgia announced the suspension of its top three healthy running backs for Saturday’s game against New Mexico State (a.k.a. nonconference “patsy”) the outcry in the social media universe was Pavlovian.
“How convenient that this gets adjudicated between the Florida and Auburn games” was the general theme of the public responses, mostly lodged from north and east of the Savannah River. I’m paraphrasing, of course, because the actual comments were more hostile, vulgar or self-righteously judgmental and could not possibly have included a five-syllable word like “adjudicated.”
The anthem of Southeastern Conference football should be Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds. There is nothing that any one coach or program in college football’s most cut-throat conference can do without the actions and motives being dissected with the highest degree of skepticism. Rival fans would have condemned Mother Teresa if she had coaxed a five-star player into joining her program instead of theirs.
And the timing of the one-game (as far as we know) sentences of Bulldog tailbacks Isaiah Crowell, Carlton Thomas and Ken Malcome certainly encouraged arched eyebrows. That it came three days after two of them provided essential service in a desperately needed victory over Georgia’s greatest nemesis certainly projects the appearance of a fortuitous coincidence.
But Georgia’s athletics director Greg McGarity has been adamant that favoritism was “absolutely not” granted the football program so it could keep its star athletes eligible for the big game.
“This had nothing to do with the Florida game or anything,” McGarity said. “It was all timing.”
Claude Felton, the senior associate athletics director, said the university’s policy is inflexible.
“Our Athletic Association regulations are strict that competition suspensions, as a result of a violation of team or Athletic Association policies, are immediate and occur at the next scheduled competition,” Felton said.
ESPN.com reported that the three players failed a drug test that was reportedly administered before the Florida game. That’s what has everyone buzzing that the punishment might have been deferred.
But Buck Belue – the UGA quarterback on the 1980 national championship team and current radio personality strongly connected with the Bulldogs – stated on his Twitter account that the timing was on the up-and-up.
“No conspiracy in Athens ... pee test on Thursday, results in Tuesday afternoon,” Belue wrote.
That won’t silence the critics, particularly any Gamecocks hurling stones from their glass house after tolerating for five years the non-punitive “suspensions” of troubled quarterback Stephen Garcia. All fans will argue anything that helps their team’s quest to win the SEC East.
Of course the primary target of social media contempt has been Georgia coach Mark Richt. What is so troubling about it is that Richt has become a coaching leader in how player discipline should be handled. Fewer coaches are quicker to pull the trigger on star players for violating team rules.
“We have certain standards in all that we do and their actions do not reflect the Georgia way,” Richt said. “They will serve their suspensions, learn a lesson and I’m sure be better men for it.”
That Richt retains faith that the young men playing for him will “learn” from these experiences is quaint. College hasn’t proven to be the best learning environment for some football players.
Washaun Ealey and Caleb King – the top two leading rushers from the previous two seasons – never learned from their repeated mistakes before Richt showed them the exit door. You’d think Crowell, whose path to instant stardom was greased by those departures, would have understood before already getting suspended twice in his first two months (Thomas is a double 2011 offender of the unspecified “team rules” as well).
But this is nothing new and it is not exclusive of Georgia. Just look at recent South Carolina history, where superstar rusher Derek Watson got kicked off in 2002 after two stellar seasons for a marijuana possession arrest. He was followed by projected superstar Demetris Summers, who lasted two tumultuous years before being kicked off the team himself in 2005 after the last of “several” failed drug tests.
Both Watson’s and Summers’ troubles continue to follow them after leaving the Gamecocks (Watson got arrested again this year in Greenville, S.C., and charged with drug possession and trafficking).
While we’ve yet to know the true extent of what keeps getting the ultra-talented Crowell in the doghouse, he’d be wise to heed the words Watson told the Anderson, S.C., newspaper in the spring of 2010 even he couldn’t control himself.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t willing to make sacrifices,” Watson said. “You want to do what you want to do and you don’t worry about the consequences. But what you have to realize, and what I really want to stress to younger people, is the choices you make now affect your whole future. Because I did things I shouldn’t have done, it basically sidelined all the goals I wanted to reach. I just threw it all away.”
While it’s probably too much to hope that fans will ever see rationally beyond their own self-interests, it’s not too late for these Georgia players to be accountable and become the “better men” Richt envisions.
Next time they – and Georgia – might not be so lucky.