Roots of off-field problems go deep

The recent arrest of Taurean Charles along with the one-game suspensions of Channing Crowder and Jarvis Herring have brought an onslaught of negative publicity to the football program at the University of Florida along with the expected public outcries calling for stronger discipline. Strong voices are calling for a crackdown by coaches on the players, some even suggesting that the coaches are slack in their discipline.

The reality of the situation is that the coaches are not doing a poor job with their discipline. The problems, and why they continue to surface, have deeper roots which should be examined before passing judgment.

There are a number of things to be considered here, one of which is that UF, just like every school in the country that plays football at a top 25 level, goes after the kids who are the best athletes, and a bulk of the athletes signed to come to these schools would NOT be admitted if their SAT scores and high school grades were pitted against those of the incoming freshman class. Even schools like Duke, Stanford and Vanderbilt, known for their higher academics, take student-athletes who would never have a chance of being admitted if not for their athletic prowess. Those schools also have their off the field problems, but because they are rarely, if ever, a threat to the top 25, their problems are easily overlooked.

It also has to be noted that quite a number of each recruiting class at all 117 Division I schools come from single parent families and have lived in sub-standard economic environments.

So what do we do? We put them in an environment where they are surrounded by kids who are superior academically and in most cases, from superior economic backgrounds. Culture shock? You bet.

Then we throw in football, which so many of these kids view as their ticket to a better life, so they are in a highly competitive arena. For many, the first failures they will ever face are in college where they are now just another good football player on a roster of very good football players, and where they have to earn their grades in classes that are infinitely more difficult, taught by teachers who are far brighter and less understanding than anyone they ever had in high school. Every time there is a senior day in any Division I football program, we look at certain kids and wonder what happened? Why didn't they produce? After all, they were All-America in high school. Well, some kids are as good as they are going to get in high school, and others fail when suddenly thrust against competition like nothing they have ever seen. It is an environment that feeds frustration.

The kids are under intense pressure socially, in the classroom and on the practice fields. Then we have the pressure of kids having to produce so that the coach that recruited them can keep his job. The kids know what's going on. They read the papers. They know that if they fail, the coach and his staff may be looking for a new job, which means they (the players) will have to learn a new system of football as well as build new relationships with new coaches.

Now, before I go on, this is not a cop-out for any kid who comes to the University of Florida to play football. Those kids are still responsible for their actions, both on and off the field. For every wrong action, there is a consequence. Athletes have to understand that when they do wrong, they will be punished. Unfortunately, in life, there is no referee throwing a yellow flag and marching off 15 yards. The consequences for off the field failures are far greater and last a lifetime.

In a perfect world, we would have rosters filled with kids like Chris Leak, Ed Chester, or Terry Jackson, Danny Wuerffel or Brad Culpepper. We want those kids who become great role models, who succeed socially, in the classroom and on the playing field. Of course we want them, but unfortunately, there aren't enough of them to go around. If a coach is going to win, he's going to have to take some chances, bring in some kids who are marginal academically and hope that once the kid is on campus, he will have no problems adapting socially in an environment far more intense than anything he's seen before. We expect our coaches to win and we expect our coaches to bring in athletes capable of competing. Florida has to recruit against the rest of the SEC, plus in the state of Florida against both Florida State and Miami. There aren't enough choir boys around to field a team capable of winning in the SEC plus beating Florida State and Miami — but winning is expected and losing will not be tolerated.

Next we factor in the NCAA, which in its infinite wisdom, keeps making things more difficult for coaches. We expect the coaches to keep a lid on the kids, yet when we see how they are hamstrung by the NCAA, you get a better understanding of how kids can go out of control.

I don't have statistics to back it up, and I don't know if there is a way to get the stats on it, but I would be willing to bet that there are far more off the field problems ever since the NCAA, in its wisdom, put an end to athletic dorms. The NCAA took another bad step by eliminating training tables except for one meal per day. Both of these moves were hailed as "reforms" but it is my belief that the off the field problems have only escalated since these so called improvements were made the law. Coaches used to be able to put curfews on kids and monitor who was in and who was out. They used to be able to use meal times to talk to kids and make sure the kids have their focus right. They can't do that anymore, so a problem situation is becoming more and more compounded.

The kids have to be responsible. The coaches have to instill discipline. Yet, we take marginal kids and basically turn them loose without supervision in an environment in which nothing in their background has prepared them. We place kids in an arena where they play a violent game. We know that if the kids are to produce winning efforts on the field, they will have to spend a bulk of their free time practicing and training so they can go out there on Saturdays and physically beat their opponents in submission.

During the football season, coaches have a greater measure of control, but in the offseason, even the number of personal contacts the coaches have with the players is monitored and limited by the NCAA. It is the offseason when most of the violent confrontations between football players and non-football players take place. We expect football players to be held to a higher standard, therefore there are outcries of "lack of discipline" when football players are drinking alcohol followed by some kind of confrontation. What do we expect? We're asking kids who are ill prepared for these social situations — kids whose world is centered around violence — to be Boy Scouts off the field, yet proportionally, there are just as many violent conflicts among the non-athletes of the campus. If a National Merit Scholar has a few too many and gets into a fight which results in an arrest, are there headlines? Is the National Merit Scholar ripped to shreds by the media and the fans on the internet? Yet, that National Merit Scholar was probably better prepared to handle an off the field social situation than the athlete.

It is a double standard, but because football is so high profile, we hypocritically demand the double standard while hindering the coaches who could seriously reduce the chances of these violent encounters if we only gave them the means to do so. Give the coaches back the control and I believe the off the field violence would be reduced by a significant amount.

Taking away the controls was not a decision made by football coaches. This decision was made by university presidents who need to take stock of what they have done. Their reforms may have been made with good intentions, but their good intentions are not working. The solutions would begin with bringing back the athletic dormitories so that coaches could institute and enforce curfews. Secondly, bring back the training table for all three meals. At successful football programs, the coaches always used this as a "family" time, when they were able to sit with players, talk about what's going on in their lives, and offer real insight and wisdom to kids who may be facing difficult situations or problems. This was a time of player-coach bonding and it has been taken away. A third solution would be to take the shackles off the coaches when it comes to offseason contact with the players. How can we expect 18-21-year-old kids to stay out of trouble if the rules limit the person held most responsible (the coach) from supervising or spending enough time with the players?

The same presidents who instituted these rules argue that the athletic dorms and training tables did nothing to prepare kids for the real world, that kids are better off thrust into situations in which they are ill-prepared. They also argue that if the coaches are given the controls once again, it won't be long before an outlaw school takes advantage of the rules by having extra practices or something of that nature. The alternative is a continued escalation of the off the field violence. It is my contention that the discipline that kids have to endure by following team rules that are more easily enforced by having an athletic dorm is a better alternative to what we have now. It is also my contention that the kids are better off being able to interact with the coaches at meal time and that more reasonable rules for offseason contact should be initiated so that coaches can be more of a daily role model for the players.

The alternative to re-instituting some old rules is more violence. Will it take some kid getting killed by a thrown beer keg before there are changes made?

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