Adversity’s Silver Lining
By BJ Bennett
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Sometimes lost in the shuffle of what could have been on the football field is what will be off of it.
In the last few weeks, major college football has lost three of its brightest stars: Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell, Florida State cornerback Greg Reid and LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. Each player was expected to be a key piece, at the very least, on a team with national championship expectations. The Bulldogs and Seminoles were ranked 6th and 7th respectively in the pre-season USA Today Coaches' Poll; the Tigers topped the list. Each of the dismissals have left questions for the coaches left behind. More importantly, however, they may ultimately help college football clarify its priorities and help lauded young athletes regain their footing.
Mistakes were undoubtedly made. Such is the human experience, especially at a time in one's life where the typical 9-5 schedule oftentimes ends early in the morning instead of early in the afternoon. Maybe we are looking for such news now more than we used to. There is undoubtedly more media coverage. But it seems like players getting in trouble with the law is a more common occurrence in today's athletic landscape. It's a headline that the general public appears sick of reading. There was a time in college football where the argument could be the made that the consensus reaction to player mistakes was far less dramatic. With school administrators, coaches, fans and media all throwing their weight behind it, that pendulum may now be swinging.
Crowell, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year, began his career at Georgia with as much hype as any recruit in recent memory. He was the star of Mark Richt's 2011 "Dream Team" recruiting class. Comparisons were immediately made to former UGA Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, an in-state product who started dominating the day he stepped on the field. Crowell showed flashes of brilliance, topping the 100-yard mark in first three SEC games. He also showed a propensity to make poor decisions, getting suspended for the first quarter of the Vanderbilt game for a rules infraction and missing the New Mexico State contest due to a reported failed drug test. Some also grew weary of what they perceived to be a poor attitude on Crowell's behalf. This past June, the sophomore was booked at 3:37am on charges of possessing a concealed weapon, having a weapon in a school zone and having an altered ID mark on that weapon. Richt then dismissed Crowell from the team.
“We have a dedicated and committed group of men who are working hard to prepare for the coming season,” he stated. “Our total focus will be directed toward the team and this effort.”
A versatile cornerback and return specialist, Reid was entering his senior season at Florida State with what many believed to be a very real appreciation of the leadership role he had on the team. An All-American candidate, he was just 313 yards shy of breaking Deion Sanders' career punt return record. Reid was arrested in early July near his hometown of Valdosta on charges of possession of marijuana, driving without a valid license and not wearing a seatbelt. He was arrested last season after lying during an investigation where a scooter that was registered in his name was stolen, though those charges were later dropped. Reid was also suspended for the Charleston Southern game for an undisclosed violation. Fisher, who recently referred to marijuana as an "epidemic" on college campuses, dismissed Reid from the team for his latest indiscretion. He has since enrolled at Division II Valdosta State.
The news of reigning Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu being kicked off the team at LSU blindsided college football this past Friday afternoon. The 2011 Bednarik Award winner was suspended for the Auburn game last season for reportedly failing a drug test, but, with fall practice underway, the focus around Baton Rouge was on their number one pre-season ranking. Having compiled a team-high 76 tackles, forcing six fumbles, recovering four more and scoring four total touchdowns last fall, Mathieu was the face of the pre-season number one team in the country. After more struggles with substance abuse for the New Orleans-native, Les Miles dismissed one of the premier players in the country off of his football team.
"I think he gave us a lot of examples we can learn from. I think he is a quality, quality guy who had a behavior issue. That's it," the Tiger head football coach added. "Certainly the overview of his time with us is positive. "
National media reports claim that Mathieu had been going through counseling during the spring and summer.
"We do everything we can to help these kids. He's had help and we've been trying to help him all along in everything," LSU athletic director Joe Alleva explained. "Being an athlete is a privilege. You have to follow the rules to take advantage of that privilege and unfortunately, he doesn't have that privilege here any more. He's a good kid. He really is a good kid, it's a shame. But I told him this morning, that he has the rest of his life. His life is still ahead of him. He still has an opportunity to do good things."
Three national championship contenders will kick off the season with similar challenges, trying to replace vital parts of their football team. At the conclusion of spring practice, Florida State, Georgia and LSU fully expected to have Greg Reid, Isaiah Crowell and Tyrann Mathieu on the practice field and atop the depth chart at their respective positions. The bad decisions they made forced team officials to make difficult ones of their own.
"The policy is a written policy," Alleva continued in reference to Mathieu. "It's like the speed limit, if you are going over the speed limit, you're breaking the law. He's been over the speed limit. As in, he's been over it a lot."
Crowell, Mathieu and Reid all three experienced stardom early in their collegiate careers. More so, like many of their peers, they were national figures coming out of high school. It's a dynamic that needs to be addressed and handled with care. Recruiting has developed its own sub-culture and, though the motives aren't necessarily negative, the paradigm shift in coverage and significance may be leading to a more myopic mindset amongst teenagers who already see leverage linked to their athletic achievements. Most high schoolers simply don't have the makeup to handle the pressures that come with widespread acclaim. Some don't have the infrastructure either.
The recent decisions made by Fisher, Miles and Richt have, quite frankly, made their championship-caliber football teams less talented. That said, they may have made their locker rooms more focused and sedulous. Most importantly, they may help a handful of talented young men, mostly described as "good kids" who made "bad decisions", regain a proper perspective and thus get their lives back on track.
"At the time, I think it's an opportunity to redirect and I think he still has a bright future," Miles concluded of Mathieu. "He can still accomplish all the goals he set for himself. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to be doable."
Sometimes lost in the shuffle of what could have been on the football field is what will be off of it. Florida State, Georgia and LSU are spending fall practice now learning how to live without. With so much more at stake, Crowell, Mathieu and Reid are doing the same.