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Post “Dirty” coaches as judge, jury, and executioner

Thursday August 5, 2010

I was reading the very enjoyable Michael Elkon dissection of Mandel’s “dirty coach” piece, and his final question gets to the heart of it: “should Masoli have been banished from football for his offenses at Oregon”?

That question of course implies a “who?” Who would ban Masoli? In Mandel’s world, that decision was Houston Nutt’s. It’s a pretty common mindset. When a player gets in trouble, we automatically look to the coach for discipline and draw amusement from those coaches who go a little easier than others in that department. But if these coaches are so dirty, why do so many of these decisions keep ending up in their hands?

Think about all of the layers Masoli passed through before this even got to the “dirty” Houston Nutt. Start with the criminal justice system. Being a part of a team is a secondary concern if the person is in jail. Even after pleading guilty to a second-degree felony and subsequent drug and traffic charges, Jeremiah Masoli has remained free to leave the state and continue his quarterbacking career. Yes, it’s possible that he could still face charges for violation of his probation, but does anyone expect that to go anywhere? In the case of the bar fight at Tennessee, only Darren Myles Jr. currently faces serious charges. Why?

Then there are the heirarchies of authority within the universities. Someone at Ole Miss made the decision to admit Masoli, a convicted felon. All of these schools presumably have a president, athletic director, dean of students, and even student judiciaries. They’re silent. These offices needn’t be powerless against the football coach. The cases of Jamar Chaney and Michael Grant should still be familiar to Georgia fans as instances of an oversight committee stepping in to question the admission of a football player. Georgia’s athletic department also removes some of the discretionary power from its coaches by mandating minimum suspensions for drug and alcohol-related arrests. Coaches can and do butt heads with the administration over these questions, but those conflicts show that the administration can have teeth when it asserts itself.

So when the police, judges, prosecutors, and several layers of university bureaucracy punt, it’s left to the coach to be society’s gatekeeper. It’s not the witnesses who looked the other way at the bar, the judge who decided probation was plenty strong enough for a felony conviction, or the admissions officer who thought Masoli would make a fine addition to the Ole Miss graduate program.

I don’t mean to come off like Otter’s defense of Delta house or cast the coaches as sympathetic please-protect-us-from-ourselves figures. Yes, they’ll bend the rules to win at almost any cost and take at least as much latitude as their bosses will give them. I also don’t pretend that these other parties (yes, even local law enforcement) operate without heavy pressure to do right by the home team. But, as Elkon points out, these “dirty” coaches aren’t the guys breaking NCAA rules. In the case of Masoli, you have a player who, for now at least, is permitted by the law to leave the state of Oregon and continue his career elsewhere. Thanks to the NCAA’s recent rule change, Masoli is eligible to play his final year of eligibility wherever he likes. He’s been admitted by the University of Mississippi. So Nutt is the problem for playing someone who has been cleared by every other level of oversight along the way?

So coaches should have no role in discipline or no standards for character? Of course they should. Consider it selfishly – players who are problems off the field can often be poison to the chemistry of the team. Disruptions harm the team, and negative publicity makes it more difficult to recruit and keep the fans on your side. A coach has plenty of reasons to be active in the discipline of his team. But don’t mistake that job with our irrational expectation that the coaches serve as a proxy for actual justice.

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