I'm about to ask you something that may be a little uncomfortable. I must warn you, you might be exposed to a foul stench comprised of equal parts paper mill, manure and stale ganja smoke.
Pinch your nose and cast a gander towards what has been going on in Pullman the last few weeks. In separate instances, students in the great Palouse have been roused out of bed to see the flashing of police lights marking yet another transgression by a Washington State student-athlete. More specifically, a Washington State football player. Toni Pole, Teondray Caldwell and Logan Mayes have all been rung up by Pullman police over the course of the last few weeks for separate offenses ranging from providing false information to a possible assault and burglary. The struggles in Pullman continue a P12 tradition of student-athletes using the offseason as their personal opportunity to survey the finest in penal accommodations the west coast has to offer. Austin Seferian-Jenkins experienced it himself - though his tour came a little before the official "off-season". The Oregon Ducks have boasted some of the all-time best off-season ventures with athletes like Kiko Alonso, La Michael James, Rob Beard and the immutable Cliff Harris all helping to prove that nobody does off-season like Oregon. And, of course, who could forget the day that Tyler Thomas, an Oregon State offensive lineman, got tased?
All of this drama, got me thinking about the plight of the student-athlete and the expectations that we as fans project on them. Tell me if you think I got this right, but I would say that we, as a collective fan base, expect the following from our student-athletes:
- Avoid being arrested for any reason
- Avoid violence of any kind - particularly against women or involving deadly weapons
- Avoid possession of or use of illegal illicit drugs (and, for heaven's sake, don't grow them in your basement)
- Avoid underage drinking
- Show good enough judgment to not drink and drive (just like most adults, am I right?)
- Don't miss practice
- Don't dog it in practice
- Don't tweet or instagram or facebook something that you wouldn't show to your own mother
- CORRECTION: don't tweet or instagram or facebook something that I wouldn't show to my own mother
- Don't skip class
- In fact, go to every class
- And always be on time, no exceptions
- Graduate in four years
- Take a red-shirt and don't leave until five years
- Don't take booster cash
- Don't accept rides in golf carts
- Don't get a job
- Pay for your own meals, nights out with friends and spring break trips
- Never talk bad about your school, your teachers, your coaches OR your fans
- Read what we say about your, but block it all out
- Act your age, with the minimum being 25.
Run afoul of any of these dots and ... BAMMO ... you are rogue who deserves to be run out of the program. How dare you disparage the gift that is your scholarship to our fine university?
I know, I'm overplaying it a bit - but you get my point. The ushering in of the digital age has made it possible for us to get closer to athletes and celebrities in ways that previous generations never had to contend with. In some ways, this access has intensified the fan experience to the benefit of both the entertainers and their fanatics. On the other hand, this access has given us new fodder upon which to feed and to examine and to scrutinize. Unfortunately, the judgment of the masses does not discriminate and does not take into account the unique circumstances of every situation.
For every Cliff Harris - a chronic offender who has a litany of issues that do not lend themselves well to the prospect of the heightened public scrutiny that comes with celebrity, there is an Austin Seferian-Jenkins - a first time offender who clearly made an egregious mistake but who, if all other accounts are to be trusted, is among the most mature, well-grounded and accountable members of a pretty well-disciplined football program. Taking a look at recent events in Pullman, it might be easy to conclude that this is just another "WSU summer" and that it is emblematic of a program that just can't keep their kids out of trouble. Heck, we even have a trophy for such a thing! But a closer look may reveal a different reality. It may be the case that a player was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or that a law enforcement officer employed a tactic to establish calm in a tense situation that got blown up in the public. Or, shocking as it may be, a kid not much older than my nephew just did something that kids do ... make a mistake.
I don't know. I used to revel in the glory of those instances when rival teams would have an incident where one of their stars would get tagged and would bring unwanted attention to their programs. However, I have changed my tune. The constant "gotcha" scrutiny on these kids - the kind of scrutiny that I would have never passed as a student myself - has become a blight. This in no way excuses the boorish behavior of some of these people - don't get me started on the Andru Pulu case - nor does it excuse the inconsistencies in which coaches/administrators handle these situations. But, there is a context that has been lost in the rush to chase the latest news. And, unfortunately, the public's thirst for more "dirt" is not accompanied by a desire to learn more about mitigating circumstances or rehabilitative/corrective actions.
Of course, I expect that this problem will get worse before, if ever, it gets better. The public/mob seems to have no limit to its insatiable appetite to get closer to celebrity, even when that celebrity is comprised of kids just a few years out of puberty and who may not yet even be old enough to vote. It is a sad reality of modern times and it is changing the fundamental relationship that students/alumni have with the student-athletes who represent our common university on the field.