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The Danger of ‘Winning at All Costs’

The offseason between the 2015 and 2016 college football seasons is giving many observers reason to wonder if the sport is capable of holding its participants accountable to basic standards of human decency.

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Texas v Baylor Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images
"Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing." ~UCLA football coach Red Sanders, 1953

It is commonly said that death and taxes are the only things that are sure in life. I’d like to add a third: When sports are played, fans will care about who wins and who loses.

Contrary to what your daughter's youth soccer coach tells her on cold autumn Saturday mornings between rounds of orange slices, having fun is not the only goal. (Well, it probably is at that level, but I digress.) Human beings are competitive by nature: We revel in the victories of those whom we support, and anguish in their defeats. It’s why ancient Romans gathered at the Colosseum to watch gladiators fight to the death; it’s why you go out with your buddies for drinks to celebrate when one of you lands a big promotion; and it’s why millions of Americans flock to college football stadiums every Saturday in the fall to cheer on the boys representing their institutions as they take on their hated rivals.

For many, these sporting events are more than just entertainment. We identify with the teams we support, and recount the results of games not by saying, "The Huskies won." Instead, we inexplicably say, "We won," as if we were in the trenches or running post-corner routes ourselves. Be honest: How many of you walked around with an extra pep in your step after the Dawgs beat Steve Sarkisian and his USC Trojans in Los Angeles last October? And how many of you were surly and grumpy after the Huskies lost to the Ducks for a once-inconceivable 12th consecutive time just nine days later? I know I was on both accounts, and I’m sure my girlfriend will be happy to corroborate that claim if you’re skeptical.

Most of the time, the tendency to identify with one's team is harmless, if not a bit off-putting and excessive. (We all know at least one sports fan who loves his team just a little too much, don’t we?) On the plus side, the level of devotion and enthusiasm college football inspires has given us the Apple Cup, the Iron Bowl and the Red River Showdown. It’s given us the Stanford Axe, the Keg of Nails, the Little Brown Jug and the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy. Hell, it’s even given us Phyllis from Mulga.

The people in charge of fielding a team of gridiron warriors decided in these cases to sacrifice their moral and ethical values in pursuit of additional wins.

Sadly, we have also been reminded time and time again of fanaticism’s darker side. It compelled the University of North Carolina to betray its very mission as an institution of higher learning by steering thousands of athletes into ‘paper classes’ engineered solely to help them maintain academic eligibility. In the 1980s, the desire to win above anything else gave rise to steroid scandals at Clemson and South Carolina. And most horrifyingly, we learned in 2011 that the level of deference virtually everyone in Happy Valley paid for decades to Penn State football coach Joe Paterno enabled a monster named Jerry Sandusky in committing unspeakable sexual crimes against the most vulnerable of young children.

Each of these scandals was made possible by the desire of those perpetrating and/or covering them up to ensure that their team had a competitive edge, either via the classroom, the weight room or by ensuring stability among the program's coaching staff. The people in charge of fielding a team of gridiron warriors decided in these cases to sacrifice their moral and ethical values in pursuit of additional wins.

The college football community was reminded of this shameful side of sports earlier this month, when the Pepper Hamilton law firm released its findings of fact in its investigation of the Baylor University football program. That investigation revealed that under head coach Art Briles, the program had actively worked to discredit and shame victims of sexual assault allegedly committed by football players. It includes the following damnable line:

... actions by University administrators ... directly discouraged complainants from reporting or participating in student conduct processes, or ... contributed to or accommodated a hostile environment. In one instance, those actions constituted retaliation against a complainant for reporting sexual assault.

Though the report has so far resulted in Briles’ firing as well as the resignations of athletic director Ian McCaw and university president Ken Starr, Briles’ entire assistant coaching staff remains intact, meaning that one or more of the coaches accused of improperly investigating and subsequently working to discredit women alleging sexual assault against football players remains employed. For him, nothing has changed outside of the spotlight now focused intently upon the Baylor football team. He will continue to earn a six-figure paycheck and wear the university’s colors and emblems on game days in the fall. Young men will still look to him as a role model whose advice should be heeded and who should be trusted implicitly.

Just one week after the Baylor scandal hit the front pages and brought the issue of violence among football players against women to the fore of the public conscience, Mississippi State University had the opportunity to take a strong stand with regard to incoming five-star freshman Jeffrey Simmons, who was filmed in March beating senseless a woman laying on the ground, supposedly in response to disrespectful comments she had made about one of Simmons’ deceased relatives. Some commentators were hopeful that the Bulldogs would follow in the example of the University of Oklahoma, which suspended five-star running back Joe Mixon for the entirety of his freshman season after he broke a woman’s jaw with a single punch during an altercation at a bar.

Instead, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin announced that Simmons would be suspended for one game, which Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pointed out is the same penalty assessed to a player who commits targeting. Presumably, that suspension will be served during the Bulldogs’ opener against the Sun Belt’s South Alabama, conveniently making him available for the team’s much more important Week Two SEC matchup against South Carolina.

In response, SB Nation’s Jason Kirk wrote:

In its statement, the school said Simmons will be "held accountable for his actions while at MSU."

That's bullshit. He's already not being held accountable for his actions. The debate about a fair suspension for a 275-pound man repeatedly punching a prone woman should be how many months or years at the top level he should miss, not how many minutes.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The Mississippi State University administrators had a clearly defined opportunity to make a stand against domestic violence, to firmly show that they would not tolerate violence committed against women by a man standing 6-3 and 277 lbs. They could have served him with a yearlong suspension, or refused to admit him to the university entirely.

And they instead chose to suspend him for one game. In the non-conference schedule. Against South Alabama.

If at any point you ever wondered what it would look like when college athletics administrators began to value wins and revenues from sellout stadiums over the rights of women to not be assaulted by male athletes, your imagination is no longer required. It’s quickly becoming the new normal.

And lest you believe that the worst is behind us in Waco, reporters from the Lone Star state are hearing that a group of powerful Baylor boosters is working to ensure that Briles is able to return to his job coaching the Bears in 2017. And don’t forget that Baylor will not release a written Pepper Hamilton report because the firm’s findings were only presented to the university's board of regents orally, conveniently eliminating a potentially embarrassing document before it was ever allowed to exist.

Chris Petersen's handling of Damore'ea Stringfellow's suspension set very clear rules that he didn’t care how many stars you had as a recruit or what was your position on the depth chart.

Episodes such as these at Baylor and Mississippi State are reminders that college football is in need of coaches who are mature role models with clearly grounded moral compasses. It’s not enough to know how to best run an up-tempo spread attack, or the most effective way to combat a run-pass option. The sport needs coaches who do those things, of course, but just as importantly, they need to have the courage and discipline to hold their players accountable.

Washington fans are lucky to have a coach who fits that mold in Chris Petersen. As many of you remember, one of Petersen’s first actions at Washington was to suspend potential No. 1 receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow for the entirety of his sophomore year following his and Cyler Miles’ involvement in instigating post-Super Bowl fights with Seattle Seahawks fans. Stringfellow responded by jumping ship and transferring to Ole Miss, and while his departure hurt — the wide receiver corps is still considered by many to be Washington's Achilles heel, and String would likely be an impactful contributor if he were still a member of the program — it also set very clear rules that Petersen didn’t care how many stars you had as a recruit or what was your position on the depth chart. When it came to setting boundaries for acceptable behavior, the head coach did so clearly and consistently.

In particular, Petersen’s philosophy is one that nearly all media pundits speak of in admirable terms. Fans of other teams with whom I have conversed speak in terms of glowing admiration for the coach’s character, and the way he runs his program. And if the Huskies’ 1991 national championship in football is the last one they ever win, I’ll be OK with that so long as I know the University of Washington will never endure the headlines we’ve seen at Baylor and Mississippi State in the past few weeks. After all, some things are more important than winning a game.