When I was 16, I did just about the dumbest thing a high school sophomore could do: I got behind the wheel of my car, and decided to see how fast it could go.
I had what I believed to be a good reason, of course. I was a member of the Sumner Spartans football team, and we had an away game against the Auburn Trojans that Friday evening. I was running late, and had no desire to subject myself to Coach Keith Ross’ conditioning regimen that would surely await me if I were to show up after check-in time. So I hopped behind the wheel of my white 1990 Toyota Celica in Bonney Lake, made it to Highway 410, and gunned the engine going downhill. After all, what could go wrong? I was young and invincible.
As I approached the first turn on the highway, I quickly learned that real life bore little resemblance to the Need for Speed and Project Gotham Racing games in which I had become so proficient throughout my childhood and teens. Almost immediately, I began to fishtail to the left, over-corrected the turn, and put the front bumper and quarter-panel of my car into the highway’s Jersey barrier, tires squealing and smoking behind me the whole way. I proceeded to hold up all of the traffic following me as I bounced on and off of the barrier for the next 75 yards or so, before finally coming to a stop with my car at a 45-degree angle between the inside lane and the barrier, with my heart pounding at a rate that I can only estimate to be 4,000 beats per minute. And lucky for me, there was a Washington State Patrol officer about 100 yards down the hill who watched it all, from beginning to end.
The entire process of my first auto accident was probably no more than five or seven seconds from start to finish, but it felt like a lifetime. It’s one of those memories that is absolutely burned into me. And between the second-degree negligent driving ticket I received (later reduced to a citation for going 85 in a 55), the accompanying $535 fine and the wrath of my mother and father — especially my mother — that awaited me at home, I will go to my grave being able to recall at a moment’s notice that the date when this happened was Friday, Oct. 3, 2003. I did something incredibly stupid and immature, I paid the consequences, and I learned my lesson.
Now, let’s entertain a hypothetical: Instead of being the kind of football player who went on to become a football writer, imagine I was an all-state, five-star type of recruit. If the police, my parents and my coaches had given me a free pass on the consequences of my actions, what do you think are the chances that I would be able to tell this anecdote so clearly nearly 13 years after it happened? Do you think I would have regretted my actions? Or does it seem more likely that I would have simply absorbed the lesson that the rules didn’t apply to me?
With that, allow me to transport you 1,872 miles away from the scene of my sophomore-year folly to Monroe, La. There, Alabama offensive left tackle Cam Robinson — a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft — and free safety Laurence “Hootie” Jones were charged last month with “misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance - first offense and illegal carrying of a weapon in the presence of narcotics.” In addition, Robinson was charged with “a felony count of illegal possession of a stolen firearm”; if convicted, he faced the prospect of up to five years in prison with a minimum sentence of one year as a first-time offender.
Suffice to say, it’s hard for me to get too worked up about a college kid who gets caught smoking some hash. (I write about a football team residing in a state that has decriminalized possession of marijuana, for crying out loud.) Possessing a stolen firearm, though? That’s serious business. And in the wake of the worst mass-shooting in this country’s history, you might think that the local authorities would be predisposed to come down hard on gun law violations.
What’s important to remember, though, is that Robinson and Jones are not just young men with heretofore clean records: They are young men with heretofore clean records who play the game of football better than just about any of their peers nationwide. And in the South, where college football is king, that circumstance seems to have been the deciding factor in determining their (non-)punishment.
By now, you can surely see where this is going. Jerry Jones (no relation to Hootie Jones), the local district attorney, announced yesterday that he would drop the charges against Robinson and Jones, ostensibly due to “insufficient evidence.” However, he later commented that he was
dismissing this case because I refuse to ruin the careers of two young men who worked very hard ... to obtain the ability to play a game and therefore make themselves more upwardly mobile. ... Destroying the lives of two young men over the possession of 0.5 grams of marijuana is not something I'm willing to do.
Jones continued (and this is where it really gets good; emphasis mine):
I want to emphasize once again that the main reason I'm doing this is that I refuse to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and teenage years, working and sweating, while we were all in the air conditioning.
You read that correctly: By District Attorney Jones’ reckoning, playing sports out in the miserable Southern humidity should be rewarded with immunity from prosecution. Even the local AL.com columnist is amazed that the authorities didn’t put the semblance of a fig leaf over the preferential treatment these star athletes have received.
Now, the last thing I want to do is clutch at my pearls and tell you how shocked, shocked I am that a couple of talented football players managed to dodge the reach of Johnny Law in the wake of what appears to be their commitment of serious crimes. (Next thing you know, you’ll be telling me that players might even begin accepting money from boosters!) But this is something else entirely. A young man seemingly committed a crime that gets most first-time offenders anywhere from one to five years behind bars, and he won’t even have to face the specter of punishment because he’s preternaturally adept at blocking the quarterback’s blind side.
We’re through the looking glass, people.
We can only hope now that Robinson and Jones comprehend just how lucky they are to have escaped from this situation unscathed, and distance themselves from this sort of behavior in the future. But without consequences, without a lesson to be learned, I fear that nothing of the sort will happen. Just as I know I wouldn’t have taken my 2003 joy ride as seriously as I do had I not faced the combined wrath of the police, my team and my parents, I’m convinced that this episode will teach Robinson and Jones only that their actions are above the law. And who could fault them? Possessing a stolen firearm is 100 percent on Robinson in this case, but failing to appropriately prosecute him for his crime is 100 percent on the local DA and society at large. When integrity and moral fiber become secondary to winning football games, we can’t act surprised when players behave as if laws do not apply to them. After all, it won’t be because they are wrong — it will be because they are right, and we will only have ourselves to blame for making it so.