Would accountability have saved Lawrence Phillips and protected others?

Earlier this week, Scott Smith of the Associated Press reported about a former football star  who is implicated in the murder of his prison cellmate. Lawrence Phillips, who was considered the best running back in college football by many while at the University of Nebraska. He also had a severely troubled and criminally inclined life leading up that point, and in the years that have followed.

I remember at the time, the mid-1990s, how transparent it seemed as to why Phillips was even still playing college football. The Huskers were national champs, and on their way to another title run. Phillips was the Heisman favorite when he dragged his girlfriend down a flight of stairs. The assault led to his “suspension”, but not expulsion from the team. I was at a press conference where I asked – as did others – about Phillips later reinstatement, since the incident would have led to the expulsion of most students under the university’s  codes of conduct. Coach Tom Osborne talked about “losing him” if football was taken away. What he didn’t want to hear was that bringing him back in time for the Fiesta Bowl (actually, with one game in the season), was pretty darn helpful to his football team.

There was so much anguish in covering this story for CNN, because I wanted to say what so many of us are afraid to say: you are using this man, who needs help (whether he would take it or not.) You promise to take care of him? Invite him to live in your home and give him a chance, as you would a son. (Something Osborne said he owed to his players, to treat them like family.) But do not allow him to keep the coveted opportunities that are reserved to law abiding students. The message was and is obvious: wait until this blows over and we’ll get you back out there. You’ll be a big star in the pros after this.

Phillips was later a first round draft pick of the Rams, and his problems were not solved by football. Phillips will likely spend the rest of his days behind bars.

What’s the message in allowing someone like Osborne, who became a US Senator and again returned as Nebraska AD, to have so much authority over a university which, by and large, will create hundreds of thousands of successful students and citizens who adhere to rules, learn from mistakes and do not act as sociopaths and dangers to society? It was a long time ago, but this type of dangerous coddling remains.

Today, it seems more evident in the academic “freeways” created by suspect degree programs tailored to athletes, thanks in part to journalists reporting properly stories of criminal behavior (which is the rarity among student-athletes).

As for keeping the few student-athletes who demand broken rules? Who are we helping? Who are we hurting? Give people chances in life, as many as your compassion allows. Help. But protect others, enforce the rules and laws and, by all means, stop treating elite athletes as elite human beings. They earn, usually, the former. Why not make them earn the latter?

 

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