My headline is cold. It hurts, others more than me, of course. I didn’t really know the man beyond a few brief, well-coached interviews many years ago surrounding football games. To most who hear the news, it will be surmised as a football player died in prison, perhaps after committing suicide.
Here’s the Associated Press lead, Jan. 13, 2016, 9:25 pm EST: (Link to full story below)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Lawrence Phillips, a star running back at Nebraska and first-round NFL draft pick whose pro career quickly unraveled amid disciplinary problems, was found unresponsive in his California prison cell on Wednesday, and officials said they suspect suicide.
The story is difficult, requires a reality check for all involved in sports, mental illness, social change. It’s way bigger than me.
I first wrote about the former Nebraska Cornhusker at length in my book. Here is an excerpt from the ebook 2nd edition.
Another disturbing story to cover was that of Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips. A Heisman Trophy candidate with a history of social difficulties, Phillips was accused by his ex-girlfriend, a Cornhuskers’ basketball player, of dragging her out of her apartment by the hair. It was not a pretty picture, and Phillips was charged with assault. The University of Nebraska’s student handbook seemed to be clear; this was grounds for dismissal from the school. Such behavior would obviously get him kicked off the team. But it didn’t. While the woman who was assaulted was left with little choice but to leave school in the aftermath of the incident, her life uprooted and irreparably damaged by Phillips’ actions, the football star was merely suspended from the team. He was charged with domestic violence for beating his ex-girlfriend and sentenced to probation. His coach at the University of Nebraska at the time, Tom Osborne, one of the most successful in NCAA history and later elected as a Republican to the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke passionately about his concern for Phillips the man.
“If we take football away from him,” Osborne reasoned, “we might lose this young man.”
I don’t doubt Osborne’s sincerity. I don’t doubt he believed he was right in keeping Phillips on the team, reasoning that when he talks to the families of young athletes he promises to act as a surrogate parent for them. And at the press conference the questions as to why he wasn’t treated as any other student, why he wasn’t held accountable, seemed to be less important than protecting Phillips from himself. I wondered aloud, then, that if helping Phillips the man was the number one concern, why not provide him with personal charity, give him three square meals a day, give him a warm bed to sleep in at the Osborne home? Family treatment, yes, but not special treatment at a public university. Why should Nebraska pay to keep Phillips fed after what he did to his fellow students?
The argument made by many on campus and many in the outside world was, if you give him this special treatment – only to keep him in the football program – you not only send a message that the University of Nebraska cares less about the student body as a whole than they do about the football players, but you also send the message that some are even above the law.
Phillips returned to the team in time to play against Iowa State and was later named the starter in the Fiesta Bowl, which pitted number one Nebraska against number two Florida. Soon after the Cornhuskers won the national championship, Phillips was the sixth overall draft pick as an early entry into the NFL. But football wouldn’t define him. At the end of a career bouncing around from league to league and bouncing in and out of trouble, Phillips was convicted of multiple crimes in multiple courts, leading to his incarceration. He will not be eligible for parole in California until he is 57-years-old.
In the end, I am not sure that Phillips, the man, was served as much as the Cornhuskers program. He needed help more than they needed a football player.
When covering this, I was not asked to editorialize on this story; that was not my role with CNN Sports. I just told the facts, let Osborne say his thing, let Phillips run with the ball. As a journalist, that is my role. The public can cheer or jeer as they wish, but it is important to a free society that we are allowed to tell these stories and not paint these athletes as anything more than they are: men and women who are entertainers with dramatically different histories, responsibilities and sensibilities. Hindsight is 20-20, but it was sadly predictable in the case of Lawrence Phillips.
I have also blogged about this story before, most recently when we learned Phillips cellmate was found dead at the hands of Philips, who insisted that it was in self-defense.
What could have been different? What will we learn? What have I learned? I will continue to sift through it at every level, listen and learn, as a human, a journalist, a member of our free society. And maybe in the future, be a little more forceful in how I tell the story, perhaps less passively and more pointedly from the beginning.
Here are some articles written today about Phillips’ death and life.
From The Associated Press by Don Thompson and Eric Olson
From The Nation by Dave Zirin
From USA Today by Josh Peter
From CNN by Jason Hanna and Amanda Watts
From Yahoo Sports by Frank Schwab
And the stories I covered for CNN Sports back in the day? A few are on-line as well.