Josh Kendall

Commentary: Player conduct in college sports should be an SEC focus

SEC commissioner Mike Slive says behavior issues should be dealt with on individual campuses.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive says behavior issues should be dealt with on individual campuses. USA TODAY Sports

DESTIN, Fla. | Most of the talk here this week will be about the SEC following.

That’s a shame because it’s time for college sports’ most powerful conference to lead.

Instead of fretting about changing the rules so that Penn State coaches won’t be able to put the hard sell on a three-star cornerback in Atlanta in the summer, which many of the league’s coaches are spending much of their time here doing, the SEC needs to take a strong stand on player conduct in college sports.

College football coaches have a responsibility to every student at the school they represent not to do anything that knowingly decreases the safety of those students, and in too many cases they are not taking that responsibility seriously enough. Jonathan Taylor is a defensive lineman, and a good one. Bad defensive linemen don’t get as many high-profile chances as Taylor did.

Taylor has been kicked out of two SEC schools – Georgia and Alabama – in the past 12 months after allegations of domestic violence. The Crimson Tide signed Taylor six months after he was booted by the Bulldogs and, in turn, booted him three months after that.

Hayden “Fry always used to say, ‘You recruit your own troubles,’” said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who played for and coached under Fry at Iowa. “If you recruit someone you know has problems and issues and then they play out in front of you, you can’t be disappointed. I think that holds true a lot.”

Bielema was not addressing a question about Taylor or any specific player or incident, but what he says fits an argument that has many examples across SEC programs. Again and again, we hear it’s a small percentage of players who cause the problems as if that makes it any better for people whose lives are wrecked along the way.

“I’m a 45-year-old man, and I know I’ve made mistakes in my life,” Bielema said. “I always tell our players mistakes are good things. They can be corrected. It’s the repeated mistakes and repeated behavior that I really think you have to hold them highly accountable for. We play football, not baseball, we don’t need three strikes to make an out.”

As grounded as Bielema sounds about the whole process, he also touches on the biggest stumbling block of the issue.

“You have to get into, ‘Is it a charge or is it something that really happened?’ People can say anything they want,” he said. “I think there is a lot of gray out there.”

And college football coaches shouldn’t be asked to, or allowed to, wade through all that gray themselves. Too much of their green is on the line to expect them to make a sound decision. This is where the conference should take over.

The question of who no longer has the right to play SEC football because of off-field issues belongs to the SEC commissioner rather than to each individual coach. Incoming commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday the topic will be discussed here this week, but outgoing commissioner Mike Slive believes those issues are best handled on each campus.

“We are talking about students who have issues of behavior,” Slive said. “The appropriate place for dealing with a student’s behavior is on their campus. We see the NFL. Commissioner (Roger) Goodell has had issues with that. How do you be consistent? We are not experts. Deans and vice presidents and those folks are experts at dealing with students and student behavior.”

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier does not object to having a conversation about an increased conference role in discipline, he said, adding the league already has a hand in disciplining players for helmet-to-helmet hits.

“Domestic violence, sexual assault, can’t have it,” Spurrier said.

“I think we all want to protect our league and protect our campuses,” Georgia coach Mark Richt added.

The recent run of headlines in the NFL shows what players who have issues in college become in professional football – players who have issues and spending money. To that point, college football players are about to get a lot more spending money thanks to cost of attendance increases. At South Carolina, football players who also qualify for 100 percent of the Pell Grant will be given $9,881 each year.

“Now, a kid has a lot of idle money,” Bielema said. “Hey, I was in college. If you get a bunch of money sitting around, that could lead to bad decisions, to be quite honest. That’s something we have to take notice of.”

It’s time for the SEC to get in front of a real problem rather than chasing after “solutions” to silly ones.