Over the past three seasons Florida State’s football program is 39-3 with three ACC championships, 1 BCS national championship, and a berth in the first-ever college football playoffs. Pretty impressive.
But at this week’s ACC Media Days in Pinehurst, N.C., Jimbo Fisher, the head coach of Seminoles, wasn’t asked about that much.
Fisher, who has done a tremendous job rebuilding FSU into a national powerhouse, spent a lot of his time defending himself and the program in the wake of two disturbing stories:
**–On July 6 reserve quarterback De’Andre Johnson was kicked off the team and out of school after video surfaced of him punching a woman in the face.
**–Five days later sophomore Dalvin Cook, who led the team in rushing last season, was indefinitely suspended after charges of misdemeanor battery against a female. According to published reports, court records show that the woman accused Cook of hitting her at least twice, knocking her to the ground. On the 911 tape the woman told the dispatcher that her lip was bleeding. Cook’s attorney said it is a case of mistaken identity and that his client is innocent. Cook’s future in the football program has yet to be determined pending an investigation into the charges.
“There is no tolerance for hitting women,” Fisher told The Palm Beach Post. “It’s not a Florida State problem, it’s a national problem. It’s not just an athletic problem, it’s a domestic problem across our country. We don’t tolerate it or accept it.”
I believe Fisher when he says that. But I also know he’s going to get beat up on these kinds of issues because, fair or not, the head coach is ultimately responsible for the actions of those who he and his staff elect to bring to campus.
But this episode and others like it made me think of a larger question: When it comes to athletes committing acts of domestic violence, what is the ultimate responsibility for coaches, administrators, and the university as a whole? With 85 football players on scholarship and over a 100 in the program, what is a reasonable standard of accountability for coaches? As consumers of college football, as parents, as taxpayers who help fund state universities, what do we have a right to expect on this issue?
One of my go-to guys on stories like this has always been Duke coach David Cutcliffe, the former head coach at Ole Miss, Tennessee offensive coordinator, and mentor to Peyton and Eli Manning. We spent a good chunk of time on Wednesday kicking around these ideas. After talking to Coach Cut, here are five things I believe we have a right to expect on the issue of college athletes and domestic violence:
1. Due diligence up front: Every school does background checks when recruiting potential players. The smart coaches talk to everybody from the high school coach, to the guidance counselor to the cooks in the cafeteria. Coaches are looking for red flags.
“But the recruiting process has gotten so fast,” said Cutcliffe. “We’re limited in the number of times we can actually talk to a kid. We’d like to think all the time that we know who we’re signing. Coaches have to make decisions based on sound values, ethics, and morals because this is a moral issue. If you don’t address it up front it will bite you later.”
On the issue of domestic violence, coaches probably need to dig a little deeper and look a little harder in the recruiting process.
2. Make continuing education important, but don’t be afraid to use fear: Every year before the start of the season schools bring in experts from FBI agents to Navy Seals to warn about the temptations in the real world and the self-discipline it takes to handle them. Once he’s enrolled, no player ever got into trouble at the major college level because of an ignorance of the rules.
But somewhere in that education there needs to be a place for fear. Fear as in telling the player, with no reservations, that he could lose it all with one punch.
“We call it straight talk,” said Cutcliffe. “We talk in detail about these issues and they can be very awkward to talk about.”
Every Duke football player has a card with a big “Stop And Think” sign followed by the phone numbers of every coach. They know if there is trouble they must walk away. Someone will come and get them.
3. Once there is clear evidence that the player has committed domestic violence, there must be zero tolerance: This is the tough one. I get a lot of emails and Tweets about due process and that the school should do nothing until the case works its way through the legal system.
Sorry, no sale.
Jonathan Taylor, who got kicked out of Georgia after domestic violence charges, is still waiting for his day in court in Athens. But I read the police report and talked to people on the ground at Georgia. There was more than enough evidence to warrant his dismissal.
“Here is our line in the sand,” said Cutcliffe. “A lack of respect for any human being–somebody who can’t defend themselves–is bullying and that is inexcusable. When it comes to hitting a female you’re done.”
Steve Spurrier at SEC Media Days on July 14: “If you ever hit a girl, you’re finished.”
Texas coach Charlie Strong at Big 12 Media Days: “There is no reason to hit a woman. If you do, go find somewhere else to play.”
What about innocent until proven guilty?
That is a legal standard that applies to the government depriving someone of their freedom without due process. I’m talking about an institutional standard. No one has a constitutional right to play football.
But Cutcliffe also rightfully warns that the the school must have enough evidence to act.
“I’ve had bad accusations that were not true at all,” he said. “Not just a misunderstanding but a bold faced lie.
“So be firm. Do not waiver. But make sure, in fact, that something has happened.”
4. Follow the SEC’s lead: Back in June the SEC passed a rule that its schools may not accept a transfer of an athlete who has been subject to disciplinary action by his previous school for “serious misconduct.” It narrowly defined serious misconduct as domestic violence, sexual assault or other forms of sexual violence.
At the very least, the rest of the Power Five conferences should also adopt this rule.
The deterrent for this kind of behavior is not nearly as great when the perpetrator knows he has the option of simply going to another Power Five school, laying low for a season, and continuing his football career.
It has become know as the “Jonathan Taylor rule” because Taylor, who got kicked out of Georgia, was accepted by Alabama on a zero tolerance policy. Alabama later dismissed him after additional charges of domestic violence. Those charges were ultimately withdrawn but Taylor’s dismissal stood.
Alabama coach Nick Saban defended the action because he believes in giving players second chances. I have a great deal of respect for Saban but on this we disagree. There can be no second chances–at least not at the highest level of college football–for those who commit domestic violence.
The SEC showed some leadership when it passed this rule. Time for everybody else to get on board.
5. Everybody has to buy in. That includes players, coaches, administrators and, yes, fans:
“We all have to be accountable to each other,” said Cutcliffe. “You have to create a culture where your squad is policing itself. It has to be understood at every level of your organization that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. The leaders of your team create that kind of culture.”
And the fans? The vast, vast majority of fans also have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior. It is embarrassing. Their voices need to be heard when a school boots a player for this kind of behavior.
“What people should reasonably expect is real discipline,” said Cutcliffe. “It can’t always be as swift as people would like because you need to be thorough. But it has to happen.”