On Urban Meyer, Aaron Hernandez, Avery Atkins, enabling, and middle ground

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Aaron Hernandez's alleged crimes and Avery Atkins' tragic end sit at two poles of Urban Meyer's legacy. And the middle ground is tough turf to occupy.

For all of the many things Aaron Hernandez is on the continuum from fantastic football player to alleged murderer, he is not a rhetorical tool. CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel argued this effectively last week, and I'm still of the opinion that playing a blame game cheapens Odin Lloyd's death. So I preface my argument here with a stated intent to not use the sordid details of the last fortnight to argue for process changes.

But I do think this is a valuable opportunity to re-examine how we treat athletes, and, specifically, how we view their actions off the field.

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When you see athletes on the field, you're generally seeing powerful people at or near the peak of their powers. Watching Hernandez at Florida was watching a great collegiate tight end, one laureled with the Mackey Award in 2009, and seeing him perform his duties very well time after time; watching him play for the Patriots was similar, as Hernandez became one of the NFL's best players at his position.

But while we see great players play well, and often attribute it to their own individual and innate skills, we tend to ignore the thousands of hours of individual work that preceded any one play. If I'm reading these FHSAA rules for football right, the maximum practice length for a Florida high school team is three and a half hours per day; a new rule limits teams to no more than 24 hours of practice per week, and three-hour practices, in the heat of the Florida summer. Using 20 hours of practice per week as a benchmark, and a 14-week schedule as a loose guideline, Florida high school football players probably devote at least 280 hours per fall to practicing their sport with their high school teams.

That's a conservative estimate, surely, and doesn't count the spring practice players put in, or the fact that good players go well beyond that on their own, whether it's by flying out to The Opening or playing 7-on-7 football over the summer or hiring a private coach. Really good players, the kind that end up at colleges like Florida, probably put in meaningful hours of practice prior to high school, and there are undoubtedly players who put in those hours in addition to hours spent on other sports, or in the weight room.

And when Hernandez was juking past or running through tacklers, he was playing with and against players who also put in those untold thousands of hours. Flick on a college football or NFL game this fall, and you will be watching dozens of people who have dedicated their lives solely or almost exclusively to the pursuit of being good at football playing it, coaching it, and so on. That's easy to forget, because the games are what we see, and all those hours are largely out of sight and out of mind, but it matters.

And because being good at football and teaching football and knowing football can come at the expense of other things, it matters a lot.

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I'm 23. I have been writing about sports on at least a part-time basis since I was 19, and, between my jobs and my scholarships, paying for my own rent and food and entertainment since about 2008. I like to think I have my life more or less figured out. But I'm kidding myself.

And I have been "practicing" those things, the ones I haven't figured out, for years: I'm acutely aware of how bad I am at cooking, and knowing what to do about car and health insurance, and taking care of myself, and saving for retirement. And I have plenty of help from a couple of really good, smart, experienced parents, and a lot of friends who I can trust and rely on for aid or second opinions, and all of the many (mostly unearned) privileges that being a white dude in America confers, and lean on all of those things. And while I think finding a way to make a life in America is not easy for all but a very few people, I'm lucky to be closer to those very few than most, and have found ways to make money and live life happily.

I didn't grow up around alcohol or drugs, I've only rarely drunk to excess, and I've never smoked or tried "hard" drugs, so I'm not at risk for arrests for crimes related to alcohol or drugs. I'm generally amiable, and don't put myself in situations that could result in violence, so I've never had to worry about potential bar fights. I'm white, and that matters, especially in Gainesville, and I've had parents and community members teach and re-teach right and wrong and manners all my life.

I really can't grasp how hard figuring out life might be for someone who hasn't had the time I've had or the beneficial upbringing I got. And that's why I try to keep in mind how abnormal and fortunate my circumstances are when judging other people's actions, like the ones that get college football players arrested.

How many players on a given college football roster share my good fortunes, I wonder? I don't think it's many. There is a gap, and it favors me, and people like me.

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The advantages given to college athletes, especially college football players, are a way of bridging that gap. Or, better put, they comprise an attempt to bridge that gap.

Being good at football enables many, many students who would otherwise not get into the University of Florida (and many other colleges) to get access to the teaching and learning that college provides, and at a price that beats what most pay. That's probably still less than fair market value, given what being good at football is often worth, and what being good at coaching football is worth, but it's still something that could help get people from one stratum of American life to another, an accomplishment that has gotten rarer and rarer in recent years.

What college coaches get, often, is players who have constructed their lives around being good at football, with little or no expertise in life.

But the catch is that football almost has to come first to get that opportunity, and then football almost has to come first while taking advantage of that opportunity. Players like Myron Rolle, who excel at playing football and taking advantage of the opportunity of a college education at the same time, are rare, and Rolle's failure to become a successful NFL player probably has something to do with how he allocated his time after graduating from Florida State. Coaches want players who are good above all else, but players showing that they are driven and dedicated to getting better at football is often the best signaling to coaches that they will be good at football, and players can't signal that in the same way by, say, being good at playing the trumpet, or speaking French.

The messaging to those who want to play Division I football and earn full-ride scholarships, then, is clear from an early age: If you are good at football, this can be yours. That messaging isn't as full as it could or should be, though, because it doesn't explain the necessities of getting good grades and staying out of trouble; even improved messaging that stressed those things would be unlikely to properly explain how learning, not getting good grades, is the most important part of education, nor how conducting one's self well matters well beyond eligibility to play.

So what college coaches get, often, is players who have constructed their lives around being good at football, with little or no expertise in life, the shameful products of a system that sometimes teaches more about football than life without mentioning that football almost always ends before life does.

And this crossroads is where Aaron Hernandez, Avery Atkins, Urban Meyer, and enabling come in.

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The portraits of Hernandez sketched in news reports and laid out in court over the last two weeks depict a powerful man who was concerned with being seen as powerful. But they also show a guy without a lot of guidance, and his suddenly "troubled" time at Florida looks more like that than the makings of a murderer.

Hernandez's father died when he was in high school, and that seems to have preceded, if not precipitated, a change in Hernandez. He moved from Connecticut to Florida for school, and got deferred prosecution as a juvenile for an arrest at The Swamp (the restaurant). He was questioned, along with a handful of other then-current and former Florida players, in a 2007 shooting at The Venue. He was suspended for a game in 2008, and later told NFL teams it was for failing a drug test; that Boston Globe report had Hernandez failing "multiple" tests, which makes sense, but ballooned into the conventional wisdom that Hernandez failed six drug tests thanks to an unnamed source saying this (and the Globe running it):

"He had multiple positive tests, so he either had issues or he’s dumb. One or two tests? Fine. But four, five, six? Come on, now you’ve got an addiction. He’s not a bad kid. He just has an issue."

That's actually an incredibly revealing quote from someone the Globe describes as "an AFC personnel director" and "longtime executive," if you know how to read it right: Even several positive tests for marijuana use doesn't necessarily indicate a player is "a bad kid" to the NFL, just a person who is possibly "dumb" with "issues" like "an addiction." (And, well, if NFL people want to turn a blind eye to marijuana use, given its palliative properties, I can't say I blame them, given the pain their moneymakers must deal with as a part of their jobs.) But because painting the worst picture is the best option for people who need to sell stories, the "six failed tests," not the "not a bad kid," has become the story, despite the fact that it's likely untrue¹.

While that alone would help dispel some of the stigma about marijuana use being a harbinger of bad things if anyone were inclined to give it that reading, even that charitable reading plays into how Hernandez was treated at Florida, where multiple failed drug tests can be met with light penalties, and the question of whether he was "enabled." That's a hard question to answer, because the concept of enabling means so many things to so many different people, but I think, in Hernandez's case, it's less important than this question: What else could have been done?

Urban Meyer probably still asks himself that question when he thinks about Avery Atkins; at the very least, he was asking that in 2009, two years after Atkins was found dead in his car. Atkins was one of Meyer's first Florida recruits ever, someone who committed to him on National Signing Day in 2005, but after being dismissed for an arrest on a domestic battery charge, Atkins' life spiraled out of control, with arrests and crack marking his last days. Atkins is part of, and maybe most of, why Meyer gives second chances, and third chances, and sometimes more, and is a compelling reason for any coach to do that, as Franz Beard once noted.

And so coaches enable their players to remain their players by forgiving arrests, or attempting to rehabilitate them, until they absolutely cannot do so anymore. Meyer is among the most forgiving coaches in football, sure, but Meyer's the only coach I know of who has a death like that of Avery Atkins on his soul. Not every person that makes bad choices and runs into trouble will be consumed by it in the way that Atkins was, but no coach wants a former player to meet the end Atkins did.

Meyer didn't want that for Hernandez, certainly, nor did he want what Hernandez faces now. And so he tried what he could, taking him in and reading the Bible with him. Meyer and his assistant coaches helped make Hernandez a better football player, and tried to make him a better person. In the most positive sense, yes, that's enabling: It's kind-hearted and noble-minded effort to help someone, to enable that person to do more and better. But if that's enabling, coaches do it all the time trying to give their players the tools to get better at football, and often trying to give them tools and reasons to be better at life².

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But coaches don't enable players to become criminals; the players are adults, and do that on their own. Coaches aren't going out on a Saturday night and punching a bouncer, and coaches aren't smoking weed and failing drug tests, and coaches aren't ignoring counseling or making the same mistakes twice. It's Aaron Hernandez, not Urban Meyer nor Jeremy Foley nor the Florida Gators nor the University of Florida, that will stand trial on a charge of murder in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And he will do so as a consequence of his actions, and because his actions were not in keeping with what the law allows in any civilized society, not because he failed drug tests or got arrested at 17, or because Urban Meyer didn't kick him off a team for smoking weed.

Blaming a coach for a player's arrest is and always has been sort of silly: Players who can be trusted with performing the rigorous duties of big-time college football can be trusted with the responsibilities of early adulthood, especially if those responsibilities boil down to "Don't commit crimes." A player being arrested, to my mind, is as much a coach's "fault"³ as me having been arrested as a freshman or sophomore would have been my father's fault; arguing the opposite infantilizes and exculpates adults, and I'd strenuously that being arrested would have been my fault, even then.

I understand the temptation, when confronted with tragedies like the death of a young man, to rationalize, and look for patterns, and assign blame. And I get that a large number of arrests of football players under a coach's supervision requires columns that point fingers and reporting that plays up mischief. But beneath those headlines are young men who are usually far better at football than they are at life, and whose means of getting through life frequently require deepening their understanding of football at the expense of learning about life. And most of the mistakes they make off the field are not nearly as serious as the grave error Hernandez allegedly made, and not far removed from the mistakes that people in their age group make.

I'm not arguing that we should excuse crimes committed by college football players as youthful indiscretions, or exonerate coaches as custodians of what happens between lines on a field and nothing else. But I am arguing that we have to deal with shades of gray, and middle grounds, just like those players and coaches do.

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The ideal world would not have the suspected crimes of Aaron Hernandez or the sorrow of Avery Atkins in it, and would give every football player — every person — the privileges I had growing up, and more, but we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a very imperfect world, in which young sons like Aaron Hernandez lose fathers and fathers lose young sons like Odin Lloyd and Avery Atkins, and in which football is seen as the only means to an end, and in which blame and shame too often come before understanding and compassion.

I promised not to use Aaron Hernandez as a rhetorical tool for policy change at the outset of this piece. And I won't. But I offer the twin tales of Aaron Hernandez and Avery Atkins as evidence that our systems are more broken than you think, and that the answers we seek to the questions that dog us may be less valuable than the answers to bigger questions that we're not even asking.

Seek the shades of gray and middle ground, and you're going to learn more and know better.

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  1. Both Jeremy Foley and Steve McClain disputed that report last week, and Florida's University Athletic Association has a substance abuse policy that suggests Hernandez failed a maxiumum of two drug tests. You can read the relevant passages from the 2012 version of the UAA's Student-Athlete Handbook beginning at page 72, but the brief version is that a single failed test prompts mandatory counseling and more frequent testing, and a second failed test prompts an automatic suspension for 10 percent of the games in the student-athlete's season. Hernandez only missed one game, a 2009 contest with Florida Internetional, and thus missed roughly 10 percent of the 2009 season; missing two consecutive games would have met the threshold for a suspension for 20 percent of a student-athlete's season that comes with a third drug test.

    Florida student-athletes can have their penalties for positive tests reduced, but only if they reach that 20 percent level; by policy, they cannot register more than three positive tests While this drug-testing policy has only been widely available public knowledge since 2012, it is my understanding it is a long-standing policy, and one based on the idea that treatment, not punishment, is a more effective response to drug abuse.

  2. This concept of enabling, the one that frames helping people as the right thing to do instead of a slippery slope to creating a murderer, may be unorthodox. But I like it better than this one, for sure.

  3. From that 2009 Sports Illustrated feature on Meyer:

    At just the mention of Atkins's name, Shelley begins wiping away tears. "I still question what happened there," she says. "I mean, we have players that we have to kick off the team, because they just don't get it. Marcus Thomas didn't get it; he had three chances or four, and you know what? He made that choice, and I was like, O.K., you've got to go. We don't need you infiltrating our team anymore. But Avery wasn't like that. The girlfriend got pregnant, and once that happened he wouldn't listen to anything else; he left here and got out of our influence. We tried everything. Being a psych nurse, I know people make their own decisions and for some reason they just get lost. He got lost. And it is not our fault."
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