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On Florida ending its recruitment of James Robinson

An about-face on a talented prospect is cause for sadness.

SEC Championship - Alabama v Florida Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

After the weekend revelation that four-star recruit James Robinson was cited for marijuana possession while on an official visit to Ohio State earlier in January, it was initially reported that the Florida Gators would continue recruiting the talented wide receiver.

That came to an abrupt end on Monday, as multiple reports now have Florida — and specifically administration officials — ending Robinson’s recruitment just days before National Signing Day. Those reports came from all and sundry — Andrew Spivey, Blake Alderman, Chris Hays — and cited more or less the same facts: While coaches planned to take Robinson, who was likely to choose to join the Gators on National Signing Day, the Florida administration blocked that move on Monday afternoon.

From Hays, of the Orlando Sentinel:

Several sources close to the Florida program told the Orlando Sentinel on Monday afternoon that Robinson's recruitment has been shut down following the Lakeland receiver's much-publicized brush with the law last week during an official recruiting visit to Ohio State.

The police report from Franklin County in Columbus, Ohio, stated Robinson was issued a citation for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Sources have also told the Sentinel that other Ohio State players were present, but Robinson was the only one cited.

The Gators coaching staff had still planned to take Robinson, who was likely going to sign with UF on Wednesday. The staff has actively been helping Robinson find another home since word came down from school administrators Monday that he would not be allowed to sign with the Florida.

On its face, denying Robinson admission could be seen as Florida taking a stand on recruit misbehavior, and Robinson being made to pay for the mistake of getting cited for weed possession on an official visit — to an entirely different school, sure, but in a context in which he would be expected to be confirming or denying whether coaches were right to offer him a scholarship.

But under even the tiniest bit of scrutiny, that story unravels.

Robinson’s citation was enough for Ohio State to stop pursuing him, and that makes more sense for Ohio State than it would for any other school — Robinson screwing up while in the Buckeyes’ care is a bigger red flag for the Buckeyes than for another program. But Florida, per Zach Abolverdi’s reporting, was still recruiting Robinson as of Saturday, with coaches reportedly aware of and unfazed by his citation.

The only thing that has changed between Robinson earning the citation and now is awareness of the citation, which came to light via reporting from Ohio State sites, more than one of which initially and erroneously reported that Robinson had been arrested, and Robinson’s vociferous defense of and then apology for his actions.

That may not have done anything to change Jim McElwain’s mind on Robinson — but it absolutely seems like it might have changed Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin’s mind.

Stricklin, of course, spent a month of 2016 deliberating over, permitting, and ultimately defending Mississippi State’s admission of five-star defensive end Jeffery Simmons after video of Simmons — then a Mississippi State signee — punching and restraining a woman in a family altercation was released and publicized. (We covered this at length in discussing Stricklin’s candidacy for the Florida AD job.) Then, instead of cutting ties with Simmons, Mississippi State stuck by him after an extensive examination of his character, and promised that Simmons would be closely monitored and attend anger management classes.

What Stricklin said then, in part, was this:

"It's a highly unique circumstance to administer discipline to a student for an incident that occurred prior to that individual joining our university. However, it's important that Jeffery and other potential MSU students understand that these type of actions and poor decisions are not acceptable.

"We expect the structure and discipline Jeffery will be a part of in our football program to benefit him. Jeffery will be held accountable for his actions while at MSU, and there will be consequences for any future incidents."

Stricklin has now gone from administering discipine to a student bound to Mississippi State by a National Letter of Intent for a pre-enrollment incident to meting out a de facto revocation of a scholarship offer for something happening during a player’s recruitment, proving that “highly unique” circumstances might not actually be as unique as they seem in the moment.

And Stricklin is, it should be noted, very much within his rights to control who does and does not gain admission to Florida on athletic scholarships. In 2014, I wrote about the language in the official letter from Florida offering Tyler Jordan an athletic scholarship — which contained this passage.

In the event of a criminal arrest or conviction of a criminal offense prior to enrollment, and even once enrolled, we reserve the right to rescind your scholarship offer.

I haven’t seen and can’t easily Google up a version of that letter for the 2017 recruiting class, but I would bet anything that it has a similar “morals clause”-style note about Florida reserving the right to rescind an offer for an arrest or conviction. And in a vacuum, that clause is not totally a bad thing: It’s part of what gives schools the discretion to decide to cut ties with Simmons, or Jayru Campbell, or De’Andre Johnson, rather than binding them to those players should circumstances change based on criminal behavior.

But schools ignore those clauses as they see fit, too.

Simmons remains on Mississippi State’s roster. Florida State assuredly has similar language in its scholarship offers, yet when it came to Dalvin Cook, the Seminoles — and Florida and Clemson, both of which also had Cook committed, and many other schools — either ignored or stomached juvenile arrests for robbery and possession of a firearm at a school during his recruitment, and FSU kept Cook despite a citation for mistreatment of animals and a much-publicized arrest for an assault that Cook would later be cleared of at trial.

And then there is Joe Mixon, whose continued enrollment at Oklahoma after shattering fellow student Amelia Molitor’s face with a punch in 2014 it is hard comment on much more aptly than Sports Illustrated writer Lindsay Schnell did by asking “Was it worth it, Bob Stoops?”

There is, however, an easy way to do that: The answer to the rhetorical question is yes, because it almost always is.

Oklahoma made the 2015 College Football Playoff and won the 2017 Sugar Bowl with Mixon, who averaged nearly seven yards per play in his two seasons as a Sooner. (Oklahoma also got much mileage out of Dede Westbrook, whose pre-Oklahoma domestic violence arrests the Sooners apparently missed entirely.) Florida State made the 2014 College Football Playoff with Cook, and played in New Year’s Six bowls in each of the last two years, as he garnered Heisman attention and reset many of the school’s records. Florida’s successes under Urban Meyer, despite a substantial number of player arrests, are well-documented.

Those players helped make these programs — and their coaches — millions of dollars with their labor on the field, just as Baylor players who allegedly raped a vomitous number of women made Art Briles and his assistants richer, and as Lawrence Phillips helped make Tom Osborne such a revered figure in Nebraska that he ultimately served in Congress.

Thus has the story of celestial talents compensating for earthly failure ever been.

The thing is, though, that that story doesn’t have to be that way forever.

Under Jeremy Foley, Florida prided itself on doing things with character and integrity after being chastened from NCAA probation in the 1980s. And, by and large, Florida did things the right way: Steve Spurrier built a powerhouse with a stellar reputation, Meyer won two titles without any major NCAA issues, and Billy Donovan engineered one of the titanic programs of the last two decades from the ground up with few serious blemishes. Gainesville was not Camelot, no — but neither was it Gomorrah.

And one standout feature of Florida’s program, especially in the last decade, has been its relatively permissive policy on marijuana use. Florida players are not suspended for their first failed drug test for marijuana, and only miss 10 percent of a season’s games for a second one. That hasn’t prevented Florida players from getting suspended for failed tests — though those tests are only rarely publicly reported, it’s not hard to do the math — but it has largely prevented Florida teams from being hamstrung by suspensions for lighting up, and prevented those Gators who make the “mistake” of smoking weed from having their careers permanently injured by that decision.

Whether that policy is a success story, though, probably depends in part on whether you think marijuana use should be legalized and accepted or kept criminal and rejected. I’m in the former camp, and I’m not alone — I was once persuaded by a senior member of Florida’s athletic department that the policy has as much or more to do with compassion and an interest in counseling rather than punishing players as it does with keeping players eligible to play. (Florida’s nearly silent efforts to get players superb drug rehabilitation — something Demarcus Robinson revealed he received early in his career during the pre-NFL Draft process, before the UF facility that treated him quietly touted its work with him — if they want it are probably worth noting here.)

James Robinson, though, isn’t going to get a chance to go through Florida-provided counseling, or attend a university rehab program. For better or worse, he seemingly isn’t going to get a chance to be a Gator — or he’s already blown it.

Since those reports on Saturday, Robinson — a 19-year-old high school senior with a Twitter account — has been made to defend himself on the Internet, as news of his citation made it all the way to the Washington Post. He did that unevenly on Saturday, first denying that he was arrested — which, via the technicality of citations not being arrests, is true, though that distinction allows eye-rolling arguments like the one that Jameis Winston being cited but not arrested for petit theft seafood somehow made that less of a crime or less hilarious — and then claiming “OSU PLAYERS DO SO MUCH DRUGS” before ultimately apologizing both for “embarrassing” himself and those around him and the later-deleted “SO MUCH DRUGS” tweet.

Robinson took to Twitter again on Monday to clarify his plans:

Whether those tweets imply that he was going to sign with Florida — which I think he was — over fellow finalist Oklahoma, or that Robinson cannot sign with either Florida or Oklahoma on National Signing Day at this juncture, one thing is clear: His life and plans have been upended by that citation, and maybe more so by it becoming public.

And while it is tempting to center Florida in our accounting of the fallout of this decision by Florida on a blog about Florida, it’s not Florida who’s losing the most here. Robinson has a lot of talent and might have been a major help to Florida’s receiving corps. But Florida has other receivers who will catch passes, and there will be other coveted recruits next year, and so forth.

Robinson is just Robinson, and has only so many windows open to him.

The pernicious rumor about Robinson, and the one that followed his name on message boards and in the shadows while Florida kept him on the back burner, pursuing other wide receivers — better ones, perhaps, or less risky — is, loosely, that there are “character concerns” about him. What those concerns stem from is anyone’s guess, because those are not reported things: For his part, Abolverdi noted that Robinson does not have a criminal record in Florida on Saturday, but also reported Monday that Florida’s decision not to send Robinson a National Letter of Intent “was not based solely on his citation.”

And the college coaches who are responsible for recruiting Robinson can’t speak candidly about him, thanks to NCAA rules, so the knowledge gap must be filled by either Robinson himself or reporters. Until or unless there’s a reliable report on what beyond Robinson’s citation — and his somewhat erratic tweets, I guess? — there is to disincline a school from offering him a scholarship, it’s not particularly fair to speculate on him, other than to note that Robinson’s absolutely talented enough to merit an athletic scholarship to play high-level college football, so there must be some reason he apparently won’t get one. But nature and Twitter abhor a vacuum, and so we get speculation from people who are passing on others’ speculation, a long game of telephone that does nothing but obscure and obliterate the truth.

McElwain, per Abolverdi, reached out to 18 coaches to try to find a landing spot for Robinson, which is noble on its face — and which certainly makes McElwain seem like a good egg while his administration looks like the villain, something I can’t imagine making for comfortable conversations between McElwain and Stricklin. (Of course, McElwain abandoning Robinson would have been unthinkably stupid, given the potential fallout among Florida high school coaches.) Maybe one of those 18 coaches will offer and stick by Robinson. Maybe one of the other programs reportedly interested in him can take him. Maybe he’ll go to a junior college and fix whatever nebulous issues he has. Maybe this story ends well.

Right now, though, Robinson’s life went from what should have been an exclamation point on National Signing Day to the question mark of an uncertain future.

And that’s a sad, sad story indeed.