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Friday Forum: The cases of Antonio Callaway

There are reasons to want Florida to wash its hands of Antonio Callaway — and reasons not to. But the person in charge of Antonio Callaway is Antonio Callaway.

Florida v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

At this time last Friday, Florida Gators wide receiver Antonio Callaway was seemingly on his way to a first full offseason with the Gators.

After enrolling in the summer prior to a scintillating freshman year in 2015, and being suspended for almost the entirety of the offseason in 2016 as a result of an investigation into a sexual assault complaint lodged against him with the University of Florida, Callaway was finally free and clear — more or less. A May citation for possession of marijuana was met with Florida saying at the time that it was “being dealt with” and Jim McElwain maintaining his opacity at SEC Media Days.

A source told Alligator Army that Callaway was not suspended for that citation, and his frequent postings on social media — especially on Instagram, where he documented offseason work with teammates such as Duke Dawson, Marcell Harris, and Jordan Scarlett in Florida’s indoor practice facility — suggested that he was very much part of the team this summer.

Until, of course, whatever it actually was that led to his suspension, along with suspensions for six other Gators. Reporting on what, precisely, that misdeed was varies, with most suggesting that it has to do with misuse of funds — but it was enough for Florida and McElwain to finally suspend Callaway for a game for the first time in his collegiate career.

And that seems like a dramatic step partly because it is — at least for Callaway. He escaped suspension for a marijuana citation; Jordan Scarlett and Mark Thompson did not. He missed no games for admitted marijuana use; Teez (then Jalen) Tabor and Treon Harris missed one for a failed drug test. And Callaway missed only an offseason as a result of his alleged sexual assault, a fate that Harris did not escape — despite Harris’s clearance coming by virtue of a recanted story, rather than a student conduct code hearing without one side present, and in the span of a week rather than more than half a year.

And given that McElwain suspended two players — Tabor and C’yontai Lewis — for the remainder of fall practice and a game in 2016 as a result of a fight in practice, suspending seven for what seems like a game for something that sounds like it could have been genuinely criminal — to the public, anyway, thanks to the cryptic talking around it that Florida and McElwain have done — is obviously ripe for comparison and contrast.

But it’s not hard to explain away some of those discrepancies, either.

Scarlett and Thompson’s citations came in-season, and Callaway’s did not. Tabor and Harris failing a drug test binds Florida’s hands, as that would constitute a concrete violation of Florida’s policy on marijuana use; Callaway admitting to having used weed in an unrelated investigation may or may not constitute such a violation, and it’s never been clear whether citations for possession count as anything in that punishment rubric. (My gut says they don’t.) And though Tabor and Lewis seem to have merited the same punishment as these seven Gators for what could be a lesser offense, McElwain kind of, sort of hinted that these suspensions are closer to indefinite than finite — something that jibes with a source telling Alligator Army last Saturday that Callaway was suspended indefinitely — earlier this week.

Discipline differs in college athletics from program to program, and often from sport to sport within programs, because those programs all have their own institutional policies, and each team is usually a fiefdom ruled by its head coach. McElwain’s discipline of Callaway has drawn some veiled comparisons to Will Muschamp’s discipline of Janoris Jenkins, for both players’ prodigious talents and status as inveterate scofflaws in recent days, with some fans calling for Callaway to be booted just as Jenkins once was, and some fans praising McElwain for a softer touch than Muschamp employed with a player who could have been the best one on Florida’s 2011 roster.

But it’s hard for me to compare Callaway to Jenkins.

Callaway has been cited for non-violent weed possession, suspended for what seems like low-level fraud of some sort, and more or less cleared in his sexual assault case, which never became either a civil or criminal prosecution against him. (Callaway’s alleged victim has filed a Title IX complaint against the University of Florida, but the lawyer handling it — who also represented Erica Kinsman, the woman who alleges Jameis Winston sexually assaulted her in 2012 — has not brought a civil suit against Callaway despite bringing one against Winston that resulted in a settlement; in fact, Callaway’s attorney has lodged his own Title IX complaint against UF, and there’s a valid argument that the university did him an immense disservice by seeming to put its thumb on the scale of justice.)

Jenkins’s dismissal came on the heels of a second arrest for non-violent weed possession in the span of three months, his third arrest in a trilogy of run-ins with cops in Gainesville that began with a well-publicized incident in which he was Tased and still attempted to run away from the cops.

Callaway’s rap sheet is explained by “Okay, but...” and requires context; Jenkins’s would have required “...well, you see” and some dissembling to defend, had Muschamp kept him around.

Furthermore, Callaway plays for Florida in 2017, not in 2011, when Muschamp was both talking about and doing the work of “cleaning up” a program that had been pilloried for, er, perceived leniency in discipline under Urban Meyer. Whether or not you think Muschamp cleaned up Florida — and whether or not you think that a reputation for tolerance of criminal actions was fully or partially deserved under Meyer — McElwain simply does not face the same pressure to “clean up” his Gators.

In fact, he might have the opposite incentive, given how James Robinson’s shocking inclusion in Florida’s recruiting class after an arrest led to the reported end of his recruitment has become a genuine point of pride for the Gators — and a selling point for recruits.

And on this point, I am conflicted.

I think it is ultimately a good thing for the world — and certainly for James Robinson, and maybe for Antonio Callaway — for its citizens to push back against the criminalization and demonization of marijuana use, phenomena that have been used for far too long to imprison and hurt far too many based on dubious standards of morality. I believe that football coaches, especially college football coaches, ought to use their considerable power and privilege for good, and do so at least partly by conferring it on those with far less privilege who provide the labor that allows those coaches to become famous, successful millionaires. And I really don’t like the paternalistic knee-jerk reactions from some fans who want players they have never met and will never meet to suffer because their affiliation with the same football program is arguably damaged by said players’ misdeeds.

But there is a slippery slope here, and one can arguably go too far in defense of players, especially those players who create enormous blind spots for their coaches with their incredible talents. Callaway is a great, versatile, and well-liked player who has been integral to making millions of dollars for Florida, and it is impossible to discern whether any handling of him is gentler because of that, because we cannot trust coaches to tell the entire truth. Likewise, it will be impossible to tell whether Callaway is actually learning and growing after being punished — something I think Teez Tabor did, both after his first suspension and his second — for some time to come.

So we circle back to Callaway himself, a young man with wind at his back and a gale in his face. He — not the other six suspended Gators — is the recidivist, the miscreant, the problem child, the cancer to the team. He — not McElwain, not Scott Stricklin, not me or any other hack typing words for too few dollars — is the wide receiver, the magician with sticky hands and nimble feet, the promising prospect, the kid who could be whatever he wants himself to be.

Antonio Callaway is — as we consistently forget in endless discussions about people in sports who stand accused of doing the wrong thing — the only person with full control over Antonio Callaway. And it is ultimately up to him to make of himself and his life what he will. All counsel, all discipline, all temptation, and all prohibition can only guide him, a person with the blessed freedom to choose a path and walk it.

In one of those Instagram videos from the summer, Callaway wears a hoodie with T.R.A.P. on it, in the style of the logo for the D.A.R.E. drug education program. The helpfully-provided words behind the acronym are “To Rise Above Poverty.”

If Callaway wants to do that once and for all, to get beyond an ecosystem that has taken friends from this earth before their time and possibly made him friends who are not truly his friends, it is up to him to find the right path — and run.