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That Fine Discipline Line

In any random sampling of the general population, there are going to be a certain percentage of troublemakers.  A college football team comprising 100 young men is no different.  You're going to have a certain percentage of standout students, a certain percentage of bad students, and a certain percentage of guys who will occasionally break the law.

If for no other reason than public perception, discipline must be meted out to those who violate team rules and societal rules.  These societal rules are also known as laws, except in Nebraska, where they're more like suggestions.

Before we get into the substantive issues of this post, I first don't believe that any of these individual situations would make a difference, but taken as a whole they may.  Also, I don't really give a sideways leap off a cliff how Bo Pelini disciplines--or not--his team, but it provides a handy basis for comparing what Ron Prince does in Manhattan.

This past summer, Leon Patton was arrested on outstanding warrants for theft and failure to pay parking tickets.  The response from Prince: Patton suspended indefinitely.  To this day, Patton remains on indefinite suspension, and almost certainly will remain so until the legal system runs its course (i.e., he pleads out, the charges are dropped, or a trial occurs).  This approach is remarkably similar to the one followed last season when Rashaad Norwood busted up his "girlfriend's" apartment and then ran--unsuccessfully--from the Riley County police.  Norwood remained suspended until he pled to the charges he faced, at which point he saw minimal action in the last three games of the season.

Leon Patton represented the only K-State running back with any experience coming back.  What's more, he showed flashes of being an explosive runner.  Last year, Norwood was an experienced tight end who would have represented a significant athletic upgrade over Jeron Mastrud and Brett Alstatt.  However, because they were suspended pending the running of the legal system--certainly a marathon, not a sprint--both players did and have missed significant playing time.

Norwood deserved a long suspension for his irresponsible, stupid and criminal behavior.  I advocated he receive six games.  He got nine.  Patton similarly broke the law, and deserved punishment.  Any punishment I would consider fair would have prevented him from playing last night against Louisville, not that I think he would have, by himself, made a difference in the outcome.  However, something resembling a consistent running threat was and is sorely needed.

This year, the Cats are similarly without the services of John Houlik, a linebacker who was also suspended indefinitely following his arrest on suspicion of DUI this summer.  He remains suspended indefinitely, and I have not heard when his next court hearing is.  If the only consideration were getting back on the field, he would be well-advised to plead guilty.  However, if there is a chance he can beat the DUI charge, he would be well-served to fight it, because the consequences for a second DUI are a little more than significant.

Anyway, we have a guy who broke into an apartment and busted it up, a guy who drove on a suspended license and stole some stuff from Wal-Mart, and a guy who got pulled over on suspicion of DUI.  The result in each case: indefinite suspension, pending a potentially long, drawn out case in the overcrowded American court system.

Meanwhile, 130 miles to the north, certain University of Nebraska football players have faced their own legal problems.  Andy Christenson was arrested and charged with sexual assault, and was recently acquitted.  Christenson also pled guilty to assault, ostensibly for attempting to head-butt a police officer and kicking in the door of a police cruiser.  Hunter Teafatiller is like John Houlik, but times three.  He has been arrested on suspicion of DUI three times.  For the first one, he wasn't prosecuted.  For the second, he plead guilty.  The third case is still pending.

These players each faced "discipline" from coach Bo Pelini.  Christenson was suspended until he was acquitted of the sexual assault charge, at which point he was quickly reinstated to the team.  He may play against Virginia Tech next weekend after missing Nebraska's first three games.  To summarize, he pled guilty to assault and was acquitted of sexual assault.  Total suspension: three games, unless he misses the Va. Tech game.  I'm not betting on it.

Teafatiller's case is even more amazing.  His current--and third--DUI case is still pending.  He has played in two of Nebraska's three games this year and was even awarded a scholarship by Pelini.  I've heard rumors that he is on the team's "Unity Council," but have been unable to confirm the same.  To summarize, he pled guilty to one DUI and has another pending.  Total suspension: one game.

Also of note from the Big 12, Texas defensive lineman Lamarr Houston has been suspended indefinitely by Mack Brown after he was charged with DUI following a two-car collision.  He missed the UTEP game, and we'll have to wait to see how his case turns out and how Brown deals with the discipline moving forward.

Again, the purpose of this story is not to say these other coaches are "right" or "wrong" in how they discipline their players.  I happen to think Pelini is being extremely arbitrary, perhaps following the Tom Osborne model, and apparently I'm not alone.  Hope that guy has an unlisted address.  But the point is to examine what Ron Prince is doing, and whether it is needlessly hurting the team.

Should we be suspending players until their entire encounter with the legal system runs its course?  No.  First of all, the American legal system is very slow, even in criminal prosecutions where a "speedy trial" is constitutionally ensured.  During a season that lasts only a couple months, a suspension pending legal process is almost certainly going to end up being an overly severe penalty.

Second, we may be encouraging these young men to make detrimental personal decisions.  If they feel pressured to get their case over with so they can return to the playing field, they may feel like they need to plead their cases out, which may or may not be an advisable course of action.  Certainly, if they are plainly guilty and a trial would do no good, pleading out is a good idea.  But if there is something worth fighting, pleading out would be very inadvisable indeed.

Finally, each player is entitled to a presumption of innocence.  While I don't believe this should be a "get out of jail until you're either convicted or plead" card, it is a strong entitlement, and one that is entirely justified in the face of the overwhelming power and resources available to the government in a prosecution.

When it comes down to it, depending on the severity of the situation, a short suspension of one or two games is justified when an incident happens.  However, at that point the legal system should be permitted to run its course and further punishment should be reserved until the legal system does so run.  I admire Prince for installing a system of discipline, rather than the arbitrary, case-by-case approach taken by Pelini.  I also believe that a systematic approach that applies to all players, including probable starters such as Patton, works better in the long run because it will tend to maintain each player's faith that he will be treated equally by his coach.  But in terms of the actual system chosen, Prince's approach is too draconian.  A player can be sufficiently disciplined by missing a few games and awaiting further punishment at the end of his ordeal with the legal system.

It's a delicate balance between letting the inmates run the asylum and being a tyrant.  Neither Pelini nor Prince have proven they're capable of finding that balance.