Florida Gators running back Jordan Scarlett, wide receiver Rick Wells, and linebackers James Houston and Ventrell Miller are going to resume team activities today.
Normally that would be a small blip on the radar. But not for these four, as they participated in a dimwitted credit card fraud scheme that set the tone for a disastrous 2017 season.
I don’t personally believe that the suspensions were the reason Florida struggled so mightily. Even with the loss of all nine players who were suspended, Florida had plenty of talent to compete with many of the teams to whom it lost. But for a team that struggled so much with discipline on the field, it’s not a huge surprise there was a lack of it off the field as well.
Whatever you believe about the suspensions’ impact on 2017, there’s no doubt that it had some impact. Thus, there are fans ready to dismiss these players as irredeemable criminals who need to be kicked out of school. There are others who would welcome anyone who can help the Gators get back to winning regardless of their crime.
But I don’t fall into either category. I care very deeply that the players have been allowed back onto the team. But it has nothing to do with winning.
The facts of the case don’t seem to be in dispute. Each of these players admitted that they stole something that wasn’t theirs, and the amount they stole was enough to warrant felony charges. It’s a serious offense.
However, the idea that this reinstatement constitutes a slap on the wrist is laughable.
Each of them qualified for a pre-trial intervention program. This program is only available for third degree felonies and has exclusions for all sorts of crimes, including anything that involves violence, DUI or possession of hard drugs (LSD, methamphetamine, PVP or heroin).
These players’ situations are actually exactly why this program exists.
A felony conviction is life-changing. Every job application they ever fill out would require them to disclose the felony conviction. That means likely 90-plus percent of those applications go directly into the trash. The whole point of the pre-trial intervention is to allow someone to make a mistake and not have it close off every opportunity in his/her life.
To avoid having the felony on their record, the players all have to make restitution for what they stole and comply with terms of probation for 12 months. From a team perspective, the players had to go before Florida’s Student Code of Conduct Committee to be reinstated.
They have also had their names plastered on national newspapers, been subject to being called thugs by fans of the team and fans of other teams, and have missed an entire year of football.
That missed year is a big deal. Had Jordan Scarlett run for 1,200 yards in 2017, he’d be preparing for the NFL Draft right now. Maybe his draft stock doesn’t suffer because of the incident, but maybe he doesn’t earn back his starting job.
I’m not saying he deserves to start. I’m saying that a year-long suspension for an athlete who has a very limited window to earn money playing his sport professionally is a much larger penalty that it would be for you or I in the same situation.
I am under no illusion that these players get reinstated if they are walk-ons or if there is better depth at linebacker. Still, I don’t think the impact of any of these players is really going to be that significant.
We’re talking about a 3-star wide receiver (ranked 467 nationally) and two 3-star linebackers (Miller ranked 569 nationally, Houston ranked 648) who haven’t played a snap in college, weren’t recruited by this staff and have been forced to take a year off.
They likely are going to have a chance to contribute on special teams, but these aren’t guys who have a starting spot guaranteed when they come back. They’re likely not guys who significantly upgrade the level of play when they arrive either, unless the year off exposed them to a better strength and conditioning program.
I don’t think the players’ reinstatement is even much of a story if not for Scarlett. Scarlett was a 4-star (117 national ranking) commit in 2015, which is still the highest ranked running back on the roster. He ran for 889 yards in 2016, including his role in the memorable 2nd-half destruction at LSU.
But let’s not pretend the Gators just upgraded to Barry Sanders. Scarlett is a good player, who may end up being very good in a system that allows him to get more of a head start. But he wasn’t an elite runner in 2016 (5.0 yards per carry), and I doubt he will be in 2018 after sitting out a year.
Add to that his well-documented, significant issues in pass protection and that running back is one of Florida’s deepest positions, and it isn’t entirely clear that Dan Mullen needed to make this move from a football perspective.
Whatever the reasoning, I’m really glad Mullen and Athletic Director Scott Stricklin made this decision.
I have a close friend who spent time in prison. He’s described to me what that’s like and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. He pled guilty and served a significant amount of time.
Yet since his release, I’ve seen him struggle as he has been unable to secure employment. He has skills that have value in the marketplace, but nobody is willing to take a chance on someone with a conviction.
The punishment hasn’t ended with the end of his prison sentence. Society is designed to keep him at arms distance because of his mistakes.
I’m not making excuses. He made mistakes. But it can be true that he made mistakes – significant ones – and also true that he is a good man.
And the same can be true about these players. Maybe they haven’t learned from their mistakes. Maybe they’ll repeat them. But I don’t want to be associated with a school (or a society) that punishes people for their crimes and then decides to add extra punishment just because it makes them feel better about themselves to be tough.
If you don’t like the legal process, then work to change it. If you have issues with the inherent conflict of interest of the university adjudicating cases where there is a monetary benefit, suggest an alternative.
But Scarlett, Wells, Miller and Houston have paid the price they were required to pay, by the school and the law.
Holding them accountable for future missteps is completely legitimate. But they’ve made restitution. They’ve complied with their probation. They’ve complied with the university’s rules for reinstatement.
They did something wrong. But that doesn’t mean they’re not good people. Making them wear a scarlet letter and forcing them to transfer under the guise that playing football is a privilege may make some of us feel better.
But I think it says more about us than it does about them.