The appearance of impropriety

AndyVance's picture
December 26, 2012 at 4:56p

Johnny Football chillin' in the Rockets' locker room after the game...In my high school and college days, one of my mentors was an educator now working in the upper echelons of the Ohio Department of Education. Among the many things he taught those of us benefiting from his mentorship was to behave in a way that our actions were "beyond reproach," in other words living a lifestyle that did not leave oneself open to criticism of a moral or ethical nature.

I've been reminded of this admonition more than once in recent days reading some of the discussions in the Forum this week regarding Braxton Miller and Johnny Football.

My first job was working in advertising sales at a local Columbus radio station. One of my mentors there, the afternoon drive talk show host, was a former Baptist minister, and he, too, believed in living a life "beyond reproach." For him, that lifestyle included self-imposed rules prohibiting him from being in the same room alone with a female other than his wife, and saving and cataloging all email correspondence should questions ever arise about his actions or comments.

The concept of being "beyond reproach" is about removing any and all appearances of impropriety, and about keeping yourself out of positions to have your actions and motives questioned. As Buckeyes, we know one thing - when you're the 800 lb. gorilla, everyone wants to take a shot at you. For big-time college athletes, my advice is to consider how your actions appear to the unwashed masses, rather than relying on your own knowledge of your motives and intentions.

Case in point: Braxton Miller and quarterback "guru" George Whitfield. As reported earlier this week, the Buckeye slinger tasked the QB-coach-to-the-stars with helping the young gun improve his mechanics in preparation for the 2013 campaign. Even here, at a site dedicated to all things Ohio State (and where presumably there is a pro-OSU bias among the readership), questions immediately popped up regarding the facts of the case:

Member AHH SATURDAY asked an obvious question that made this reporter proud:

Happy to hear that Braxton will be getting some quality advice this off-season, but I'm frankly surprised such an arrangement is permitted by the NCAA.  How is Mr. Whitfield being compensated for his work?

Good question, Mr. Saturday. Despite getting three downvotes for asking another great question, NORWALK followed up with an expanded version of the same train of thought:

How much time are players allowed to spend on football related activities during the off season?  Is Whitfield being paid by tOSU or does he work for Braxton and family.  I'm certain our coaching staff and compliance office know what they're doing but I get a little concerned when I see things like this.

Following a storybook season capped by a bowl-less holiday for the Buckeyes, fans are understandably gunshy about any chance their leading weapon might be doing something that could run afoul of an over-eager NCAA Committee on Infractions (hey, they need something to distract them from the Oregon case, right?).

Most commenters on the thread agreed that Coach Meyer and Ohio State's compliance department must certainly be aware of Miller's work with Whitfield, and more importantly how the consultant was being compensated. That said, consider this: if Ohio State's own fans were asking very logical questions about Miller's business dealings, what are non-fans likely to think when they read about one of the nation's top QBs working with one of the nation's top QB mentors?

Think I'm being paranoid? Enter Johnny Football: Heisman-winning Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel apparently has a penchant for watching Texas' NBA teams from high-dollar courtside seats. Sparked by an otherwise insightful comment from TNT analyst Steve Kerr, a social media firestorm flared up over how, exactly, the 20-year-old Aggie standout scored seats that sold for as much as $1,250 apiece.

Following Kerr's comments, Manziel was inundated with calls, texts and Tweets about how he got the tickets, to which he promptly added fuel to the fire: "Bought myself a little birthday present tonight stop hating!"

As with Miller's hiring of Whitfield, asking questions about how an 20-year-old college student afforded courtside seats at two NBA games in the same week are perfectly logical  reactions. At 11W, many commenters decided that the questions were an example of Post Traumatic NCAA Disorder, and suggested that questioners should let it go, because Manziels' folks are oil barons or otherwise gainfully employed.

Bottom line? It doesn't matter if Manziel is independently wealthy or if Mark Cuban slid the tickets under Johnny Football's dorm room door. Because he is the Quarterback of the Moment, everything he does is under a microscope whether he likes it or not. While I hate to begrudge a kid the right to live a fun, well-adjusted lifestyle, it probably behooves a coach, parent or other mentor to counsel him that putting himself in this type of spotlight isn't going to attract him attention of the positive variety.

Just ask USA Today:

What, you didn't spend your 20th birthday hanging out with NBA stars on consecutive nights at two arenas more than 200 miles from each other? Then you were doing it wrong, my friend.

Doing it wrong indeed. Yahoo Sports, Ohio State's own personal hate-spewing anti-Buckeye media machine, put Manziel's "I bought it myself, dammit" in perspective:

That doesn't, however, explain how he also had seats to the Rockets-Sixers game on Wednesday night. Not only did Manziel go to the game, he also was invited into the Rockets' locker room after the game and showed James Harden how to strike the Heisman pose (and put it on Instagram for everyone to see).

Did Manziel do anything wrong? Who knows. Can Miller afford George Whitfield? Again, not for me to say. What I am saying is this: in the age of social media, every single action taken by big-time athletes is on full-display in real time, and open to every possible interpretation - and often misinterpretation. This adds an additional layer of challenge and, I'm guessing, frustration to coaching and compliance at the NCAA level.

Every Tweet, Facebook and Instagram post is a potential violation or admission of wrongdoing... Or at the very least an invitation for a visit from the NCAA heavy mob.

Without reopening the subject of compensating college athletes, I'd encourage you to read this and this, on the role of money, athletics and the cost of going to college.

Social media and really big issues...

While sites like Facebook and apps like Instagram may be the biggest, newest thorn in college athletes' sides, the tools are already playing a role in an unfolding, unfortunate, and unsavory story right in our back yard. As reported earlier this week, the Steubenville football rape case is getting stranger by the minute, thanks in no small part to social media. With reports from the New York Times (here and here) shedding light on what may have otherwise been a very quiet story in a small town, one has to consider how different this case might look absent its intersection with the internet.

On the one hand, we can posit that without the online attention, the case might indeed have been hushed up, covered up, and otherwise disappeared absent a full and fair hearing. On the other hand, one could argue because of the highly emotional nature of the allegations, because of the involvement of bloggers and Anonymous, and because high school kids are by nature unintelligent creatures, the case can not possibly get a fair hearing at this point, because heads must now roll regardless of actual guilt by any party involved.

Because of the emotional nature of the case, I'm not going to offer any opinion on the case, largely because I don't feel I have enough actual facts to formulate an opinion beyond the obvious: this is a sad, sad tale with lots and lots of blame to go around (parents, I'm talking to you). What I'm suggesting, however, is that we may never know what actually happened, because the comments and images shared and posted that evening are so objectionable that they potentially obfuscate an accurate assemblage of the facts of the case.

It goes without saying, but I don't at all envy the investigators and legal minds who have to dissect and debate this situation in the courts. This is a bad deal all the way around. Perhaps the sad reality is this: Varsity Blues wasn't just a football movie with a bunch of pretty actors, after all.

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