Thrill of Victory

On Vanderbilt, the Patriots, and glass houses

It was not a good week for Vanderbilt Commodore or New England Patriot fans. Unless you’ve been in a cave, you’ve by now seen the news that VU kicked four unidentified football players off its team early Saturday morning, meanwhile, the Patriots’ star tight end, Aaron Hernandez, has been arrested for murder (and, for good measure, fired by his employer as well). The two are entirely separate matters, but I’m lumping them together for a reason.

On the Vanderbilt end, the dismissal of four players in a sex crimes case sent shockwaves across the college football landscape; it seems like barely a month goes by without a scandal in that sport, but “Vanderbilt” is about the last name you’d expect to see.

As far as the NFL goes, arrests of NFL players are so rampant that they shock no one any more. However, the Patriots are owned by Bob Kraft, one of the NFL’s good guys, and it’s hard to imagine that Kraft would have had Hernandez on his payroll if he thought there’d been a high likelihood that Hernandez were involved in a homicide.

Keeping it closer to home and turning the focus back to Vandy, a lot of Southeastern Conference fans had a field day with VU’s arrest this weekend. Some of this is because a segment of the Commodore fan base has held a “holier-than-thou” attitude towards their SEC brethren over the years while finding the humor in the misfortunes of their rivals. While there’s been fertile soil to cultivate that kind of attitude — again, the ‘Dores are rarely in the news for the wrong reasons, which has not been the case for many of their opponents– you know the sayings about sinners and stones. That bunch of fans is getting exactly what it deserves. A few more rocks were likely thrown, rightly or wrongly, because of coach James Franklin’s repeated grandstanding over how VU has won games, graduated players, and done so with integrity.

Before I go further, let me be really clear that I’m not trying to whitewash what has happened. On the Vandy end, we don’t clearly know what happened yet, as both VU and the Nashville Metro Police have played their hands close to the vests, and nobody’s going to comment until the police file charges against the players involved, assuming they do. Sexual assault is an awful thing, and anyone who cares more about the state of a football program over that of a victim needs to check his priorities. And if players are guilty as (at least not-yet-) charged, they need to pay a steep penalty.

Anyway, back to where I was going… I was on a national radio program over the weekend, where I was asked whether Vandy’s coming of age as a football program to be reckoned with came with the price of being just like all the other big-time football schools. In fact, the question was repeated to me on another show this morning in the Southeast. My response, in both cases, was, “I hope not,” and if they’d pressed further, I’d have probably added, “I think not going forward as well.” Not a lot has come out from VU so far, but I can tell you that there’s been considerable hand-wringing behind the scenes over what’s happened, and not just because it gave the football program a black eye. I’ve always sensed that Vandy tried to do the right thing in most cases, and I haven’t seen anything in how this was handled that has changed my opinion.

I guess I don’t blame people for trying to connect the dots; we’re so cynical of everyone and everything these days, and mostly for good reason. It’s hard to believe that a program like Vanderbilt (or the Patriots, for that matter) can win without a cost of some integrity. And not that I’m absolving either VU or New England of what happened — perhaps there were warning signs that Franklin didn’t see, and in New England’s case, there were definitely warning signs with Hernandez — but let’s step back and be real here for a minute.

Look at our own lives. How many of us married someone who cheated on us, and/or left us for someone else? How many have been betrayed by a good friend when we never saw it coming? I’m not talking about people we barely know; I’m talking about people we have spent years, maybe decades, around, in one-on-one relationships where we knew them intimately.

If we’re prone to getting blindsided there, how much more is an organization in charge of a whole roster-full of players, many of whom they don’t really know beyond the acquaintances of a few months’ worth of recruiting or scouting? Even no-nonsense Alabama coach Nick Saban — a stickler for detail and character if there’s ever been one — got burned this winter when four of his players were arrested for robbery and credit card fraud.

Of course, I’m not talking about excusing the “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” attitude of some in the football profession. Plausible deniability is a tired excuse, and if that’s the case with either Vandy or New England, then shame on them.

By now, I think you get the point. Human nature is what it is, and as Vandy and the Patriots reminded us, there’s not one of us who inhabits a house without glass somewhere.