When head coach Clay Helton was hired, there was a sigh of relief from fans who expected him to be the one to clean up the football program. Ever since the Reggie Bush debacle sent USC into a full-blown tailspin it has yet to recover from, there have been innumerable issues including the arrest and suspension of former tight end Bryce Dixon for second-degree robbery and the suspension of former cornerback Josh Shaw who lied about the cause of injuries sustained from leaping from a balcony.
Helton is not this type of guy. He is a down-to-earth, blue-collar coach who I expected to instill a strong sense of moral obligation to the University and a dedicated work ethic.
Of course, the blame for this year’s incidents does not solely fall on the shoulders of Helton, but the tone is set at the top and Helton has the power to make an impression on the young Men of Troy.
Already this year, four football players have been suspended. Cornerback Isaiah Langley did not play in the Alabama game, serving a suspension rendered in July after Langley was arrested for suspicion of trespassing, intoxication and resisting arrest at a fraternity party at UCLA in May. Langley was disciplined later in the month for violating team rules.
In Saturday’s game against Alabama, linebacker Jabari Ruffin was ejected immediately after he stomped on Alabama player Minkah Fitzpatrick’s groin. His punishment for this offense — a suspension for the first half of the game against Utah State and a required letter of apology. I would love to read the letter from the guy who has been on circulating videos from SportsCenter of the “Top 10 Cheap Shots of All Time.”
More notably, linebacker Osa Masina and defensive end Don Hill have been suspended for both the Alabama game and the Utah State game for their involvement in sexual assault investigations. Both are allowed to practice with the team and attend their classes. Given the sensitivity of this particular accusation, this is the area where discipline enters a gray area. It would be easy to take one side or the other and say that clearly these two players need to be disciplined more harshly, or that they have the right to be treated as normal citizens because they are innocent until proven guilty.
I do not think the answer is as clear cut.
In all of these situations, the argument could be made that Helton has missed his chance to come in as a new coach and set a strict tone of what is and is not acceptable, but Helton hasn’t done anything that isn’t considered standard protocol across college football.
In comparison with Alabama, the top team in the country this year and several years running, there has been an equally disturbing trend of crime among football players, but half-hearted disciplinary measures.
Alabama’s All-SEC left tackle Cam Robinson was arrested on drug and weapons charges in May, but the case was dropped by the district attorney citing insufficient evidence. After what head coach Nick Saban described as internal discipline, Robinson played in the season opener against USC last weekend. He was even named one of the 10 impact players for Alabama by their coaching staff. However, even though the charges were dropped eventually, Robinson was suspended indefinitely by the football team, proving that just because the university says the athlete is allowed to attend class does not mean the team is required to keep him around.
Alabama indefinitely suspended another player, Alphonse Taylor, after he was arrested and charged with drunk driving in July. In August, Saban allowed Taylor to begin practicing with the team, and he served a one-game suspension last weekend, and is now eligible to compete for a starting spot.
While many may argue that these punishments are not severe enough, the main difference I would like to highlight between Alabama’s handling of their disciplinary matters and USC’s is that with Alabama, the players were suspended indefinitely before their charges were fully processed, whereas USC responds with allowing two men accused of rape to practice with the rest of the team.
Just because they have not been found guilty does not mean they are people who should be representing the University. Athletes should be held to a higher standard than regular students because they are in a more high-profile situation where outsiders automatically associate the quality of the university based on the football team. It also hurts the situation of other football players and athletes, most of whom are normal, kind and morally responsible people.
I admire the bravery of Nick Saban to suspend some of his star players just because of the association between the athlete and the crime. When the facts are settled and the dust has cleared, Saban still has the wherewithal to adjust the punishment as necessary, but removing the athlete from the team for an indefinite amount of time is the better option for the team as a whole.
Hailey Tucker is a junior majoring in broadcast and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Tucker Talks,” runs Thursdays.