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An epidemic of ethics in the SEC

There have definitely been Les Miles around the LSU facility now that three key players have been suspended.

The SEC, while dominant on the football field, has gained the reputation of a cut-throat league. Outsiders criticize the powerhouse schools in the conference for bending the rules in recruiting, and in keeping players eligible once they arrive on campus. Some would even say(myself included) that the academic quality of the majority of the conference’s schools is not very high, making it easy for powerful, high-paid coaches to make a mockery of academics and run minor-league football programs.

Certainly, college rankings back up that last statement. According to the latest US News University Rankings list, the SEC features only one top-50 institution, conference bottom-dweller Vanderbilt(I knew they were good for something!). Sure, Florida has been a consistent top-50 school and just fell out this year, but that does not make up for the fact that the rest of the conference is practically academic dead-weight, with seven institutions ranking outside the top-100, and both Mississippi schools coming in unranked.

Compare that to conferences like the Big Ten, which features five top-50 schools and none out of the top-100, and the ACC with seven in the top-50 and only Florida State outside the top-100. The Pac 12 also features seven institutions outside the top-100, but is very top-heavy with five in the top-50. The point is, there is a reason that people think of schools like Alabama and LSU as football factories first and academic institutions second.

But, this year at least, there have been some remarkably ethical decisions made by the coaches at these schools that the casual college football fan should consider before totally dismissing the SEC’s run of five consecutive BCS championships as the product of an “anything goes mentality.” This week, LSU coach Les Miles suspended three players for Saturday’s game against reigning national champs Auburn.

It would be easy to chalk this up as a toothless PR move, but consider the following: LSU is currently ranked No.1 in the AP Poll and is playing host to an SEC West opponent that defeated the Tigers last year. Furthermore, the three players that were suspended were corner Tyrann Mathieu, the team’s biggest defensive playmaker, running back Spencer Ware, the team’s leading rusher, and defensive back Tharold Simon, the team’s first defender off the bench.

Now take into account that the three players in question all tested positive for synthetic marijuana. I know that when I first read that, I thought “There’s synthetic weed?” Well yes, there is, but it is not an NCAA rule that you must test for it. LSU said they conducted the test because of concerns that synthetic marijuana could be laced with other, more dangerous drugs, and that the testing was a student health issue. Wow, an SEC school that tested for something they did not have to, and then actually suspended high-profile players that were caught just days before a huge game? Bravo.

Wind the clock back a week to the dismissal of controversial quarterback Stephen Garcia from the South Carolina football team. Garcia had been a troubled player from the moment he stepped on campus and was cited for public intoxication and underaged drinking. He was also suspended from the university for keying a professor’s car. On the whole, Garcia had been suspended from the team five times, leading to coach Steve Spurrier imposing guidelines for Garcia to stay on the team.

One of those guidelines was that he consume no alcohol whatsoever. He endured random alcohol screenings to make sure he was cooperating, but failed his most recent one and was subsequently dismissed. Now, I am not saying the school should not have gotten rid of Garcia, and he was certainly given his chances. But, what surprised me was the timing.

The Gamecocks are in the middle of a race for the top of a severely weakened SEC East where the usual powers, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, are all struggling. Garcia was caught by the coaching staff, not the NCAA, and he was in violation of rules they had implemented, not an outside source. Garcia is certainly not Andrew Luck, but he gave South Carolina a great chance to win the SEC East, which is currently a pillow-fight between three flawed teams. Props to Spurrier for actually following through.

Finally, we come to Spurrier’s old team, the Florida Gators. While the University of Miami gets most of the flack in the Sunshine State for shady dealings, the Gators were hot on their heels. Under the leadership of coach Urban Meyer, the Gators won two national championships and three SEC titles. However, they also racked up 31 arrests by 25 of Meyer’s players over the coaches six-year tenure, a trend that no one seemd to take notice of until the White-Christian Tim Tebow ceased to be the face of the program. 

For context, that is 27 more arrests than a “sanctioned” program Miami over the same time frame.

Enter new coach Will Muschamp. While Meyer is busy spending more time with his family(as an ESPN analyst), Muschamp is busy cleaning up the renegade program Meyer left behind. He began cleaning house by dismissing All-American corner Janoris Jenkins for possession of marijuana. It was Jenkins’ second drug-related offense and it earned him the opportunity to finish his college career at Division II North Alabama.

This certainly seems reasonable, but it also goes against the perception that SEC powers will do anything to win.  Jernkins was the Gators’ best returning defensive player and, despite the fact that he will be playing very low-level football this season, is still expected to be a first-round NFL draft pick. Throw in the fact that the Gators are playing in the same weakened SEC East that South Carolina is, and I give major kudos to the defensive-minded Muschamp for making this move.

Oh, and for those that say any school would have made these moves, look to one of the “holiest” programs out there. All-American receiver Michael Floyd was arrested for drunk driving in March. He was subsequently suspended from the Notre Dame football team.. and then reinstated in early August, just in time for training camp.

Now, am I saying that Floyd definitely should have missed games? Not necessarily, I don’t know all the details. But, I am simply saying that there are ethical grey-areas that all schools operate in, and Notre Dame chose to issue no real punishment while the three SEC schools above chose real action.

So, while the SEC may not be the Ivy League, or even the ACC or Big Ten, it may not quite be the semi-pro conference many fans make it out to be. Sure, there are still examples of players committing crimes and being retained by their teams(cough-Chris Raney-cough!), but these three incidents are examples of when a coach could have simply looked they other way and did not. When an SEC team inevitably wins the next several BCS championships, save your conference insults, and when this year’s SEC East champion gets slaughtered by Alabama, blame the recent epidemic of ethics.

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