I have never met Mike Rice, but I have been on the receiving end of some less than friendly treatment by coaches in my day. I have been yelled at, called names, and even physically intimidated on a few occasions. One coach, a particularly mean sonofabitch, casually remarked that he could and would kick our ass if ever one of us wanted to take it outside. I hated him, but I got over it. I was also lucky. There are worse coaches out there, as the Mike Rice saga shows. Coaches will go to great ends to mold their players into something using whatever twisted means that seem promising.
But slurs and homophobia, physical violence and unpredictable outbursts are not the building blocks of a solid player-coach relationship. Fear is a short-term cover. It is a band-aid for larger problems like a lack of respect and an inability to relate on a personal level. You can scare someone into obeying you just as long as you keep them under your watchful eye and keep them scared, but you are not building men, rather you are using the same tactics that throughout human history have been used to make slaves. Fear-mongering and hate never made any man a slave. It was a transitory state. Men were born free, and once the hate was overcome, all the slave masters were left with was a shitty disposition and inflated and backward sense of righteousness. Watch Mike Rice's apology and tell me that he is really truly sorry and that he doesn't feel like the victim in all this?
We like our coaches to be less men and more statues and lists of anecdotes about hard work and accountability. This goes double for college sports, where the false shroud of amateurism is partly held up by the idea that these young athletes are going to school to become men of character and substance. Yes, a great many do become beacons of hope and virtue, heroes that we can point to from the stands and tell our children to emulate. Stars of which we can be proud.
But you are fooling yourself if you hold this to be the end game. College coaches aren't paid millions to produce good citizens. They are paid to produce championships that earn TV dollars and help sell merchandise. The character of a team will produce as many wins as its GPA, community service record, and Jeremy Schaap human interest stories. Zero.
The reaction to Aaron Hernandez's arrest for multiple alleged murders — one called an outright execution — has had a strange effect wherein a large segment of the population looks outward for answers. Should the Patriots have known what Hernandez was capable of? Does this tarnish the team's legacy? Is marijuana a gateway drug to murder? And, isn't this all somehow Urban Meyer's fault?
All these questions and more might appear to be legitimate upon first glance. Aaron Hernandez had a long history of run ins with the law, doesn't that count for anything? And a lot of it was known by the Patriots and was done under the watchful eye of Meyer.
In the wake of an unspeakable tragedy we grasp for answers. It is a natural human response to try and make sense of a world so huge and complex that suddenly becomes terrifying and seemingly littered with unpredictable danger at every turn. I conceive of a lot of horrible possibilities in a day — I'm a worrier and my mind wanders sometimes — but rarely does that worry manifest itself in the fear that someone I know would coldly execute me and set about destroying every shred of evidence. In our harried reaction there not only has to be a sign of danger, something that everyone missed the first time but that we can all rest easy now that we've got it pinned down, but there has to be a reason. Someone failed. Something happened. It was the drugs or his past or his hot temper or maybe even his college coach letting him "get away with murder" as we are apt to say in a figurative sense. We don't like senseless violence. It is unpredictable and inexplicable in a way that hangs ominously over our heads if we let the thoughts linger too long. It could happen to us, because why not?
I have read a few message board threads and mentions of Urban Meyer in the aftermath of all this, and I just don't know what to think of the people who invoke his name. Is the search for answers so fervent that we overlook every bit of context? That Meyer, like all major college football coaches is as much a CEO as he is a hands on builder of men. Ballooning staffs, huge rosters, fundraising responsibilities, and generally being the face of a program aren't necessarily excuses when taken individually, but when you're already grasping for answers these circumstances should be enough to sever the last threads of causation you're trying to string across the room.
If you want to lampoon Meyer's circle of trust, you're welcome to do it. If you want to lambaste him over his players' drunk driving arrests and failed marijuana tests — kids doing really irresponsible things — you're free to do that too. You can even cast all of these judgments far away from the halls, locker rooms, and fields in which Urban Meyer has spent his life coaching — couch judgment always feels especially sweet. But pointing to the alleged murderer that once took up space on Meyer's roster and then doing the written equivalent of clearing your throat loudly and nodding in the direction of some connection you've built in your mind is doing all of us a disservice.
Aaron Hernandez isn't yet convicted, but all signs point to him being a really, really bad person that has committed multiple unspeakable acts and squandered chance after chance given to him by everyone. Drawing lines between his worst actions and the Patriots or Urban Meyer is a handy way of overlooking the real problems while simultaneously disrespecting the lost life of a man (men?) who deserved better.
There is no transitive property for murder, no matter how hard you squint at the situation.