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Stan Savran: Schools should learn playbook of the law

Saturday, September 06, 2003

One step at a time. That's the way a college or university has to play it when it comes to dealing with indiscretions, alleged or committed, by its student-athletes. And more important is how big those steps are.

Everyone involved has to make sure his step doesn't exceed his jurisdiction. Too often coaches, athletic directors and administrators overstep their authority and infringe on those handling criminal investigations and subsequent punishments.

Hate to break it to coach Toughasnails and Chancellor Patchpockets, but yours isn't an insular world. They and all the serfs in their little fiefdom are subject to the rules by which we all must play.

Walt Harris handled the Rod Rutherford case the right way.

You might argue that the quasi-suspension of his starting quarterback was too lenient or too excessive or just right, but the point is it was done for the right reasons, meaning it wasn't based on what was alleged to have happened at Station Square. Had it been based on that incident, Harris would have been guilty of playing judge and jury in a case that has yet to be adjudicated in a court of law, if it ever gets that far.

Even if Harris, or any university official, sat down with Rutherford and the plaintiff, got both of their stories and had all the information the police have, it is not his responsibility, nor within his domain of authority, to administer judgments.

That's what the courts are for, not academics or football coaches.

Too many times coaches and/or university administrators intervene and muddy the waters of due process.

If a player violates a team rule, curfew, drinking or the like, that certainly falls within a coach's area of discipline.

If a player trashes a dorm room, steals tests and distributes and/or sells them to fellow students or defaces library books, then it's fine that the school steps in and begins its own disciplinary procedures.

But when there is a criminal complaint and an ongoing investigation by the proper authorities, how incredibly arrogant it is for a coach or a university disciplinary board to somehow believe its power supersedes that of law enforcement.

Consider the Anwar Phillips case at Penn State. If he had violated a team rule of some sort, Joe Paterno would have been well within his right to bounce the player from the team. The university suspended him for two semesters --well after the bowl game in which Phillips played, by the way -- while the case was still under investigation by authorities.

Penn State did offer Phillips a chance to testify at a hearing, but he declined to do so on the advice of his attorney. Can you blame him? If the defense attorney thought testifying before some de facto university jury would prejudice the case in a court of law, naturally you would decline to offer testimony.

The suspension followed, which, in my judgment, completely abridged Phillips' rights, and the university needs to examine its policies concerning such matters.

The mere fact he was acquitted ought to be enough of a reason for that to happen.

Again, if Phillips' "crime" had been initiating a food fight or public lewdness at the Nittany Lion Shrine, then let the university have at him.

But when criminal charges are involved, let's leave that to the experienced people we pay to handle it, not the dean of something or other used to dealing with fraternity violations.

If you need further illustration, one only has to invoke the Rashard Casey incident. We have a system of jurisprudence in this country. One of the precepts of that system is innocence until guilt is proven. Not even a football coach can supersede that.

Harris and Pitt played this one properly. We'll probably never know if Rutherford actually violated a team rule. It seems to me that his late entry into tonight's game is more a product of engaging in conduct unbecoming of a senior and an expected leader.

Harris is saying he expects more from his starting quarterback and demands that he display positive leadership. No matter what actually happened at Station Square, in Harris' mind, he was doing anything but. Boys will be boys, but Rutherford is 22, a father, and ought to know better.

The charges and countercharges will be sorted out by the authorities and perhaps by a court of law. A verdict will be rendered by those empowered to do so.

It will not and should not come across the desk of a football coach, an athletic director or an academician in an ivory tower.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970)

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