Thursday, February 17, 2011

What to do about accused athletes

FIU has decided to allow Garrett Wittels, its star baseball player who enters this season riding a 56-game hitting streak (three shy of breaking the college record), to play to start the season, despite Wittels facing sexual assault allegations in the Bahamas. The next hearing in the case is not until April 18 and, citing the presumption of innocence, the university decided he should be allowed to continue playing, at least until further developments in his case. This raises the broader question of what to do about athletes (pro and college) who are arrested/accusd/charged with crimes but have not yet been convicted. I genuinely am not sure of the answer.

On the one hand, we do have a presumption of innocence. And if the Duke lacrosse case taught us anything, it is that schools look very bad if they move quickly to suspend student-athletes only to have the allegations and the legal case prove to be a complete fantasy (put aside whether the players did anything inappropriate-although-not-illegal). Is it fair to the player to lose a big chunk of his season because of charges that could prove unfounded? Should we place it in non-athletic terms--would a non-athlete-student in the same position as Wittels be suspended from school? If not, perhaps the athlete should not be suspended from the team. (I feel the same way about professional leagues getting all worked up about players' off-field misconduct).

On the other hand, playing for the school's baseball team is different than being one of 42,000 students. How does it look to have a player representing your institution of higher learning who is facing a charge of sexual assault? And there is a certain degree of fame and prestige enjoyed by a star athlete that is not enjoyed by an ordinary student. How does the alleged victim feel to see Wittels continuing on with his educational and athletic career, including games on ESPN? (Similar issues were raised in the controversy over an alleged sexual assault by a Notre Dame football player, who continued playing while the school dragged its feet and the student ultimately took her own life). The accusation of a crime does place the accused in a different legal position than someone who has not been accused of a crime (even if he has not been convicted). So perhaps a school/team should take action against the player who occupies that different legal position. Or should it depend on the school's assessment of Wittel's culpability--and how does the school make that assessment?

I genuinely do not know where I fall on these questions, so I throw them out there for consideration.