As I read up on the news that Oregon coach Chip Kelly has left the door open for LeGarrette Blount to possibly return to the Ducks, and as I listened to all the subsequent fallout on the radio airwaves this afternoon, just one thought crossed my mind.
I don't get it.
It's not that I don't get what Kelly is doing. Actually, I totally get that, and think he has absolutely handled this thing just about as well as he possibly could. I'll get into my reasons for that assessment in a moment.
No. What I don't get is the sanctimonious self-righteousness of the critics who sit in judgment of Kelly and Blount today. I don't get the willingness or desire to cast one player -- who is, in fact, a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person despite punching someone -- aside in the name of setting some kind of mythical "example" for athletes everywhere. I don't get how people think this is somehow "kowtowing" to an athlete, a sentiment expressed by Joe Theismann on the radio this afternoon.
What people forget is that while college coaches are primarily in the business of winning games, they're also in the business of helping young adults become full-fledged adults, ready for the responsibilities that adulthood carries. I don't know how much time you've spent around 18- and 19-year-old kids, but I've spent lots, and I've got to tell you -- most of them are not ready for the real world. That might have been the case 40 years ago. That's no longer the case today. (The discussion as to why that's the case is for another time.)
This isn't the NFL where the head coach is your boss, and if you don't do your job, you're rightfully fired. This is college athletics, where parents send their kids hundreds or thousands of miles from home to get an education and play a sport that might eventually earn them a rich payday. Or might not. But either way, they put their trust in the coach and his staff to take care of their child while that child is in that school. That's a promise that's made to them during recruiting.
Some might say that allowing Blount to stay on scholarship and continue to practice in the hopes of preparing for a career in the NFL is more than following through on that promise. I don't necessarily disagree with that. But I vehemently disagree with the notion that one size fits all, which is what seems to be driving the bulk of the criticism.
As coach, Kelly's primary concern is, and always should be, what's best for his players -- as people. The notion that anyone outside the Oregon program -- radio commentators, newspaper writers, bloggers, talking heads on TV -- knows what's best for Blount is simply outrageous. I'd say they all should stop pretending that they know what's best for Blount, but the truth is that they have absolutely no interest in that. No -- they want someone to pay for all the past sins of all out-of-control athletes, and Blount is that cause du jour. Their desire to see Blount suffer for what he did is nothing more than a bunch of self-serving B.S., and I feel sorry for them that throwing a college student under a bus makes them feel better.
The main problem, of course, is that it doesn't really drive ratings or generate page views to say, "You know, I'm going to wait and see how this all turns out, because there remains a decent chance that this really is what's best for LeGarrette Blount." But it would be the most prudent stance to take. Only Kelly, Blount, his parents, athletic director Mike Bellotti and the select counselors they have consulted know what's best for Blount, and if that's what's driving this decision -- which I believe it is -- then I think what they're doing is fantastic.
In fact, the developments of today make me retroactively admire the way Kelly has handled this thing from the beginning. Many have wondered why Kelly didn't just make the suspension indefinite to begin with. Do you honestly think Blount would have the best possible shot at a life change in that scenario? Remember, this is a guy who was no stranger to problems at Oregon before this happened. Look at all the things Blount has done since then, the advice he's sought, the soul-searching he's presumably done. Does that happen if Kelly simply tells him to keep his nose clean and he'll be back? Or does it happen when someone thinks he's lost everything?
There's no way to get inside Kelly's head to know what he was thinking, but as someone who has led teams of exceptional young people, I've had to throw people off my team. I've had to strip them of responsibilities. And at times, I've done it without equivocation in my discussions with them, only to know in the back of my mind that I'm searching for a certain kind of behavior change, and that if I see that behavior change, I won't just welcome them back with open arms -- I will celebrate their return.
Why? Because helping a person hit rock bottom helps them see what they're made of (or not made of), the results of which are readily available for all to see. I suspect that Chip Kelly has now discovered what Blount is made of -- as has Blount. And when a person recovers positively from that kind of devastation, you can't help but be excited for them, come alongside them, and party with them.
This seeming reverse of field doesn't ruin Kelly's credibility in my eyes; it enhances it to a degree you can't possibly imagine.
Those sitting in judgment of Kelly and Blount at this moment would do well to remember that at the end of the day, we're dealing with a person -- one who will go on to lead a life after he's long since forgotten about in the college football world. What kind of a life will it be? One that's productive and contributes to the betterment of our world? As a leader of young people, Kelly has a responsibility to all of us to help that person prepare to lead that productive life.
Is giving Blount another chance to play football the best thing for helping him become the responsible adult we all want him to be? I don't know the answer, and neither does Kelly or anyone else. All Kelly can do is make the best decision right now. But if we're to look at how Blount has handled himself and believe the reported growth he's experienced since that awful night a month ago, it sure seems like Kelly's decisions have had as good of an outcome in Blount's life as anyone could have hoped for.
How, then, can anyone come to any conclusion other than Kelly is making the best possible decision for LeGarrette Blount the human with all the information he has at his disposal at this particular time?
It doesn't make you soft or weak to choose to believe that maybe -- just maybe -- Chip Kelly knows what he's doing, and that the downfall of college athletics isn't right around the corner because of it.