by Matt Waldman
This week’s Futures is about more than Marquess Wilson. It’s about the dynamics of power within college football programs and the risks that come with questioning their authority. For most of us outside the situation, it’s about being willing to reserve judgment about a player’s decisions when we may never know the truth behind them. Most of all, this week’s column addresses the mindset that I think a scout or personnel director should utilize when evaluating a football player who left his college team on bad terms.
Tall, wiry, and athletic, Wilson had a chance to go in the top half of the 2013 NFL Draft. Some analysts dinged the former Washington State receiver because they speculated that he’s too thin. If there were a physical template that scouts and draftniks used to determine the body type of a first-round talent at the position, Wilson’s 6-foot-3, 188-pound frame isn’t an exact match.
I’m not concerned if Wilson is lighter than prototypes like Andre Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, or Vincent Jackson. Robert Meachem has all the physical characteristics a football team wants from a wide receiver, but I’ve never liked his game. Meachem makes the act of catching a ball look like it requires a doctorate in quantum mechanics. And forget about routes –- I’ve seen out-of-town drivers who lost their GPS connection look less confused with their surroundings.
The way I see it, once a player meets the physical baselines to perform in the league, the rest of it is little more than a potential bonus. I say "potential" because these skills have to be harnessed into technique. Otherwise, you have a great athlete who cannot play fast, strong, or smart because he’s thinking rather than reacting.
This is why I am more concerned with positional skills. Knowledge, precision, and technical skill determine whether speed, strength, and agility will be used productively. A 5-foot-11, 188-pound receiver with great technical skill will play stronger, faster, and smarter than a 6-foot-2, 215-pound prospect without it. In other words, put Meachem’s game side-by-side with Marvin Harrison’s and it’s no contest.
Wilson demonstrates enough physical skill to develop into an NFL starter. He’s effective at shielding defenders with his body. He catches the football with his hands. Wilson has the height to win on the perimeter and in the red zone, yet the slippery power and arsenal of moves to avoid direct hits as a ball carrier through the shallow zones of a defense. The Cougars loved to feature his combination of skill sets on fades, smoke screens, slants, and vertical routes with double moves.
Wilson can set up a route in single-coverage and he flashes some promise working against the jam, but he has a ways to go. He has to develop better technique with his hands and shoulders to defeat press coverage while still moving down field. Otherwise, his tendency to lean away from contact slows his release from the line of scrimmage and it can ruin the timing of his routes.
Wilson is not a prospect with rare ability. However, he has enough NFL characteristics in his game that, with enough development, he could become an asset in a starting lineup. Several draft analysts believed he was one of the top-five receiving prospects at the beginning of the season. Until last month, I believed Wilson had a chance to be a second- or third-round pick.
I’m giving you the executive summary on Wilson’s game because the more fascinating question about the former Washington State receiver is the fallout from his imbroglio with head coach Mike Leach. There are dynamics of this story that parallel past incidents where a player and football program didn’t see eye-to-eye and NFL teams made a mistake to trust the program.
Sometimes the consequences for the player are deserved. Two weeks before Wilson announced that he was quitting the Cougars football team as his way of blowing the whistle on pervasive abuse from Leach -- a coach who was forced from Texas Tech for these types of charges -- the coach demoted Wilson. It seems like a clear-cut case of a player reacting with immaturity to the discipline levied against him for poor effort.
However, I think it’s important to entertain the possibility that the claims made in this letter could be true:
Dear Cougar Nation:
It is with a heavy heart that I announce my decision to forgo playing football for Washington State University. I realize the school is saying that I am suspended for violating team policies and may return next week, but this is a lie. This is an attempt by the athletic department to cover up what is really happening in that locker room.
It is been a privilege to be a Cougar, to perform on your field and wear the Crimson and Gray. I would like to thank Washington State University for giving me the opportunity to do what I love most, to play football and receive a quality education for the past three years. I'm grateful to the athletic department for the coaching, care and encouragement I have received prior to this season.
This was going to be our year. My teammates and I were aspiring to be the winning team you deserve. Unfortunately for all, the new coaching staff has destroyed that endeavor. I believe coaches have a chance to mold players, to shape men, to create greatness. However, the new regime of coaches has preferred to belittle, intimidate and humiliate us. This approach has obviously not been successful, and has put a dark shadow on this program.
My teammates and I have endured this treatment all season long. It is not "tough love". It is abuse. This abuse cannot be allowed to continue. I feel it is my duty to stand up and shed light on this situation by sacrificing my dreams, my education and my pride. I resign from this team. I am deeply sorry to those I am letting down. I am not a quitter. I was raised by my family, and many previous coaches to exhibit dedication and embrace sacrifice, but there comes a time when one has to draw a line in the sand.
Lastly, I thank my fellow teammates, those who also have left the program this year, and those we are leaving behind. I hope our departure will bring awareness to the physical, emotional and verbal abuse being allowed in the locker room and on the field. I pray for healing and recovery for all those who have been hurt by this treatment
First of all, I realize that Wilson gave no specific examples of abuse. That’s a sign in favor of the program’s claim that Wilson’s accusations were false. There’s also the fact that Washington State’s administration investigated the matter and, based on testimony of other players, the athletic department concluded that there was no abuse.
On Wednesday, athletic director Bill Moos provided a text message from Wilson that bloggers from Spokesman.com and Yahoo! interpreted as, "Wilson didn’t mean the things he said in the letter and was acting out of self-preservation."
Mr. Moos this is marquess … With that letter I wasn't trying to accuse the coaches of hitting players or anything. I was just trying to put it in different terms and now everything is getting misinterpreted and I didn't mean it like that at all … I simply was trying to get my story across and get my name cleared instead of having it say I'm suspended for breaking team violations … That could mean like I did drugs or something … I was never trying to harm the university or the program with it.
Wilson may be guilty of attempting to assassinate the character of his head coach. It’s easy to presume that the young man didn’t react well to a new regime challenging him to get better, and decided he’d show the program that he was bigger than the team. Human beings do this all the time, especially young men and women in the workplace just entering adulthood.
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However, I still wonder if it’s really that cut-and-dry. Wilson never mentioned physical abuse in his initial letter. I always thought the abuse he referred to was emotional.
The text message also seemed to underscore this point. The phrase "or anything" within the context of the sentence "With that letter I wasn’t trying to accuse the coaches of hitting players or anything," sounds to me like a figure of speech more than an attempt to convey that the coaching staff didn’t do anything questionable.
If anything, I saw Wilson’s text as an attempt to get the school to reveal that his reasons for leaving weren’t related to drugs, alcohol, or criminal behavior. Every NFL hopeful knows that nothing can damage his prospects faster than these issues. I also think the school wants the general public to believe that Wilson retracted his entire claim, but that conclusion isn’t clear.
Recent history illustrates that college football programs aren’t trustworthy. A good scout better have the perspective to entertain two broad possibilities: Wilson was immature and couldn’t handle criticism, or Wilson had valid claims, found himself outgunned by a system designed to close ranks, and realized he was fighting a losing battle as an ill-prepared whistle blower.
Neither possibility is an easy sell to an NFL team, but due diligence on a player like Wilson could pay off in the long run. So is having a healthy skepticism about college athletic programs. This includes not believing everything they say and do.
Former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith was a great example. Over 20 years ago, Smith was the former two-time Mr. Football. He went to Ohio State and broke Archie Griffin’s freshman rushing record. But Smith, a pre-med student, quit the team as a sophomore when assistant coach Elliott Uzelac tried to force Smith to put athletics above academics.
The initial fallout was an all-out attempt to defame Smith’s character and protect the program rather than consider that Smith was right and protect the player first. According to Austin Murphy’s feature in Sports Illustrated, Uzelac had more dirt in these events than Smith:
Some Ohio State officials seemed less interested in investigating the validity of Smith's charges than in mounting a heavy-handed campaign of leaks to discredit him. Officials floated rumors—anonymously, of course—that Smith "had not been a stranger in the bars on High Street this summer" and that his class attendance had not been sterling.
"That's right, I've been boozing it up and chasing women all summer," says Smith sarcastically. "It's like they're trying to dig up everything they possibly can on me. It's like they never knew me."
Anyone who knows Smith knows of his dedication to his studies. Like many students who are among the first in their families to attend college, Smith is terribly serious about academics—"Too serious," says his academic adviser, Larry Romanoff.
Still, university officials seemed unwilling to address Smith's most serious accusation: that Uzelac had told him to blow off class so that he could make practice. One school spokesman dismissed the matter as a misunderstanding. "Robert has no sense of humor," said the official. "I can easily see Elliot saying with a straight face, 'You take school too seriously,' and Robert taking the comment at face value."
Uzelac's track record—he has had two head coaching jobs, at Western Michigan (1975-81) and at Navy (1987-89)—suggests that there was no misunderstanding. A former midshipman who played for Uzelac at Navy recalls that Uzelac discouraged players from enrolling in summer-school courses that conflicted with workouts during two-a-days. Said the former Middie, "If a guy who'd been in class that morning screwed up in the afternoon, [Uzelac] would say, 'You're sitting in a classroom all morning when you could have been out here doing drill work!' "
Upon being told of Smith's complaints, the officer said, "Sounds like [Uzelac] hasn't changed much."
This was a case of an institution with enormous power, and a lot to lose, protecting its image rather than doing the right thing. They were willing to hurt Smith’s future rather than deal with the truth. The SI feature demonstrates that there was no honest inquiry.
Murphy accurately explained that, "the stand [Smith] took last week could end up costing him money. NFL scouts might drool over his rushing ability, but obedience to authority is considered a desirable trait in a pro prospect."
Smith’s teammate, Scottie Graham, had his own take of the situation. It illustrates the difficulty that peers of a teammate in this whistle-blowing dynamic face when they have to balance their self-interest with the welfare of a teammate with valid claims:
On Aug. 24, Smith addressed his teammates for 15 minutes, outlining his reasons for leaving the team. Virtually all of the players received his message more graciously than did Cooper, who told Smith, upon the conclusion of his speech, "Get out." Some players suggested that if football weren't their meal ticket, they would have said something too. "The difference is," said one player, "Robert's got being a doctor to fall back on."
Most would probably respond as fullback Scottie Graham did. "I don't agree with everything he said," said Graham, also a dedicated student. "I've never had a coach ask me to miss a class, and I'm glad camp is tough—that's what we need. I'll tell you this, though: Something was bothering Robert awful bad for him to do what he did. He is not a liar. He is a man. I respect him to the utmost."
Graham’s comment within the context of what another player said off the record underscores that peers of a whistle-blower often feel pressure to turn against a teammate in order to protect their interests. Or, in Graham’s case, only go so far as to maintain a precarious balance that avoids angering those who hold his academic and football future in their hands.
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Smith’s skill on the field and track record off it ultimately paved the way for him to rejoin the team. A little more than a year later, it is fascinating to read Cooper’s take of Smith. It was a lot more respectful than "get out," but hard-earned and not worth the effort in hindsight.
Winning this kind of battle with a university and its athletic program is the exception to the rule. As with any type of whistle blowing of a large governmental or corporate system, the risks of stepping forward –- much less the questioning of authority –- result in consequences that can potentially ruin careers. The careers of Terrell Davis and Arian Foster illustrate that even the fortunate ones face an uphill battle.
Former Georgia head coach Ray Goff tried to sabotage Davis’ future. Goff thought Davis was soft for not playing through groin and hamstring injuries. He mocked Davis in front of other players, prevented scouts from seeing Davis’ film, and badmouthed him to anyone making an inquiry.
I was a student who covered practices for a newspaper during the Goff era. I didn’t know Goff well, but I participated in his press conferences. Journalists weren’t stationed close enough to practices to hear everything a coach said, so I can’t say for sure how Goff treated Davis in that setting. Still, based on Goff’s behavior towards others, I can speculate that it wouldn’t have been a stretch for Goff to behave as Davis claims.
Foster was a philosophy student at Tennessee. He has an inquisitive nature -– something that universities are supposed to encourage. Instead, Foster’s curious, independent thinking rubbed the staff the wrong way, according to Yahoo!’s Jason Cole:
That's typical Foster. As a child, his parents pushed him to think deeply about subjects. "Question everything. Don't take anything at face value. Find your own path and come to your own conclusions," Foster said, mimicking his parents.
That sense of curiosity got Foster into trouble. At the University of Tennessee, Foster admitted that he butted heads with the coaching staff when he was required to go to every class, even sending monitors to make sure he went.
"I'm 19 years old, I can get myself to class," Foster said of that time. To him, as long as he did the work and got the class notes, he felt he should be afforded the same freedom as other students.
"The professors would tell the students that they didn't have to go to every lecture, but not the football players. We had to go to every class," Foster said. As a result, Tennessee coaches ripped Foster to NFL coaches and personnel men, helping him go undrafted.
As we age, we learn that there’s a way to question authority that is constructive. We also learn that there are leaders who don’t understand how to deal with anyone questioning their decisions. Football often has a militaristic culture, so I understand that a player like Foster, especially looking at him through a similar lens as what we saw from Ricky Williams’ inquisitive, independent nature, can be a potential negative for a team.
However, it can also be a tremendous positive. Williams was an excellent football player who had pro coaches praising his football intelligence everywhere he went. Williams’ career issues ultimately had to do with an anxiety disorder that he hadn’t addressed, not his questioning nature. Brandon Marshall is having a huge year and I don’t think it is a coincidence that the positive direction of his career and off-field life comes at the same time he is getting therapy for his personality disorder.
Foster’s behavior has never been a distraction for the Texans. If anything, his engaging intelligence makes him a great team ambassador. Players with early-round talent are worth a bigger investment to develop because the long-term rewards outweigh the legwork. Unfortunately, there are leaders in our society who don’t see any attempt of doing so as a positive.
When players don’t meet the one-size-fits-all template of a football player, they are labeled as "soft." It’s code for a variety of things: sensitive, gay, lazy, lacking toughness to play through injury, hailing from a specific country, raised by women, or, in the case of Foster, those who question authority and thinking independently. It’s often a football death sentence.
Smith, Foster, and Davis were among the instances where college coaches got it wrong. Wilson’s future is still in limbo, but I won’t be surprised if Wilson drops to the mid-to-late rounds -– perhaps even out of the draft. Wilson may not be a rare physical specimen, but I’ve seen enough to believe he could become a quality starter and a potential Pro-Bowl player at a bargain investment. It would behoove me to do the extra legwork on Wilson to see if Washington State got it wrong out of motivation to cover its ass or if Wilson demonstrates that he can grow from the situation.
If I had the chance to interview Wilson for an NFL team I’d conduct a lot of background work. In addition to interviewing his coaches and teammates at WSU, I’d want to speak with the former coaching staff that recruited Wilson. I’d specifically want to know how he responded to criticism. I’d want to learn the differences in leadership styles, delivery of the criticism, and the disciplinary style of each regime.
I’d contact Wilson’s high school coaches, teachers, and family. I’d get their takes on his personality and how his ability to handle criticism, pressure, and discipline evolved as he aged. I know they are going to give me the party line, but a good interviewer can still separate the truth from the family fanfare. There are things to glean from Wilson’s support system that will contribute to the overall picture. These conversations can help a team make a sound investment decision.
When that opportunity to speak with Wilson arrives, I will want to hear him tell me what happened. I want him take some responsibility for his part of the issue spiraling to this point. If he still believes Leach was the problem and my interviews give credence to his take, then I still want to see Wilson show that he has thought about specific ways he could have handled the situation better.
If my research into Wilson reveals that the player was at fault, then I want to see Wilson demonstrate accountability. I want to hear him volunteer lessons he learned. It would be even better if Wilson made a proactive attempt to address this elephant in the room before I broached the subject.
I want to know how Wilson will react the next time a coach gets into his face or benches him. I’ll also want to put him through a private workout where our coaches challenge him physically and emotionally. I’ll want a player who has gone through this experience and says with his words and his actions: "Look, I screwed up and I know why you have to ask me about it. You can test me as hard as you want, because I’m never reacting this way again."
Right now, I’m willing to entertain both possibilities: that Wilson made the decision to recant because he feared enduring further character assassination that would kill his draft stock, and also that the receiver’s original explanation for leaving the team was a bald-face lie in hopes of getting Leach fired. Others may just want to call the situation a closed case, but we’ve seen many times that there is a lack of honesty and integrity within the ranks of leadership in college athletics. I’m willing to suspend disbelief when it comes to Wilson’s initial story.
I hate the hypocrisy of what has been fermenting on college campuses for decades. The college football system is a wolf hiding behind the noble endeavor of earning a sheepskin. I care more about the young men than the convenience that the college football system offers me as a writer and analyst.
Even when I’m critical of a player’s performance on the football field, I want to see each individual succeed. These are young men with a wide range of backgrounds, varying levels of maturity, and all are just beginning the process of learning what it means to be a man. The men who coach football are often excellent role models who set standards for discipline, work ethic, teamwork, and accountability.
There aren’t enough coaches, athletic directors, and college presidents who live the standard they claim to set. We like to believe that the job of a college football coach is to mold young men. Personally, I believe that’s the primary job of parents, but institutions of higher education also have some responsibility. There are several coaches who still take people-development seriously, but there are also many who give the notion lip service.
The primary job of these gridiron figureheads has devolved into winning and generating revenue. Molding young men is often a distant second -– and an optional mission at that. We can often thank university leadership succumbing to the misguided influence of wealthy alumni who want to win at all cost and create an environment where the words knowledge, integrity, and wisdom ring hollow.
Even when these coaches care about developing these players as human beings, the lowering of standards to get players onto campus generates unintended consequences. Schools recruit individuals who don’t care about earning an education, who have developed a false sense of entitlement from massive amounts of attention bestowed upon them, and have been enabled by the college football system to behave like children who need constant monitoring.
I watch a ton of college football. I’ve worked hard to make much of my living doing it. I’m thankful for what I’ve learned –- and earned –- from the game. But when it comes down to it, these are reasons I’d prefer that the NFL had an official farm system. It won’t happen; they have a free ride with college football. However, it would be better for the athlete, and in the long-term, the academic community.
For those taking a vested interest in Wilson’s career, dealing with the idea of this being an open-and-shut case of a spoiled, immature player crying wolf, the best thing to do is to give it time. Be open to the idea that young men learn positive lessons from negative situations. Wilson has NFL talent. The question is whether he has the mental and emotional mindset to develop it. If Wilson reaches his potential, don’t be surprised if we hear a story about a team’s due diligence to look beyond the headlines.