It’s been another difficult week being a Rutgers football fan. Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media reported on Wednesday that starting safety K.J. Gray and reserve linebacker Brendan DeVera had been dismissed from the program. On Thursday night, Sargeant reported as many as eight players were currently under investigation for credit card fraud by the Rutgers police department. Sargeant’s colleague, James Kratch, also reported that Gray was recently charged for an incident in June that included driving with an open container and possession of marijuana. Training camp is less than three weeks away from beginning and the Rutgers football team already has their backs against the wall this season. For fans, this Friday the 13th certainly feels like another horror film sequel.
This new scandal will test the patience of even the most ardent Rutgers football supporters. It’s only been three years since multiple arrests and embarrassments took place, resulting in the end of the Kyle Flood era. On the face of it, this situation appears different in the sense that during the Flood scandals, players were literally fighting people in the streets multiple times, robbing people’s homes and the head coach himself was pressuring a professor to change the grade of a player. I’m not absolving current head coach Chris Ash of responsibility for this current mess, but the allegations appear to be one related situation, versus a pattern of misconduct. Ultimately, they are his players and while you could debate how realistic it is for the coaches to be aware of cyber crimes potentially committed by players, his culture has been jeopardized if these allegations ring true.
That is why there is only one proper resolution. Once the facts are determined and the police investigation paints a clear picture on what actually happened, a zero tolerance policy must be enforced for those that are guilty and are charged with a crime. Any player that is charged and found to be involved and guilty in some way, regardless of the severity of their role, needs to be dismissed. The culture that Ash has built depends on it.
I’m not implying the program as a whole is a mess, because it is not. There has been a lot of progress and improvements made in every area since Ash took over in December 2015. When having over 100 players in a program, it’s inevitable there are going to be issues along the way. However, in this case, it’s more than just an example of a few players who couldn’t stay focused. Criminal charges may be applied and for a program still recovering from the recent missteps that paved the way for Ash’s arrival, it heightens the urgency to handle this latest scandal with a swift and stern hand.
It’s not easy for head coaches and even athletic administrators to truly understand fans of their teams and programs. Being an alumnus, years of following and supporting a college team, and living through the failures along the way give fans like us a different perspective than those in the middle of their tenure with a school. For some, we are literally born into it. Being a Rutgers supporter is a different animal than following most other power five athletic departments. If you love Rutgers sports, especially football and men’s basketball, you inevitably have thick skin and perhaps even some alligator blood. The old saying for Boston Red Sox fans before their success of the 2000’s was “they killed my grandfather, my father, and now they are coming for me.” Professional and college sports are different for many reasons, but that sentiment may ring a little too true for Rutgers fans after the past decade of repeated scandals, on top of a lot of losing on the field and court.
President Barchi has the perspective of overseeing many of these scandals and it needs to serve him well in the decisions that are made in this case. Athletic Director Pat Hobbs is facing his first major test at Rutgers and he needs to ace it. Ash needs to eliminate the potential cancer that could spread within his program and not let it completely poison yet another season of Rutgers football. That’s why zero tolerance and dismissal is the only right choice for those found guilty. I know that might destroy depth at certain positions for this season, but the big picture is more important. The message it will send is key, to the rest of the players, to recruits, and everyone else watching, including the NCAA. I want Rutgers to win more than anyone, but I want to be proud watching the players on the field, not feel dirty about rooting for criminals. If that means another losing season, so be it. That won’t change my support for the kids that deserve it and it shouldn’t change your support either. If you only care about winning, NFL training camps start soon.
No matter what is decided, we are talking about 18-22 year old kids. We all made mistakes at that age, some big and some small. However, being a scholarship athlete demands a different standard. If criminal charges were committed, then any player that did so has to go. Everyone deserves a second chance, but for those guilty in this case, that second chance can’t take place at Rutgers. Not with all that has happened here. Hobbs, Ash and many other coaches at Rutgers preach about the importance of culture. Here is a chance to prove it. Don’t be like some other power five programs, like Florida, a story that Sargeant referenced in his report, that suspended nine players last year who were implicated in a credit card scam. They were heavily criticized for the level of punishment given and rightfully so. Rutgers can’t afford that additional backlash. As bad as scandals have been, it’s been the mismanagement of them that made Rutgers a national laughingstock at times in recent years. Enough is enough.
It’s time to batten down the hatches as a Rutgers fan. While so much progress that has been made under Hobbs within the athletic department in the almost three years he has been here, the national media will likely pounce on this story in the coming weeks. I wrote in this article a couple years ago on why Rutgers fans need to have thick skin and embrace the long climb up the Big Ten ladder. A point I made was how the announcement of the practice facility now due to be completed next year received zero national attention, but Hobbs drinking a beer at a tailgate was the third lead story on ESPN.com. This latest scandal will likely feel like a recurring nightmare of years past, regardless of the details being different. Big Ten fan bases will be foaming at the mouth to crucify the school that has forever stained their beloved, holier than holy conference. I wrote before to embrace the hate. It’s not even mid-July and it’s hard not to have enthusiasm dampened for the coming season. As fans, we know what this will do to the perception of Rutgers on the national and Big Ten stage and it’s fair to be fed up.
There is no happy conclusion to this story and the damage has already been done to a degree in regard to a continued negative perception of Rutgers in the Big Ten. If multiple players are in fact guilty and are charged with a crime, than those young men will have to suffer consequences for their actions. The program will suffer another black eye and Rutgers will be the punchline used to death at the start of the Big Ten football season. Barchi, Hobbs and Ash need to make the right decision here and that’s to apply a zero tolerance approach. Handling this situation with transparency and timely action is a must and something that has plagued Rutgers in previous scandals in the past decade. If the players are guilty, then that type of action and the manner in which it is handled will at least signal to those that care and are paying attention that things really are now different at Rutgers. It won’t stop the national media or social media warriors from bashing Rutgers, but it will matter to it’s fans that the current administration is accountable. So far this week, they appear to have been proactive in dismissing DeVera and Gray, which is a positive. Kratch tweeted that no one was aware of Gray’s June incident until Wednesday, after he was already let go.
Kids will be kids and if you think mistakes won’t happen again in the future in varying degrees, regardless of who is the coach, than you are being unrealistic. However, it’s on Hobbs and Ash to send a clear message and make sure there is no margin for error for a Rutgers student-athlete when it comes to mistakes at this level. It would also give long suffering fans some dignity and at least allow us to have continued faith that our current leaders won’t make the same mistakes that their predecessors did so many times in the face of adversity. If they don’t and this is mishandled, the term “same old Rutgers” will continue to have merit and severely damage the progress that has been made under their direction.