As I sat through my umpteenth hour of NFL Draft coverage on Sunday morning (sorry, Poseur!), the panelists worked through exhausted story lines, of which my biases found either painfully obnoxious (Geno Smith, Manti Te'o) or terribly interesting (Tyrann Mathieu). Ok, not terribly interesting. The Mathieu story is skidding on tires without tread, the kind of vehicle that's only interesting in so much as you are wondering with what it may collide.
But there are story angles to tell here, and whether you want to believe it or not, the networks are generally playing what people want to see (those people may not be you nor I, but apparently it's a lot of people). Mathieu landing in Arizona is fascinating on many levels. He likely went higher than many anticipated. He goes to a spot where former LSU superstar Patrick Peterson, his mentor and role model (and all around model citizen), is already playing. He may be eyeing somewhat of a positional change. There's things to discuss here that are a lot more interesting than the fact that the Chargers needed an ILB, so they traded up to get one.
In the midst of this discussion Brian Billick, hair thinning from what was likely 10,000 failed attempts to draw up a successful game plan for Kyle Boller, provided an insight that stuck. It wasn't particularly innovative, but the simplistic manner in which he stated it caused my synapses to fire, especially in relation to the current Jeremy Hill incident. I'm paraphrasing, but Billick stated something along the lines of, "Sometimes young people do stupid things. With Mathieu, what you need to find out is if it was just a young person doing something stupid, or a character issue."
Billick's statement is simple, but nuanced. It's a far more nuanced approach than those already destroying Mathieu's character (which, as you know, I find to be questionable at best). Because, he's right, young people do stupid stuff. I played with matches. I drove 112 once. I've driven drunk so many times I should probably serve a month in jail for that alone. I bet $100 the Philadelphia Eagles would cover in Arizona (they didn't). So cast the first stone and all that, but I don't think I have bad character. Bad decisions by a stupid young person? Absolutely.
But that thin line is where the decision making gets tough. Mathieu's drug "problem" (I quote this because a) I think marijuana is irrationally stereotyped against and b) Because of that reason he's labeled an abuser/addict, which is really something only the people closest to him and he know). Does Mathieu have bad character? Or is he a young kid, from a troubled background, that genuinely doesn't know any better? Is it character or bad decisions?
It's become a rite of passage for college football fans to point and laugh at their rivals when players are arrested, and they often come with the shrouded racist comments of "thugs" or other such nonsense. A little light-hearted jabbing is fun and all, but then it comes back to that whole plank in your own eye and well, I think I've just made two biblical references in one post.
Really though, if you are reading this and thinking, "My school doesn't recruit 'thugs' and 'criminals,' you are either A) Lying to yourself or B) There is no B."
Jeremy Hill will not be the last LSU football player ever arrested. Hell, he probably won't even be the last LSU football player arrested this year. I'm not trying to be cynical. Remember, young people do stupid things and last I checked a high number of young people populated LSU's football roster.
But Hill's offense gets us back to the character question. Hill is already on probation for a misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile, which is a bigger, badder warning than any coach or parent saying, "Keep your nose clean." Hill's involvement (depending on how he's found in violation of his probation) could actually wind him up in jail. It's young people doing stupid stuff of the highest order.
But is it character?
It's a question only those closest to him can answer. It's a question Les Miles needs to think through very carefully. It's not something that can be answered simply yes or no. People change, evolve, grow. People are tough, frustrating and sometimes likable. People make mistakes... daily... hourly... minutely... secondly.
LSU will continue to recruit and chase after high school kids with sketchy backgrounds, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing. Dismiss sports as meaningless entertainment all you like, but each time LSU hands someone a scholarship, it's an opportunity to change their lives (sometimes from terrible to great). I'm not even speaking of football. It's a free chance to go to school with an awful lot of sweet perks. Frankly, that's kinda cool. And we will be mocked for doing it by some garrulous Ole Miss fan, because Ole Miss fans really do have nothing else to talk about.
It'll always return to that question. Is it character? How do we know? How do you recruit character? When you start piling up enough lack of character, it tends to erode your foundation. Les Miles talks about character frequently. Character is one of the most cliched reference points in sports for teams in need of a comeback. It's become a joke of a talking point, namely because it's true meaning is obscured.
Character is not just "never giving up" and "playing till the last snap." Character is doing more than what's expected of you... just because. People with character don't have time for excuses. When they make mistakes, they own them and move on. They aren't faultless... but they understand fault. Therein may be the difference between character and young people doing stupid stuff.
People with character learn from their mistakes and move on. I'm afraid Jeremy Hill hasn't yet.