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"We Don't Do That": Increased Expectations on Football Players in the 21st Century

Recently, Patrick Garbin reminded Bulldog Nation about Tony Flanagan, who was the frontrunner to be Georgia’s starting quarterback when his college football career came to an abrupt end in 1977.

As I learned while writing Fighting Like Cats and Dogs, Flanagan made his debut under center in the Red and Black’s blowout win over Clemson in 1976. The sophomore signal caller guided the ‘Dawgs on an eleven-play, 65-yard touchdown drive late in the contest. Vince Dooley, chronic worrier that he was, pointed out after the game that Flanagan led the Bulldogs’ only sustained drive in the 41-0 shellacking. (This was because Georgia’s previous possessions included a 73-yard Ray Goff option run, a 21-yard Matt Robinson option run, a 25-yard Willie McClendon run, an 85-yard Gene Washington reception, and a 36-yard Steve Davis reception. Coach Dooley had managed to find the downside of his offense producing too many big plays.)

On the Tuesday before Flanagan was sent in to do mop-up duty in Death Valley in the year America celebrated the Bicentennial, Coach Dooley had disciplined six Bulldog players for what he called "violations of training rules." Three senior starters were among the athletes involved in an altercation at a liquor store. One of the players was clocked upside the head with a stool in the barroom brawl. The offenders were demoted on the depth chart, but they made it into the game against the Tigers when Coach Dooley began emptying the bench.

The world has turned a few times since then.

Flanagan’s Georgia career ended for academic, rather than disciplinary, reasons. From what we know of Zach Mettenberger’s situation, though, he made judgment calls that would have cost him playing time, and not his scholarship, in Flanagan’s day. In Mettenberger’s defense, though, it isn’t as if he’s the only quarterback to have made poor and costly decisions in a Peach State bar lately.

Ben Roethlisberger, despite not facing criminal charges, will serve a six-game suspension and undergo a comprehensive behavioral evaluation. Roger Goodell has brought down the hammer on player misbehavior at the NFL level, and student-athletes facing stricter scrutiny at the college level are facing consequences which were unheard of, and probably not even thought of, in the 1980s, when the Miami Hurricanes and the Oklahoma Sooners ran rogue programs in which lawlessness reached epidemic proportions. Gone are the days when any football franchise, professional or otherwise, can follow the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s down the road that led from being "America’s Team" to becoming "South America’s Team."

This can be maddening when it comes to such mundane matters as unpaid parking tickets, suspended driver’s licenses, emergences from alleys, and legal adults consuming beverages that ought to be available to them lawfully; when it comes to more serious matters, however, this is a welcome change. Goodell knows that the National Football League is the best sports property there is, bar none, and he has made player discipline a priority in order to prevent professional football from turning into the NBA. Instead of clumsily playing the race card, we should be asking, "Wouldn’t it be great if athletes weren’t involved in assaulting other people?"

We don’t know what really went on in those bars those nights with either Roethlisberger or Mettenberger, but we do know what those misjudgments cost them. At some point, the message has to get through; we all know exceptions are made for exceptional athletes in many aspects of their lives, but there are limits, which extend no farther than the point at which lawbreaking begins.

There is a scene in the movie "From the Hip" in which Judd Nelson asks how something moral can be unethical. A fixation on rules oftentimes devolves into a search for loopholes; this is why M.E. Bradford was right that tradition is a better guide than reason. As Bradford wrote:

Certain questions are settled before any serious deliberation concerning a preferred course of conduct may begin.

Bradford explained this principle by noting that he "cherished a clear sense of what Southern grandmothers have always meant in admonishing children, ‘we don’t do that.’" I don’t know what Ben Roethlisberger and Zach Mettenberger were doing in those bars on those nights, but I know their grandmothers would have told them, "We don’t do that." In an era of heightened scrutiny, steeper consequences, and more admirable moral standards being set by NFL commissioners and college football coaches, the rules to be followed are not merely the ones to be found in the Official Code of Georgia Annotated or the various handbooks and guidelines issued to athletes at every level; "act like your mama raised you right" is pretty much all you need to cover it.

Go ‘Dawgs!