Since his initial arrival in Athens almost a decade ago, Mark Richt has been swift to mete out discipline upon learning that a player has run afoul of the law. Washaun Ealey's arrest was no exception: the Georgia Bulldogs tailback will serve at least a one-game suspension.
It is purely fortuitous that the one game happens to be against Louisiana-Lafayette---last year, Justin Houston was suspended for the first two games of the campaign, against Oklahoma State and South Carolina---but it is the "at least" that gives us pause. Two games of riding the pine would leave Ealey sidelined for the SEC opener on the road against the South Carolina Gamecocks. Was Ealey's infraction enough to earn him a suspension for the season's first 120 minutes of playing time?
Viewed in isolation, the facts of the incident do not themselves warrant such a sanction. Ealey's license was suspended because he failed to pay a speeding ticket; what was originally characterized as a "hit and run" was in reality a lesser included offense because he made impact with an unoccupied and immobile vehicle in a parking deck.
This incident did not occur in isolation, however. Two additional details give proper context to what took place. First of all, Coach Richt knew about the suspended license and told Ealey not to drive, but he drove anyway. As a parent, I can tell you that my seven-year-old is in an altogether different degree of trouble when he merely does something wrong than he is when he does something wrong after I told him not to do it. Perhaps it was poor judgment instead of willful insubordination, but an authority figure must maintain his authority, so Coach Richt's charges cannot be allowed to ignore his edicts with impunity.
Secondly, without putting too fine a point on the matter, this isn't the first time this kind of nonsense has happened. Seth Emerson reported that Ealey was "the fourth Georgia player in the past year to be charged with operating a vehicle without a license or with a suspended license," but it feels like he's about the fortieth. In the wake of Damon Evans's DUI arrest, there were signs that Coach Richt had toughened up what was already the SEC's strictest anti-alcohol policy; perhaps a similar message needs to be sent about the seriousness of any arrest, even if it is rooted in laziness or forgetfulness rather than in malfeasance.
Carlton Thomas, who will inherit what would have been Ealey's playing time in the opener, had this to say: "I feel him, because it could’ve been anybody at that point in time. Things happen, and you just hope that it works for the best in his favor." No, it couldn't have been just anybody; it could only have been someone who was out that late, who was driving when he had been told by his head coach not to drive, and who compounded his original error by leaving when the parking attendant told him to stay put because the police had been called. Things don't just happen; people make choices that make them happen, and those choices carry consequences.
I'm not necessarily saying that a two-game suspension should be levied right now in order to make an example of Washaun Ealey; I am satisfied with Coach Richt's measured approach of handing down a one-game suspension, enunciating his expectations, then waiting and seeing. Asked what will determine whether the suspension is limited to a single game, Coach Richt replied, "How he reacts to this. And I’ve got some internal things for him to handle. And if he handles them the way he should. Behaves between now and the next one, he’ll have a pretty good chance of playing. But he’s gotta show me that he deserves to go back and not only play but also practice with the team."
That is the sort of approach, tough but fair, that we have come to expect from Mark Richt. (I particularly like the allusion to "some internal things," which I read to mean that Washaun Ealey's first couple of hundred rushing yards this season will be amassed while running stadium steps rather than collected between the hedges.) Our head coach has to stand by what he has said, though; if Ealey's response to his punishment is anything other than an appropriate degree of penitence, he cannot be allowed onto the field in Williams-Brice Stadium, no matter how much the Bulldogs may need him.
Mark Richt told Washaun Ealey not to drive, yet still he drove. If Mark Richt told Washaun Ealey the running back had to show his coach that he deserved to be allowed out of the doghouse, actual repentance is a prerequisite to the removal of the words "at least" from the young man's one-game suspension. If Ealey is allowed to defy Coach Richt twice and get away with it, Coach Richt will lose control of his team and the nonsensical "rogue program" label will become a reality.
Mark Richt is a man of character, and the handling of Damon Evans's arrest by the University of Georgia sent a strong signal that the institution is serious about maintaining its standards. The student-athletes who represent that institution generally are, and Washaun Ealey hitherto has been, hardworking and respectable. However, expectations are as high with respect to behavior as they are with respect to performance. I hope, for everyone's sake, that Ealey makes the most of his opportunity and shows the contrition and compliance demanded of him by his coach. If he does not do so, though, Mark Richt must show that his "at least" has teeth by sitting down his talented tailback heading into a hostile environment against a division rival.