Last night, a little after 11pm central time, the college football season ended. While the Ohio State Buckeyes celebrated their improbable season, our relentless cycle of desire and expectation pushed many forward to the 2015 season while the confetti still fell. Fans of various perennial powers promised “next year” via social media. Self-proclaimed “way too early” top 25 rankings were released by various pundits. I just assume Nick Saban was already watching film somewhere deep in his bunker. And I can’t help but wonder if Jonathan Taylor joined us in counting days until the first kickoff of the next season.
Just a few months ago, Taylor likely couldn’t imagine beginning his first semester of classes at the University of Alabama and preparing for a chance to put on the uniform of the Crimson Tide. On July 22, the 6’4″, 360 lb defensive tackle was arrested for allegedly punching and choking his girlfriend in a University of Georgia dorm. He was quickly dismissed from UGA before playing junior college football while he waits for the legal ramifications to play out. After one season in Division FBS’s penalty box, news broke that Taylor had enrolled at UA. Reportedly, Taylor faces several individualized rules and restrictions aimed at protecting UA while also reforming his life.
And just like that, the increasingly large shadow of domestic violence in football came into my world, darkening the skies of above Tuscaloosa and bringing it unavoidably to my eyes. No one who knows me could mistake me as anything other than a Tide loyalists. It is not uncommon for the lint in my dryer to take on an unmistakably crimson shade. In my two stints living outside the Heart of Dixie, I’ve garnered nicknames like “Bama Geoff” and “Sweet Home” (if you don’t think the latter is cool, I can do nothing for you). And thankfully so far, my concern over the violence hasn’t affected my personal interests. Until now.
Now a young man facing extremely serious charges has a chance to earn the same class ring I wear and represent my alma mater in her most visible of venues, and I honestly have no clue what to do with it. Every time I dwell on this case more questions come to mind.
Does this just reward loathsome behavior?
Will this news hurt his girlfriend? In what ways? Are there people around her to support her through the exhausting legal process?
Doesn’t this have the potential to further stifle victims who fear speaking up?
How successful will UA’s efforts be at reforming the young man? Will he join the awful litany of repeat offenders?
How should fans respond?
But every time I’m ready to have him run out of Tuscaloosa and the earth salted beneath him, more questions come.
What should happen to an offender who is so young? What should be revoked, but also what chances should be given so as not to give up on a life just begun?
Is playing football a privilege to be revoked, a potential tool to meet a broken breaker of others where they are, or (given the level of devotion required today) a job like any other?
Would we care as much if he was trying to finish UA’s MBA program? Would there be calls to never let him go into business? If not, is the difference justifiable? Does that say anything about us, the observers?
Where is the line between the much-needed increase in domestic violence concern and it becoming our new national bloodsport, like school shootings and Islamofascist terrorism, wherein we summarily call for the heads of the monsters while examining neither their origins or our own hearts?
For those of us who call on the name of Christ, we are called to forgive. But what does that look like offered to someone most of us have never met, especially when the life and health of others are at stake?
How should we treat people, whether accountants or athletes, prior to a conviction?
If Taylor is incarcerated and the attention of football fades, what will greet him in prison? Will there be a way forward for him during and after incarceration that doesn’t just lock him away but heals him, both for his sake and the sake of all around him (especially women)?
Jonathan Taylor is not the first student to find a second chance with Coach Saban, a man often revered and feared for his demands, not his mercy. DJ Pettway, Eddie Williams, and Tyler Hayes were kicked off the team for assaulting and robbing a fellow student. Ultimately, Pettway was allowed to return after a season away, having since completed his degree early while becoming an important piece in the Tide’s reborn pass rush. When asked about the second chance, Saban launched into one of his trademark media rants, asking, “Where do you want them to be? You want him to be in the street, or do you want them to be here graduating?”
I have a lot of questions about Jonathan Taylor, UA, and our criminal justice system. But there is one thing I do know: I know what I want. I don’t want him in the street. I want Taylor to feel the gravity of what he did, and to let it propel him towards what God made him to be. I want his girlfriend to find healing. I want him to learn from the example of his teammate, DJ Pettway. I want him to graduate, grow up, have a healthy family, and better his community like previously Saban-coached troubled athlete Muhsin Muhammed. And I want all of us, whether we love, hate, or ignore Alabama and even football all together, to not let this just fade away. We have a chance to better understand how to respond and heal after the pain of abuse, and we need to redeem that chance just as much as Taylor needs to redeem his chance. For all our sakes.