From the Bird’s Nest: What price glory?
It's not easy being Florida International University.
Let me say, first off, that I've enjoyed my trips to FIU. Not Miami so much. But it's a beautiful campus and the folks there are great.
But FIU, despite a huge student enrollment, is largely forgotten in the big city. After the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins take up the space in the newspapers and radio talk shows, the University of Miami is there to take up the rest. That leaves FIU hoping that something will happen to put them in the spotlight.
And, occasionally it has happened. And, usually not for the reasons they want.
There, of course, was the famous on the field brawl with Miami. FIU dismissed many of the players involved, to their credit. They certainly came out better than Miami did, after President Donna Shalala suggested that to discipline Hurricane players more than one game would be throwing their student-athletes under the bus. She failed to mention that the FIU players that were dismissed from the team had their scholarships honored. But FIU was known more for the brawl than the aftermath.
Then FIU hired Isiah Thomas to run its basketball program. Thomas, without question a controversial hire, given his ineptness in the NBA after his playing days, got FIU a ton of national pub. Then, their President introduced the new coach at a press conference as "Isiah Thompson." Oops.
But last year, FIU finally got some good pub. Garret Wittels, who hit .246 in a largely undescript freshman season, became the talk of college baseball. He starting hitting. And never stopped. As his hitting streak grew to 35, and then 40 games, people outside the Sun Belt Conference started to take note. Seven times he came into his final at-bat needing a hit to continue the streak. And, seven times he came through. His ninth inning single against Arkansas State in Jonesboro last year was a little tainted, but you don't stop a hitting streak on a controversial play. And, after looking inept in four at-bats vs. South Alabama in the first round of the SBC tournament in Murfreesboro last year, Wittles hit a ringing double in the ninth.
The streak reached 50 during the conference tournament. Now there was a Wittels watch--nationally. He was interviewed on national television. And, when FIU won the Sun Belt Tournament to get an automatic bid to the NCAA's, ESPN decided that one of the regionals they would cover would be the one involving the streak.
Then, in the offseason, the most high-profile student-athlete at Florida International University screwed it all up.
Wittels and some friends were in the Bahamas. Perhaps at some point in time the truth of what actually happened will come out. But Wittels and a couple of friends were charged with rape in an alleged sexual assault of a seventeen year old girl. A couple of the friends were charged with the rape of a second girl, also 17. In the Bahamas, the age of consent is 16.
Garrett Wittels was now in the national spotlight again.....for all the wrong reasons.
A hearing on the charges won't be heard until April. The baseball season starts this Friday.
As the father of four daughters, let me say if Garrett Wittels is guilty of what he is accused, I hope he gets what he deserves.
But, I watched Garrett Wittels last year. Saw the interviews. Heard him speak. I think Garrett Wittels is a good kid. He was humble during all the attention he received. There is nothing that I've seen in his makeup that tells me Garrett Wittels is a bad person. In fact, my gut tells me that when all is said and done, he'll be exonerated. I hope that's the case.
But now, FIU had a problem.
ESPN had already announced that they would be in Miami for that first weekend against Southeastern Louisiana. The first two games would be available online on ESPN3.com; The third, the night when Robin Ventura's 58 game hitting streak could be broken, would be nationally televised by ESPNU. Quite a showcase for the athletic afterthought of Miami, Florida.
FIU had plenty of time to make a decision on Wittels' participation and his status with the Golden Panthers baseball team. They waited until Wednesday. And, they made the wrong decision. They announced that Wittels would play this weekend.
Athletics Director Pete Garcia was quoted as saying "We believe that you are innocent until proven guilty," as the reason Wittels would be playing Friday night. That's a cop-out.
Because Wittels, by his own admission, is already guilty.
Not guilty of rape. No. That will be decided at a later time by the courts. And, when you talk about the legal system, Garcia is correct.
But Wittels is guilty. Guilty of putting himself, and by association his University, in a bad position. Guilty of poor judgment. Guilty of "wrong place, wrong time." Guilty of, by his own words "putting myself in a bad situation." And, as a result, his University as well.
Is that a reason to kick him off the baseball team? My opinion is no.
Is that a reason to suspend him until the legal wheels finally start turning in April? My opinion is no.
But Garrett Wittels is guilty of bringing as much shame to FIU because of his performance off the field as he brought good pub for his on the field performance.
And FIU is choosing not to hold him accountable.
FIU baseball coach, the very aptly nicknamed Turtle Thomas, told ESPN writers that he has not been directly involved with any decision concerning Wittels' eligibilty.
Wait a minute. The CEO of the baseball program, the man in charge of these players, the guy where discipline has to START, decided to punt?
Yep. And then he put his head back into his shell.
In my opinion, and this, after all, is an opinion piece, the proper action would have been to send a message to student-athletes at Florida International University that bringing bad publicity to the University and its athletics department has consequences. Wittels should be suspended for the first weekend of the season, ESPN cameras be damned. Let them come and televise the games. They can showcase the success of the program. They can showcase a team that will challenge for the Sun Belt Championship again this year. They can showcase a beautiful campus and hopefully, good crowds. They can showcase the Dazzlers.
I hope Garrett Wittels continues to hit. I hope he gets the all time record. And I fervently hope that when all is said and done, that he is not guilty of the serious charges he faces.
But unfortunately, with their decision to not hold their student-athletes accountable, FIU's showcase this weekend is one of bad judgment.