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J.T. Barrett’s OVI Punishment Toes Thin Line Of Amateurism

Well, so much for the quarterback situation at Ohio State University being resolved.

On Saturday night, just over a week after his crowning as the official starting quarterback for the Buckeyes, sophomore J.T. Barrett was stopped at a Columbus police checkpoint and cited with Operating a Vehicle Impaired (OVI), a misdemeanor offense essentially equivalent to Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in the state of Ohio. In addition to penalties he faces under the legal system in Ohio, Barrett is also being subjected to discipline by Ohio State.

OSU did not have to institute a penalty against Barrett, but a number of NCAA institutions have set a precedent of a one-game suspension for DUI offenses. The University of Pittsburgh gave one-game suspensions to Tyler Boyd and Rori Blair for DUIs this season. The University of Michigan handed Fitzgerald Toussaint a one-game suspension for a DUI in 2012. Just this past week, Oklahoma State University receiver Jhajuan Seales was suspended for a single game for a drunk-driving charge. In all these cases, only Blair was underage at the time of the incident.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer went further, though. In addition to a one-game suspension for the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback, Meyer decided to revoke Barrett’s scholarship for the summer 2016 term. If Barrett wishes to remain on campus during the summer to take additional classes, his expenses—housing and tuition costs usually covered by Ohio State—would have to come out of his own pocket.

According to ESPN, the revocation would have significant effects if Barrett decides not to pay his own way through the summer term. In that instance, OSU officials said that Barrett “wouldn’t be able to work out with the team or participate in the offseason conditioning program with supervision from the school.”   

This is not the first time that Ohio State has punished football players financially for criminal activity. In June of 2012, former players Jake Stoneburner and Jack Mewhort were arrested, eventually pleading guilty to the charge of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor offense. Subsequently, each player was suspended from the team indefinitely and had his summer scholarship revoked, forcing him to pay his own way through summer school.

In essence, Ohio State officials revoking a portion of Barrett’s financial aid is equivalent to a business owner fining an employee. This practice of fining collegiate student-athletes gained prominence in late August when it became known that Virginia Tech was fining its players for infractions like missing meals ($10), forgetting a laptop for study hall ($15), or keeping a dirty locker ($50). Once the public was made aware of Virginia Tech’s policy, Director of Athletics Walt Babcock suspended the practice immediately.

Supporters of Virginia Tech and Ohio State’s policies would argue that a student-athlete’s tuition is sufficient compensation for their services, and thus can be fined as a professional worker’s income might be. But these student-athletes are supposed to be amateurs—if colleges start revoking scholarships and financial aid packages as punishment, these institutions are essentially admitting that their athletes are employees, which they have fervently denied in court for some time now. Additionally, even if a student-athlete wanted to receive an actual income from an actual job, he or she would literally not have the time to do so. Being an athlete basically prevents one from getting seriously involved in any other activity on campus.

I don’t know J.T. Barrett personally. I don’t know whether he truly values the education that he is receiving from Ohio State. I don’t know whether he even plans to graduate from the school before bolting for the National Football League.

What I do know, though, is that regardless of his intentions at Ohio State, his right to receive an education from the university should not be interrupted simply because he is a high-profile member of the football team. A regular scholarship student at Ohio State would not have received the same punishment, that’s for sure.

Again, some might argue that Barrett’s educational opportunities aren’t really being limited at Ohio State, since he is not actually suspended from attending classes at the school. Instead of taking free classes with free housing, he just has to pay for it. While I can’t speak for Barrett specifically, I can say in a more general sense that a lot of students choose the school they attend based on the financial aid packages they receive. It might not be a huge financial deal for Barrett (it very well could be, though), but regardless, it sets a dangerous precedent that puts a lot of economically-disadvantaged student-athletes working toward a degree in a difficult place.

Now, it is necessary to distinguish criminal penalties administered by the legal system from penalties administered by Ohio State. As an underage driver, the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for Barrett was 0.02, but his BAC of 0.099 exceeded even the over-21 level of 0.08. Some quick math on a BAC calculator shows that a male of his size with that BAC must have likely consumed somewhere around seven standard drinks in a two-hour span to achieve that level of impairment.

The penalties that accompany an OVI are quite clear—a first-time offender, which Barrett was, faces either 72 hours of jail time or a court-ordered driver intervention program, along with a hefty fine and the possibility of restricted driving privileges.

The Ohio State Code of Student Conduct, meanwhile, is vague when it comes to sanctions for inappropriate behavior. It basically grants a hearing officer or board full jurisdiction when it comes to punishing an OSU student, assigning whatever punishment he or she sees fit for the crime. It can range from a drug education and behavioral management program, to dismissal from the school, and everywhere in between.

Let me be perfectly clear—driving under the influence is a terrible, terrible thing. It should not be done under any circumstances whatsoever, given that there are so many viable alternatives to putting oneself and others in such great danger. In short, if you drive drunk, you are making an inexcusable decision and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

But that’s just it—Barrett should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, as a citizen, by the courts. In this situation, it is not Ohio State’s place to prevent Barrett the opportunity to further his education. It is out of line for Meyer to institute a fine from the school in addition to the penalties administered by the legal system. If Meyer really wants to punish Barrett, okay. But punish him as a football player for Ohio State, not as a student at Ohio State.

Meyer should have handed down a much more severe penalty (football-wise, that is) than a one-game suspension, which essentially amounts to a slap on the wrist for an action that causes nearly 10,000 deaths annually. Barrett should be suspended from all team activities effective immediately for an indefinite time period.

Instead, Meyer gets credit for issuing a harsh penalty on a star player while simultaneously looking out for himself in the process. He will have his quarterback on the field next week, but no one in the media gangs up on him for letting a serious offense slide. Barrett’s football standing—the only thing that matters to Meyer—remains largely intact, but his standing as a student at Ohio State has been jeopardized by Meyer’s hypocritical and inconsistent policies.  

Meyer and the NCAA have been skating on very thin ice for years when it comes to the employment status of their student-athletes. While the NCAA is working tirelessly to keep the surface intact, Meyer’s decision is like taking a stick and jamming it into the cracks of the ice, which seems as if it is inevitably about to collapse from under him.

Featured Image by Paul Vernon / AP Photo

November 5, 2015