By Mike Wise
Friday, September 8, 2006
The moral at Maryland: Deny, deny, deny. Deny drinking at an off-campus bar after curfew during the season. Deny throwing a punch during a melee at the bar. Deny everything, most of all groping a woman's behind. Because that could mean the difference between being suspended for a game -- dealing with public ridicule and shame -- and securing the absolute benefit of the doubt from a university's football coach and athletic department.
Don't admit, and the Terrapins must acquit. Or they will leave your fate to the glacial pace of the Prince George's County District Court system. By the time your case is heard, your eligibility might be up. It won't cost you a game. You and your family won't have to worry about anything but attorney fees.
It's a good deal. Just ask Marcus Wimbush, a senior safety from the District. Wimbush was charged last March with two counts of second-degree assault and a fourth-degree sex offense after an ugly night at the Cornerstone Grill and Loft in College Park last Halloween.
That was the same night at least nine Maryland players were at the same bar, the same night at least a few of the Terps threw haymakers after midnight. This was a nasty brawl, in which one bouncer suffered a broken nose in two places, and former Maryland wideout Derrick Fenner received multiple stitches in his head. Another wide receiver still on the team, senior Drew Weatherly, missed that week's game because of a concussion.
Wimbush was not arrested that night and still denies any wrongdoing. Yet three players who admitted they were at the bar -- and admitted they threw punches, after Ralph Friedgen went "Law and Order" on them -- were suspended for a game by their coach, even though they claimed self-defense. Beyond Fenner and Weatherly, there was senior William Kershaw, who lost his last opportunity to play in his home state of North Carolina before family and friends.
Wimbush, meantime, did not miss a game for Maryland last season and in all likelihood will not miss one this season. His attorney sought and was granted a continuance for Wimbush in July. His new trial date is Jan. 26 -- conveniently after Maryland has wrapped up its season and Wimbush his eligibility.
Nearly a year has passed since that incident, and only one Maryland player was criminally charged. And that kid, who won't talk about the incident, is going about his business like nothing happened.
Some latitude for justice in College Park, no?
"This was not a double-standard deal," Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow said. "If we had a female athlete charged with shoplifting and she says it was a huge misunderstanding -- 'My girlfriend was on the other side of the door, and I was telling her to feed the meter' -- we don't sanction her. We let it play out in the courts. Now if her friend with her says, 'That didn't happen; that's bogus,' well, we're going to deal with it."
"I don't want to be judge and jury in a situation where I don't know who's innocent and guilty. It just smacks of unfairness."
Wimbush was not an indispensable player last season, so there's nothing to suggest Yow or Friedgen treated him with ulterior motives in mind. And if Wimbush were suspended, his family would have been in Yow's office the next day asking why she decided the young man was guilty before the courts have had their say. (Curiously, however, Friedgen said yesterday Wimbush has a knee injury and his status for tomorrow's game against cupcake Middle Tennessee is uncertain.)
Maryland's student-athlete handbook demands suspension on felony charges but leaves wiggle room when it comes to misdemeanors, of which Wimbush was charged with three. Yow ultimately determines whether the athlete can play or practice in such cases.
It's interesting that Mack Brown, the coach of national champion Texas, saw no gray area when he suspended two players charged with misdemeanors for this week's game vs. No. 1 Ohio State -- including his best cornerback. Tarell Brown was charged with unlawfully carrying a weapon after he was found with a loaded 9mm handgun on his lap in a car, according to police. He and two others, including a former Longhorn, were all charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana less than two ounces. Ouch. A piece on your lap and weed on your person is apparently not part of the Texas homeroom syllabus.
To be fair, Marcus Wimbush was not Maurice Clarett in training that night at the Cornerstone.
And Friedgen, to his credit, disciplined more than a dozen Terps in some way for their actions on Halloween night. It wasn't exactly Bobby Bowden justice, in which you suspend players for Florida International but make damn sure they suit up for the Gators the following week.
Either way, coaches and administrators face these challenges every day at the Division I-A level. Eighty-five scholarship athletes involves a lot of policing and parenting. Let's be frank: On any weekend night, College Park, or any other college town, can make Sodom and Gomorrah look like Amish country.
Still, the charging documents say Wimbush approached two women and allegedly grabbed one in the buttocks. He yelled profanities at the woman when she asked him to stop. When a friend of the woman's tried to stop him, Wimbush allegedly grabbed that woman by the neck and held on until someone else intervened. That's when the brawl broke out, according to police at the time. Wimbush was pointed out by the women afterward.
Look, I don't know what role Marcus Wimbush had, if any, in the fight. And if all charges are dropped or dismissed, then Maryland may have made the right call. But I do know this was a serious enough incident to warrant investigations by Prince George's County police, the university and the athletic department.
I do know the players honest enough to speak up and admit culpability were suspended and disciplined. The one player charged with a criminal offense that night, the kid the police allege ignited the brawl by groping the woman, was never suspended.
I don't know about you, but that's not the message I would want to send to the kids who had the guts to come forward.