Iowa easy, ISU tough on athlete offenses

Mike Branom

Zeron Flemister knows he’s fortunate to take the field for the Iowa football team this fall.

The senior tight end knows that many universities would have him cast aside after two drunken driving arrests in seven months, let alone a third alcohol-related charge. By all accounts, Flemister has stopped drinking and turned his life around, grateful for the opportunity.

“I’m really appreciative of what Iowa’s done with me. Without them giving me a second chance, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get an education,” said Flemister, who is on course to graduate with a degree in sports studies.

But at many other schools, Flemister wouldn’t get a third chance. At some places, there isn’t even a second chance.

The NCAA, the governing body for collegiate sports, has no set standards when it comes to disciplining athletes, either in what constitutes a punishable offense or what penalty shall be handed down. The result can be widely dissimilar penalties for identical crimes on campuses across the country.

“I guess the guiding principle is one of institutional control and responsibility,” NCAA spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said. “Ultimately, control for an individual school’s intercollegiate athletics program lies with the school.”

Consider Flemister. After his first drunken driving arrest in July 1996, Hayden Fry exercised the discretion Iowa allows its coaches and cleared the freshman to play. Flemister wasn’t scheduled for trial until the following spring, Fry noted at the time.

“[Flemister] decided to straighten himself out. And a lot of that can be attributed to Coach Fry,” senior defensive back Matt Bowen said. “Coach Fry gave him a chance when a lot of coaches wouldn’t.”

But had Flemister been playing for cross-state rival Iowa State, he wouldn’t have returned to the football field. According to the ISU student-athlete code of conduct, any player arrested for violent acts, drug crimes or a felony — such as drunken driving — is immediately suspended pending the outcome of his or her case.

The player may appeal the suspension before a committee composed of administrators, coaches and fellow athletes.

Although ISU’s policy would appear to tie the hands of its coaches, an administrator who works closely with the athletic department believes the code of conduct works.

“There might have been some concern at first about why we were taking this discretion away from them, which I think would be really natural,” said Barbara Licklider, ISU’s faculty athletics representative. “But I think they also like it and see it as a protection of them, too. It simply takes some of the pressure off in the different kinds of decision-making.”

The situation would’ve been even worse for Flemister had he been playing at Kentucky. After a Wildcat football player crashed his truck last year while driving drunk, killing a teammate, Kentucky enacted one of the most stringent alcohol policies in the nation — any athlete convicted of drunken driving will be kicked off the team and forfeit his or her scholarship.

Flemister, given a second chance by Iowa, seemed to have blown it seven months later when he was again arrested for drunken driving. This time, there would be no leniency: Iowa Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby suspended Flemister for the entire 1997 season.

For some, there are no second chances, as former ISU basketball player Travis Spivey found out. After his arrest on sexual assault charges in June, coach Larry Eustachy said the program would support him — but Spivey would never again play for the Cyclones.

“I’ve … told him I will work with him during this difficult time, when he needs his coach the most,” Eustachy said. “But there is no future for him at Iowa State from a basketball standpoint.”

Spivey struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty in early September to statutory rape involving a 15-year-old runaway. In exchange, the county attorney’s office agreed to recommend a suspended five-year sentence.

Dan Gonnerman, an assistant county attorney, said Spivey planned to transfer to a school in Utah, where he hoped to play basketball.

Sometimes a coach comes to regret the decision to give an athlete another chance. If the player errs again, it could bring shame upon the program that had let him off the hook the first time.

Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, now retired, acknowledges he may have made a mistake in his handling of troubled running back Lawrence Phillips in 1995.

Osborne suspended Phillips for six weeks of the season after Phillips was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. The player pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and trespassing.

To much criticism, Osborne let Phillips back on the Cornhusker roster, where he played an integral part in the team’s run to a second consecutive national championship.

But Phillips, drafted in 1996 by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, continued to get into trouble with the law and eventually was released from the pro team.

“Even today, I’m not sure I made the right decision in regard to Lawrence Phillips,” Osborne says in his upcoming book “Faith In The Game.”

Still, Osborne stands behind the idea of allowing a player an opportunity for redemption.

“It’s like calling a football play; you look at the facts and the personnel,” Osborne said in an interview. “Just because the play doesn’t work because somebody missed an assignment doesn’t mean the call was bad.”