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Jonathan Taylor and the SEC’s New Policy

The story of a student-athlete getting into legal trouble and then transferring to a different program is not a new one. What is new is the way that conferences are beginning to handle those troubled student-athletes. In the wake of the Jonathan Taylor, University of Georgia and University of Alabama debacle, conferences across the country have begun to reconsider the troubled student-athlete transfer. Starting with the Southeastern Conference (SEC), conferences have begun to implement new rules about whether troubled student-athletes may transfer to schools within their conferences after they have been disciplined by other teams. While this may sound prudent in theory, further investigation proves that there may be some serious issues with these new policies. Before we look at the potential implications for the new policies, it’s important to take a look what started it all.

Back in July of 2014 when Taylor was a student-athlete on Georgia’s football team he was arrested on allegations that he assaulted his girlfriend. Immediately following the domestic violence arrest, Georgia dismissed Taylor from the team. Taylor played the 2014 season at Copiah-Lincoln Community College. Amid lots of raised eyebrows, he then enrolled at Alabama in January 2015. By March; however, he would be arrested again on allegations that he assaulted his new girlfriend. Alabama immediately dismissed Taylor, but three days after his arrest, his girlfriend recanted her story and told police that her wounds were self-inflicted. Taylor’s girlfriend was arrested and charged with filing a false police report (the charges were later dropped) and Taylor plead guilty to criminal mischief (a misdemeanor). Taylor’s charges in Athens, GA are still pending. Taylor is now on the football team at Southeastern Louisiana. Needless to say, Taylor’s dismissal caused a lot of finger-pointing and brought up valid questions on how schools select their student-athletes.

In light of how things played out with Taylor, Georgia and the rest of the SEC felt the need to prevent similar instances from occurring. So Georgia proposed, and the other SEC schools approved, the following SEC Bylaws amendment:

“A transfer student-athlete who has been subject to official university or athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution (excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team or temporary disciplinary action during an investigation) due to serious misconduct (as defined herein) shall not be eligible for athletically-related financial aid, practice or competition at any SEC member institution.

For purposes of this provision, ‘serious misconduct’ is defined as sexual assault, domestic violence or other forms of sexual violence.”

SEC Bylaws 14.1.19

The new policy basically establishes that if a school or athletic department disciplines a student-athlete for committing some form of sexual/domestic violence, he/she will not be able to transfer to an SEC school.  On its face, Bylaw 14.1.19 is a great effort by the SEC to keep troubled student-athletes from committing bad acts while attending their institutions. A closer look; however, reveals a number of issues with the policy.

The first issue is the definition of “serious misconduct.” The SEC’s decision to only penalize sexual/domestic misconduct in this manner, suggests that the policy has more to do with public image than actually keeping troubled student-athletes out of the conference. Theft, fraud, assault, robbery/burglary and murder are all serious crimes; however, under Bylaw 14.1.19, a student-athlete disciplined for these offenses could very well transfer to an institution within the SEC. It begs that question, is the SEC concerned about student safety or perfecting its image to a public sensitive to domestic violence issues?

The second issue concerns proof. Bylaw 14.1.19 does not penalize those convicted of crimes of sexual/domestic violence, rather those who have been suspected of such. Under Bylaw 14.1.19 a student-athlete could be accused of a crime, dismissed from a team, have the charges dropped (or be found not guilty) and still be prevented from ever playing sports at an SEC school. The fact that there is significant room for student-athletes to be unfairly punished places Bylaw 14.1.19 in significant question.

Yet another issue that Bylaw 14.1.19 brings to light is that of the treatment of student-athletes. Time and again the NCAA and its member conferences stress the importance of student-athletes not receiving special benefits for their status as student-athletes. What seems to be missing from these conversations is that student-athletes are being treated less favorably than the general student body because of their status as student-athletes. Bylaw 14.1.19 makes student-athletes subject to a disciplinary policy that no other student is subject to. If a scholarship recipient chemistry major at Auburn was expelled from school after being accused of sexually assaulting his classmate, he could later attend Georgia, receive a scholarship and study chemistry if his charges were dropped or he was found not guilty. The lack of parity between student-athletes and the general student body appears to be overreaching and nonsensical in many ways. As other conferences like the PAC-12 consider similar policies, let’s hope that they proceed with more carefully drafted language geared at actually protecting students, not the conference image.