Even though Willie Taggart is now in Tallahassee, his troubles from his one season at Oregon aren’t completely left behind.
As reported by James Crepea of The Oregonian on Wednesday, a former Oregon football player named Doug Brenner is suing Taggart, the University of Oregon, former UO strength coach Irele Oderinde, and the NCAA for negligence in connection with Brenner’s January 2017 hospitalization, which followed offseason workouts shortly after Taggart became Oregon’s new head coach at the time.
This lawsuit comes at a perfectly terrible time for Taggart. Of course, there is never a GOOD time to have a lawsuit brought against you, but as anyone can readily appreciate, coaches who win big can compete against negative news developments a lot more easily than coaches who are struggling. Taggart is struggling, so this is precisely the kind of story which adds to the “drip, drip, drip” of problems Florida State’s coach has to deal with.
It doesn’t mean this story dramatically reshapes the political calculus, but it creates and feeds into a cumulative effect which, if not reversed sooner rather than later, might have consequences for Taggart as he tries to find his footing in Tallahassee. It could also lead to more negative recruiting against him, beyond what already exists.
People will have this discussion. It is understandable and normal.
It is also relatively unimportant — very unimportant in a bigger context.
What is the bigger takeaway from this story? It is that the larger industry of college football — more specifically, the regulation of programs and, most precisely, workouts — demands more regulation.
In an interesting twist, while Florida State has a coach who is being sued for something he did while at another program, the Seminoles no longer have a coach who got into trouble for something he did AFTER leaving FSU. In a very real way, Florida State is catching political trouble for things done at other schools.
Taggart had his messy set of problems at Oregon. Jimbo Fisher — as documented several subsections into this lengthy story by Dan Wolken of USA TODAY — allowed workouts to occur in ways his assistant coaches could manipulate. What might have ostensibly seemed like an optional meeting became a meeting in which pressure was used to get players to participate. The line between voluntary participation and coercion was blurred. Oregon under Taggart and Texas A&M under Fisher are examples of why professed claims of player freedom and reasonable standards aren’t as easy to enforce — or verify — as one might first think.
The NCAA has to be much clearer, firmer, and more authoritative in establishing structures and protocols which eliminate the ability of coaches to work around certain limits to demand that players put in extra work, or more work than an athlete feels is warranted at the time. This should be the focus of the Brenner lawsuit against Taggart, not anything else.
Florida State, as mentioned above, is uniquely unlucky in that it is bearing the public-relations hit (at least a portion of it) for what a current employee did or might have done at another institution. If anyone’s outrage is being directed at Florida State, it is greatly misplaced. Again, the current head coach and his predecessor have both gotten into trouble for what actions at OTHER institutions.
Where Florida State, however, gets into (deserved) trouble is that it allowed Taggart to hire Kendal Briles as offensive coordinator. THAT was an unforced error where grownups in the room should have said, “Willie, you can hire plenty of capable offensive coordinators, but not that one — not, at least, until Mr. Briles gives the kind of public accounting for his actions that a state school deserves. We need more transparency from Kendal Briles before you can make that hire.”
That didn’t happen.
Yet, if we are discussing player workouts and offseason conditioning, this is not an issue where Florida State has profoundly crossed the line — Oregon and A&M bear the burden if that is the topic of discussion.
Everyone will talk about how this affects Willie Taggart’s job status. That is a basic reality of how mass audiences react to this kind of a story. Yet, if we are focused on the welfare and safety of athletes, the hope is that this story will lead to needed changes in how offseason workouts are structured. Chiefly, the coaches themselves cannot be the foremost authorities here. Trainers and sports medicine experts with a specific mandate to advocate for the athlete first should be empowered to step in on behalf of the athlete in a “first, do no harm” context which is entirely appropriate for all situations.
If the athlete is perceived as “soft” by the coaches, that is for the coach and athlete to hash out in a discussion. If an athlete thinks — in the middle of a workout — that his body is being pushed too far, he has to have the right to not only cease or opt out of the workout, but to do so without any fear that his status on the roster will be jeopardized or weakened.
What has happened at Texas A&M under Jimbo Fisher and at Oregon under Willie Taggart are not Florida State stories, even though many will pound Taggart and FSU for it. These are stories where the fate of a program is a far smaller consideration than the fates of thousands of collegiate football players.
Make sure to ask your university president — in Tallahassee or anywhere else — if athlete safety is truly being addressed.
Taggart’s career status? Yes, plenty will talk about it… but that will resolve itself most centrally on the field.
Some things, believe it or not, are much bigger than football.
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