By Alex Norman
By many accounts, Tennessee senior linebacker A.J. Johnson is a team leader and a beloved comrade for the Vols.
He is also being investigating for an inexcusable crime.
Last week it became known that Johnson and redshirt sophomore defensive back Michael Williams are under investigation by the Knoxville Police Department for rape and sexual assault, stemming from an incident that occurred on the morning of Sunday, November 16.
Johnson and Williams were suspended from team activities the next day by Tennessee head coach Butch Jones.
Vols linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen said this about Johnson. “He’s a great player, great kid, great ambassador… I look forward to getting him back.”
As of press time charges had not yet been filed by KPD against Johnson and Williams, but if they are guilty, I would think that even the most irrational Tennessee fan would not want them associated with the program. Most fans are taking a wait and see stance when it comes to forming an opinion.
But there are others out there that are blindly supporting Johnson and Williams, in the same way that Florida State fans have blindly supported Jameis Winston. In the same way that some people blindly supported Lance Armstrong and Pete Rose and OJ Simpson and Kobe Bryant and Joe Paterno and… well, you get the idea.
People make mistakes… some mistakes worse than others. The point is… putting people on a pedestal is not a good idea.
Actually, it’s never a good idea.
I saw a picture posted on Halloween on Facebook of local sports talk radio hosts wearing Tennessee football player jerseys and dreadlocks, one of them supporting #45… for A.J. Johnson.
First of all, anyone trying to come across as a credible member of the media should never do such a thing. But that’s another topic for another day. If media members are holding a player in this kind of reverence, it can be expected that fans will do the same.
Penn State had a statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium. It became a symbol of Penn State during the Jerry Sandusky’s scandal.
It was a symbol that both sides used for their own purposes. Some saw that statue as a slap in the face towards those that have been abused. Some saw that statue as a symbol of a great man that was sold down the river by the University.
Paterno was flawed… and he didn’t do all he should have to prevent the abuse of children. But you couldn’t explain any of that to Penn State fans.
Fans nearly rioted after Paterno’s statue was taken down. Years later, when the NCAA lifted many of the sanctions that had been handed down to the football program, fans chanted “Where’s the Statue?” and wanted it returned to its place in front of the stadium.
Over the years, Tennessee has had its share of embarrassing and illegal off the field moments. Young kids will continue to do stupid things, whether it is petty theft (Cam Clear), destruction of property (Tyler Bray), armed robbery (Janzen Jackson, Nu’Keese Richardson, Michael Edwards), assault (Tony McDaniel), unlawful possession of a firearm (Tyler Smith), etc…
But Tennessee is not alone here. Colleges across the country have to deal with athletes getting in trouble with the law.
So why do we continue to hold athletes and coaches in such high regard? Is it the media’s fault? It is our fault as fans because this is simply what fans do? Is there a psychological component towards our reverence of those in the sporting arena? I’m sure this goes back to the Roman Gladiators or something.
However the story of Johnson and Williams ends, it should serve as a cautionary tale, especially for the adults in the room.
What was it Charles Barkley said in that classic Nike ad? “I am not a role model.”
Barkley (and the ad agency) was right. He shouldn’t be a role model.
We shouldn’t expect athletes to be role models either.