Michigan State star quarterback Jeff Smoker has a substance abuse problem.

Paul Wong
Joe Smith

Was that Bobby Williams’ fault?

Co-captain and starting tailback Dawan Moss was arrested for drunken driving, having an open intoxicant in his vehicle and resisting arrest by dragging a police officer several feet with his car.

Was that Bobby Williams’ fault? Or was Moss to blame for such irresponsibility?

And would Williams have been fired on Monday if the Spartans were 6-3, coming off a 49-3 victory over rival Michigan in the Big House – even with such off-the-field problems in the background?

It’s the athletes who abuse drugs, get arrested for drunken driving and soliciting prostitution. And they should be held accountable for their actions, instead of always leaving the coach as a fall guy.

Under the current sports culture, coaches feel the pressure to recruit the blue chip athletes – those that can make plays, win games and make fat cash for the University through marketing campaigns.

Unfortunately for coaches, those kids that are high on talent aren’t always high on character.

It’s no secret that collegiate coaches are placed in a very unforgiving situation that rewards winning and shuns everything else. Some veteran coaches like Indiana’s Gary DiNardo say it’s not just the fans or media that exacerbate the win-or-your-out culture, but it comes from top.

And he says that’s a main reason why you see the percentages of off-the-field incidents and arrests for athletes are much higher than they’ve been in the past.

“I think it’s an institutional issue,” DiNardo said. “I think the only ones who can control these things are the presidents, the CEOs, the board members that we work for. When they say that enough is enough, then we’ll toe the line. Until then, the message is clear that winning is the most important thing. I think that if it wants to be stopped, it’s stopped at the top.”

A coach can trade in winning for a cleaner program, which can often be as well-received by fans as a dramatic tax increase.

But there’s a simpler solution – behave.

Before fans shift the blame for such embarrassing incidents toward the University athletic directors, presidents and coaches, a finger should be pointed directly at those “can-do-no-wrong athletes” that the fans pay the big bucks to adore and watch from afar.

Once those athletes sign on the dotted line of their letter in intent, they’re often entitled to a free education, room and board, national television exposure and even food vouchers for Wendy’s.

But with the gain of such privileges, there’s a loss of freedom. No longer are their parties with friends “private,” or their grades just between them and their parents. Everything the athletes do, from scoring touchdowns to sneezing, reflects on the University and its image.

“You’re always under the microscope,” said Michigan senior Ron Bellamy. “You never want to do anything that would cause a distraction to the team or the program, or embarrass yourself.”

Bellamy said his teammates are harped on “every day” by coaches about making sure to take care of business on and off the field.

Some have spent their four years unnoticed – other than the box score – while understanding the values and rules that come with donning the maize and blue uniform every Saturday in front of 110,000 fans.

Others have seen their mug shots on the front page of the newspaper after being charged with assault, soliciting prostitution, drug possession and wreckless driving.

And college coaches like Lloyd Carr surely don’t spend an extra amount of time baby-sitting certain players, making sure they get home OK and are tucked into bed at night.

Carr has bigger fish to fry. He has to win, keep the alumni and administration happy and run a squeaky clean program.

Oh yeah, and did I mention win?

All the athletes have to do is stay out of trouble and take responsibility for their actions.

Is that too much to ask?

Joe Smith can be reached at josephms@umich.edu.

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