Feit: Did Nebraska Botch Maurice Washington’s Punishment?

Maurice Washington
Maurice Washington scores on an 8-yard run.

Nebraska sophomore running back Maurice Washington is facing charges in California – one of which is a felony – for possessing and sharing a video of a minor engaged in a sexual act.  Maurice Washington is presumed innocent until he is proven guilty.  His case is still ongoing, and has been subject to multiple delays and continuations – the latest until October 17.

Over the summer, Washington was cited by UNL police for possession of drug paraphernalia.  He has not yet been charged in that case.

Washington was suspended for the first half of Nebraska’s season opener against South Alabama.  That decision was made prior to the August 31 game, by unnamed university administrators, as well as Head Coach Scott Frost and athletic department officials.

The suspension was not disclosed to the public until halftime of the South Alabama game when Frost said Washington would play in the second half.  At that time, Nebraska was leading 14-7 and had rushed 30 times for 51 yards (1.6 yards per carry).  During a halftime interview, Frost said “We’re not running the ball very well right now.”

After the game, Scott Frost told reporters “We won’t consider additional discipline for him until the matter’s completely adjudicated.  So the plan was to sit him in the first half and play him in the second. He’ll play going forward. I won’t have any other comment until it’s adjudicated in California.”

These are all facts.

* * *

Before we get too far into this, let me say:  I believe Scott Frost.

I believe this statement, from July 2018, is indicative how Frost wants to run his program:

“And I’ll tell you this right now — if there’s anything negative about women, if there’s anything racial or about sexuality, if there’s anything about guns or anything like that, we’re just not going to recruit you, period.  Piece of advice for you — what you put on social media, that’s your résumé to the world. That’s what you’re trying to tell the world you’re all about. That’s how you’re advertising yourself. Be smart with that stuff.”

I believe that Frost did not make the final decision on Washington’s playing status for South Alabama.  I believe he had a seat at the table, likely with members of the athletic department.  I believe Frost’s input and opinions were heard, but people outside of the football program made the ultimate decision.  Frankly, in the world of college athletics after Penn State, Baylor, and others, this is the way it should be.

Think back to Frost’s former coach and mentor, Tom Osborne.  How much of his legacy – especially outside of Nebraska’s borders – is impacted by the discipline decisions he made?  The days of a coach trying to sweep a talented player’s crimes and indiscretions under the rug are numbered – if not over for good.

And if Frost says that his halftime comment of “we’re not running the ball very well right now” was completely unrelated to Washington playing in the second half, I’ll believe him.  Because I believe that, at best, halftime and sideline interviews are fully of empty cliches and coach-speak.  At worst, they are opportunities for adrenaline-fueled coaches to say something regrettable, when all they’re focused on what needs to be accomplished in the locker room.

Add it all up, and this is why I believe Scott Frost and Nebraska handled Maurice Washington’s suspension very, very poorly.

* * *

I have so many questions.  Why didn’t Nebraska say anything about Washington’s suspension prior to the game?  Was there a concern over negative blow-back?  Was the decision truly made on Thursday, or did it come down to the final minutes?  Was NU hoping for some sort of last minute “Hail Mary” from California that would resolve the case?  Is this suspension actually for the drug paraphernalia citation?  If so, did the other three Huskers cited for marijuana and/or drug paraphernalia in the offseason (Miles Farmer, Jeremiah Stovall, and Wan’Dale Robinson) receive similar suspensions?  Did NU not think that anybody would ask about the suspension?  Did anybody consider the local and national reaction?

Here is how I suspect Nebraska officials hoped it would play out:  even with Washington sitting out the first half, the Huskers would jump out to a very comfortable lead.  At some point in the third quarter, Washington enters the game with NU up 28 points, on their way to a blowout win.  The suspension would be a little sidebar piece in the Omaha and Lincoln papers, and then everybody’s focus would shift to Colorado.

Instead, Nebraska and Frost end up looking bad.  For the majority of my readers, take a moment to pretend that you are not a Nebraska fan.  You simply watched the Huskers play South Alabama on ESPN, with little knowledge of what has been going on inside the Nebraska program over the last six months.  Here is the perception you likely came away with:

  • Nebraska’s talented starting running back is facing a felony charge for child pornography.
  • He didn’t play in the first half, presumably because of those charges.
  • At halftime, the Huskers are only up seven against a mediocre Sun Belt team.  Nebraska’s coach says “we’re not running the ball very well right now.”  Frost also says the talented running back will play in the second half.
  • That back gets NU’s first two carries of the second half.  They go for 7 and 16 yards.
  • Nebraska goes on to win 35-21.

How does this look to the casual fan of college football?  It seems to suggest that Frost was willing to lift a player’s suspension because he felt his team was struggling against an inferior opponent.  For fans who dislike Nebraska, it would be very easy to look at the situation and say things like “win at all costs”, or make references to Tom Osborne, Lawrence Philips, and the legal issues of the 1990s.

For national columnists and bloggers who value clicks over accuracy and hot takes over reporting, Nebraska dropped an easy column right in their lap.  Just ask Connor O’Gara of SaturdayTradition.com.  O’Gara uses his tenure at the Kearney Hub to give the impression of “insider” status, but the majority of his conclusions appear to have been taken from the five bullet points above.  Most Nebraska fans who have paid attention to the coverage of Washington’s case understand that O’Gara is trying to make 2+2=5, but for everybody else, O’Gara probably lands enough punches to make them question Frost’s integrity.

Honestly, it’s a bit surprising – or a harsh reminder of Nebraska’s national relevance – that none of the big name college football voices have written a similar piece attacking Nebraska and Frost.

* * *

The most frustrating part of this is knowing how easily the damage to Nebraska and Frost could have been avoided.  Here’s my off-the-cuff plan of how I would have handled it:

After Frost and the university administrators met and decided on the half game suspension, I would have written a press release.  In my opinion, there is no need for Frost to make a public announcement, or field questions on the issue.  If we believe the final decision did not come from Frost (as I do), he shouldn’t be the one to have to answer for it in front of the media corps.  I have no desire to make any set a precedent for the anonymous “university administrators” to have to comment publicly on player suspensions – or become scapegoats for a rabid fan base.  A press release will do the job.  Here is a quick draft of what I would say:

Sophomore running back Maurice Washington will be suspended for the first half of Nebraska’s game against South Alabama.  The decision for this suspension was made by University of Nebraska administration.  Head Coach Scott Frost and members of the Department of Athletics participated in the discussion, but did not make the final decision.
After serving his suspension, Washington will eligible to participate for Nebraska.  He will not be subject to additional university or team discipline until his case is completely adjudicated within the California court.
Statement from Scott Frost:  “I understand and support the decision made by the University.  My role as coach is to advocate for the best interest of our student athletes in their development as men of character.  We have an enormous responsibility to represent the University of Nebraska and Husker fans in the right way.  We take that responsibility very seriously.  I will have no further comment until Maurice’s case is settled completely in California.”

There’s a pretty good chance that I would use the old P.R. trick of releasing this at some point after 5:00 on Friday.  You can call that a “news dump” if you like.  I call it trying to keep the amount of time Nebraska spends on the ESPN crawl to a minimum.

That’s all I would do.  Nebraska has addressed the issue, controlled the narrative, and closed the door on further discussion until the courts have had their say.  Nebraska may still face criticism over the length of the suspension, but the bogus “win at all costs” narrative never sees the light of day.

* * *

Even if Nebraska had not dropped the ball on issuing a press release, there is still one thing that really bothers me:

I think a half game suspension is too lenient.

For the sake of argument, let’s look at Maurice Washington’s legal troubles from the most forgiving, apologist angle possible:  An 18 year old kid made an immature choice to lash out at an ex-girlfriend by sending her a video that he did not take, nor participate in.  An over-zealous prosecutor is looking to make a splash by going after a college athlete using California’s new “revenge porn” law.  We’re talking about punishing a kid for a “crime” he didn’t commit, even though he should be considered innocent, until proven guilty*.

*I completely agree with the legal standard of “innocent, until proven guilty”.  But that standard is not the end all be all for deciding when discipline might be needed in various aspects of life.  More to the point:  that standard does not apply to participating in college athletics. 

Playing sports is a privilege, not a right.  Representing a team, university, and state is a privilege.  Wearing a team’s uniform is a privilege.  Even when an athlete is born with once-in-a-generation gifts, they still need to display effort and dedication to earn the privilege of playing sports.  At most schools, being fast or tall or strong isn’t enough to maintain that privilege.  Schools require their student-athlete to continually earn that privilege earn through hard work and adherence to a code of conduct.  It is a privilege athletes maintain by going to class, making good choices, and – among other things – treating women with respect.  These responsibilities don’t start the day you step onto your college campus.  As Frost has said, they matter from the moment recruiting starts.  So I’m not interested in hearing how “innocent until proven guilty” applies to this situation.

Even when viewed through the reddest of rose colored glasses, one would hopefully concede that Washington’s actions have linked “Nebraska football player” with words like “felony” and “child pornography”.  That connection damages the name and reputation* of the University of Nebraska and the Husker football program.

*It is also important to acknowledge the irreparable damage done to the name and reputation of the young woman in this incident.  We can debate if Nebraska owes her any consideration when disciplining Washington, but I would hope we can agree that a half game suspension is nothing compared to what she has had to endure.

Even if the court finds Washington innocent, or dismisses his case altogether, there needs to be some accountability for the impact of his actions.  A half game is a laughably short penalty.  Are we as fans, alumni, and/or parents supposed to feel like Washington has learned anything because he sat on the bench for two quarters of a non-conference game?  How are we supposed to defend the program when opposing fans and national pundits* attack Nebraska and Frost for the disciplinary equivalent of a delay of game penalty?

*The national pundits may have been quiet so far, but that will change if Nebraska keeps winning and/or Washington has the type of season that many expect.  Mark my words – this will not be the last thing you read that is critical of the half game penalty.

Honestly, I want to be able to cheer for Maurice Washington with a relatively clear conscience.  Ideally, all of his legal baggage would have been sorted out before the season started, and Nebraska could make a clean decision based upon his innocence or guilt.  But as this case threatens to linger on through at least the middle of the season, I find myself conflicted in how to approach a very talented player on my beloved team.

As a society, we view crimes against women much differently than we did 25 years ago.  This is obviously good.  But that maturation creates conflict.  There will always be fans who don’t care what kind of man a player is off the field, as long as he’s a star on the field.  If you can draw that separation, I won’t judge you for it.  Hell, I’ve done it.  But I’m not sure if I can do that just because a guy has a red N on his helmet.

I don’t think kicking Washington off the team – before his case is decided – would be the best course.  As much as Osborne got ridiculed for it, and as much as it ultimately failed with Phillips, I believe there is something to the idea of providing structure, family, and accountability for young men who could clearly benefit from it in their lives.  But that doesn’t mean serving a mere half game suspension before we move on like nothing happened.

Further complicating things was the announcement last week that Husker players Andre Hunt and Katerian Legrone were suspended indefinitely from all team activities.  There has been no reason given as to why the players were suspended, or if their suspensions were related.  Media and fans are left to speculate.

It is admittedly foolish to try to compare and contrast infractions and the resulting penalties.  It’s almost never apples to apples, so the resulting discrepancies will drive you mad.  That said, I’m guessing I’m not the only person who thought “Hmm…if Mo Washington (allegedly) did THAT, and only had to sit out a half game, I wonder what Hunt and Legrone did?”

Unfortunately for coaches, university administrators, and NFL commissioners, there are no set guidelines on what punishment is appropriate for various infractions.  They have to weigh what is known and make their best judgment.  Maybe there is something not publicly known that made Nebraska officials think a half game was a sufficient penalty.  I’ll certainly allow that possibility.  But if that hypothetical is what happened, I’m going to go back to the clumsy and amateurish way Nebraska communicated the suspension.  They would have had an opportunity to say something along the lines of “our decision was based on information and legal opinion that we are unable to divulge at this time.”  Instead, the only thing Nebraska did was to open the door for criticism.

* * *

If I was in the room when the punishment was being discussed, I would have advocated for a two game suspension.  I think two games reinforces that Frost’s words about certain behaviors not having a place in his program are more than lip service.  It protects the integrity of Frost and the Nebraska program, while giving Washington an opportunity to mature and grow off the field.  In the court of public opinion – which, like it or not, matters a lot – two games should satisfy most of the outside voices.

I won’t speculate on what will happen to Maurice Washington if he is found guilty, or pleads to a lesser charge.  We will have to cross that bridge at that time.  My only hope is Scott Frost and Nebraska can learn from this debacle and properly communicate what they are doing – and why – ahead of time.


Dave Feit lives in Lincoln, and has been writing for HuskerMax since 2011.  Additional thoughts on the Huskers (and everything else) can be found on his sitewww.feitcanwrite.com

Follow him on Twitter (@FeitCanWrite) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/feitcanwrite).