Johns Incident Has More Than One Layer

By Paul Finebaum
Updated: July 1, 2008

ALABAMA — You could easily understand if prominent Montgomery sports attorney Donald Maurice Jackson had rushed to the defense of Jimmy Johns in the wake of recent drug charges against the Alabama football player.

After all, Jackson is a lawyer who has often fought the establishment — most notably, the NCAA — on behalf of young and downtrodden athletes.

Besides, he’s a former ballplayer himself. Also, Jackson’s recent “Fourth Down and Twenty-Five years to Go: The African-American and the Justice System,” delves deep into the root of some of the problems that are currently playing out on college campuses across the land — including the one in Tuscaloosa.

But that’s not what I heard when I spoke to Jackson. Instead, I heard the vibrations of outrage and disgust, even repulsion, not only at the actions of players like Johns but at the system and the people who operate these academic institutions of higher learning.

Let’s start with the blame game. There are those who say you can’t blame the young people. They come from at-risk backgrounds. They are being used by the system as nothing more than hired help.

When Jackson hears this argument, he shakes his head. He grew up in a “comfortable, upper middle-class, educated, African-American home.” However, he played ball with many athletes who had owned little more than the shirt on their back when they arrived on campus.

“I understand the challenges a Jimmy Johns or someone from Jimmy Johns’ background has,” Jackson said. “On the other hand, (former Minnesota Vikings defensive stalwart) Alan Page had those same challenges and he’s a justice on the Minnesota State Supreme Court.”

The Montgomery attorney says things have changed dramatically over the years for black students, and it hasn’t all been good.

“The unfortunate part now is so much of the fact of the socialization of young African-Americans, in particular, students-athletes, leads them to believe to “keep it real and have street credibility.’”

“Well, I’m an African-American male and street credibility where I’m from means you study, work, go to class and do what you’re supposed to do and you don’t get arrested.”

Jackson says a lot of the current problems derive from the media and advertisements for commercial products which dictate to young people that “it’s acceptable or even preferable to have street credibility and if you don’t have some kind of affiliation with unsavory types then you (should) at least comport yourself to make people believe that you do.”

Jackson points toward various schools, such as Miami — which is now cleaning up its image — and Southern Cal as being part of the problem.

“For example, I love rap music,” Jackson said, “but USC has Snoop Dogg walking around the sidelines and when you connect your program to that element, you are inviting this.”

In his book, Jackson makes several recommendations, including psychological testing for at-risk freshman, limited media access and a zero tolerance policy. However, he said few if any universities have followed suit.

“You have to attempt to put a system in place around student-athletes so that your product remains a wholesome, family product. You look at 10 arrests in 13 months (at Alabama). And the current system is not working.”

Jackson points toward Johns’ Web site promoting the selling of pit bulls and asks why someone didn’t discover this in time. Jackson puts the blame squarely on coaches who often look the other way.

“Whether that’s a legitimate site or not, you’re only one step away from association with elements you absolutely don’t want to be a part of your athletic department,” he said. “Coaches quite often should bear a great deal of the blame here because of their tolerance of this kind of conduct.”

Jackson said the universities need a more aggressive approach with teeth as opposed to standing back with a laissez-faire attitude and rambling politically correct statements.

“To be perfectly candid with you,” Jackson said, “I sit there at times and watch college football and look at the sidelines and look at the braids and the dreadlocks and look at the manner in which some of these African-American students-athletes comport themselves and it makes me sick.

“I can say that. Maybe Don Imus can’t say that. Because the reality of the matter is there has got to be an institutional tolerance of that in order to allow the earrings and the tattoos and all these things which are now associated with blackness. Well, that’s not legitimate blackness as far as I’m concerned.”

“Unfortunately, from an institutional level, you have to establish what your program and university are going to accept and you don’t make exceptions. Unfortunately, when you make those exceptions, you’re only one step away (from a disaster).”

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