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July 6, 2008

What's in a number

Pssst … Over here. … Want some breaking news before it even happens? … Money up front …OK, here you go…

The next Alabama football player to be arrested will be the 11th since coach Nick Saban took over the program about 18 months ago. No kidding. And the one after that will make 12. Now keep that under your hat - it's going to make headlines from coast to coast.

(end parody)

Amid blowout media coverage of Jimmy Johns' felony arrest on June 24, and the subsequent bits of information that have followed, the number 10 keeps coming up, and not in reference to the jersey number that has now been vacated. As the 10th player arrested during Saban's tenure, Johns seemingly has the number tethered to his ankle, be it in print, online or over the airwaves. For almost two weeks now, any sentence that starts with Johns' name seems to end with the "tenth arrest clause", as if is were news in and of itself.

It's factually correct, and for sure, it doesn't look good.

There's no disputing it's an embarrassing marker, not to mention a well-rounded number that works nicely as a blunt instrument. Rival fans and pundits alike are wielding it like a six-year-old with a Star Wars lightsaber on Christmas morning.

That's what rival fans and pundits do. Especially when the coach is Nick Saban and the program is Alabama. National media, in particular, see the Alabama-Saban combination as one of the biggest an easiest targets around. So when something bad goes down in Tuscaloosa, the bullseye can be seen from just about everywhere. Saban's sometimes-prickly relationship with the media no doubt plays a role in that, but there is no shortage of evidence that player arrests are happening at an alarming rate all over.

And the total number is being kept all over, not just UA.

Georgia's arrest number - just since the year began - increased to seven Thursday when Bulldogs player Michael Lemon was charged with felony assault. Arkansas linebacker Wendel Davis was charged with a felony this week. Meanwhile, a member of the Clemson defense Alabama will face in less than two months - Tigers defensive back DeAndre McDaniel - is awaiting his fate from a school judiciary review board. McDaniel was arrested just three days before Johns for alleged assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature on his girlfriend.

Some of these charges escape the attention of the media more quickly than others, but they all tack one more onto the total for each school.

But lumping the total together and then attaching the number to the latest wrongdoer casts a disingenuous blanket over far lesser offenses. Alabama's Rashad Johnson and Simeon Castille, for instance, were charged with disorderly conduct. And while no arrest is trivial, the transgressions of those two don't belong in the same sentence - not even the same conversation - with Johns' alleged felony cocaine sales, or in the case of Jeremy Elder, armed robbery.

Johns made some colossally bad choices that may cost him years in prison. Castille, apparently, was guilty of not being a good listener. The only similarities are that they wore the same uniform, and that both took a ride downtown.

Somehow, though, the number 10 has a way of blending their crimes.

The allegations against Johns and Elder are infinitely more serious than those of their eight counterparts, and the fact that Saban dismissed both of them in short order serves to illustrate that.

On any major college football campus where the number begins to rise, the count is closely kept. It's an equal-opportunity skewer of perception. And wherever you find a high number of arrests, you're likely to find degrees of severity in those crimes that varies wildly. Happens with NFL franchises, too. It's part of the dynamic between sports and sports coverage, but that doesn't make it especially enlightening.

Better pay all those parking tickets, fellas. You never know whose picture might end up next to yours.

Or why.




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