OPINION: Athens, where Mayberry meets ‘Fast and Furious’

Credit: Photo provided by Ceciley Pangburn

Credit: Photo provided by Ceciley Pangburn

We should be concerned about the University of Georgia football team’s endemic recklessness on the road.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Here you have young testosterone-charged physical dynamos in the prime of life, paid to play a violent game, assured they’re invincible, given keys to powerful high-octane vehicles, and apparently not facing much discipline when they screw up.

That, in sum, is the Bulldogs, according to a deeply reported investigative story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Granted, the Dogs are terrific on the field, and that’s why we love them. That’s also why this is so troubling.

UGA coach Kirby Smart has been largely mute when it comes to how and when he punishes his players. I get that. You keep it in-house to prevent further public embarrassment of emerging adults. Besides, you don’t want a stud D-lineman copping an attitude against the coach and transferring to ‘Bama.

Back in 2019, Smart took blame for a rash of team arrests. “I’ve obviously done a poor job with this group of connecting and making sure they listen and understand,” he said.

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

More recently, there’s a sense of, “We got this.”

“Everybody wants to know what the punishment is,” Smart said after a recent run of arrests. “Well, the players know what the punishment is.”

Well, there you go. That might be the problem. They know the punishment — yet don’t think its bad enough to stop them from what they’re doing.

Granted, people know that shooting at someone carries stiff penalties, yet they keep doing it. But are we going to compare matriculating athletes at the state’s main university (sorry,Tech) with violent criminals?

The AJC story noted suspensions are rare in KirbyWorld. Perhaps they get a good talkin’ to. In one instance, a group of “knuckleheads” (the term the team’s paid babysitter uses) had to run stairs while a gaggle of donors watched.

Now, that’s entertainment.

Actually, the players are getting a talkin’ to by cops after getting stopped for rocketing around town. The officers are often deferential to the athletic princes and try to cut them slack while appealing to their common sense.

Last October, an officer pulled over star cornerback Kelee Ringo going 91 in a 65-mph zone. Ringo got off with a warning.

But whatever the cop told him, it didn’t sink in. Six days later, the same officer stopped Ringo again. On the same road. Going 94 mph. This time he got a ticket.

Last September, star defensive lineman Jalen Carter was driving twice the speed limit — 89 in a 45-mph zone — when he was stopped on a busy street near downtown Athens. Body cam footage shows Carter getting a lecture with his ticket.

Credit: Athens Clarke-County Police Surveillance footage

Credit: Athens Clarke-County Police Surveillance footage

The officer mentioned he had pinched two of his teammates in the past day for speeding.

The familiarity makes Athens seem like Mayberry — with a splash of “Fast and Furious.”

“I’ve stopped a bunch of y’all’s football players; y’all need to slow down, dude” the officer said, adding, “Your break is not going to jail. That’s your break. It’d make all kinds of news.”

Neither the lenience nor lecture sunk in. In January, after celebrating the team’s back-to-back national championships, Carter, in his high-performance Jeep Cherokee Trackhawk, got into a high-speed street race with Chandler LeCroy, a UGA staffer driving a Ford Expedition.

Athens police said the drivers “switched between lanes, drove in the center turn lane, drove in opposite lanes of travel, overtook other motorists and drove at high rates of speed, in an apparent attempt to outdistance each other.”

The Expedition hit 104 mph right before running off the road, striking utility poles, trees and, finally, an apartment building. LeCroy, 24, and lineman Devin Willock, 20, died. Two others were injured. Tests showed she was drunk.

UGA also knew she had a lead foot — four speeding tickets in six years.

Carter, set to become rich in the upcoming NFL draft, vanished from the scene. Later, he pleaded no contest to reckless driving and racing charges. He paid a $1,013 fine and got 12 months’ probation.

Again, neither reprimands nor tragedy seems to register.

Last month, wide receiver DeNylon Morrissette was driving his Dodge Charger about 3:30 a.m. when he rear-ended another car. An officer cited him for DUI.

Weeks before, Morrissette got stopped for 81 in a 45-mph zone.

“Y’all got to slow down,” the cop told him that time. “We’ve been getting all of y’all a lot. You obviously know about the wreck and stuff.”

You’d think.

The high-performance rides — Dodge Chargers seem to be a favorite — have come about because of the “name, image and likeness” (NIL) deals that now allow players to be semi-professional during their college careers. Players can now zoom about town in style. Or lay some drag if they wish.

The AJC analysis found that players’ speeds have risen sharply in recent years. In 2019, the average speeding ticket for Bulldogs was 54 mph. This year, it’s 79.

My advice to Coach Smart: Demand players put governors on their cars. Or glue blocks of wood under their accelerators.

They’ll hate it. But it may keep someone breathing.