Kirby Smart has pulpit to preach safe driving, but missing the opportunity

ATHENS – Georgia coach Kirby Smart has his reasons for not wanting to offer details about his one-game suspension of player-connection coordinator (and Bulldogs legend) Jarvis Jones after his Sept. 1 arrest for excessive speeding and reckless driving.

Jones was absent from the Sanford Stadium sidelines for Saturday’s game against Ball State, which Smart said in the post-game news conference was due to a one-game suspension.

One game seems light to me. A person in a position of leadership and influence on a team whose players had been cited or arrested for speeding and/or reckless driving 14 times since two members of the program were killed in a high-speed car crash Jan. 15 has to set a better example. In this specific instance, I don’t know that dismissal would have been an inappropriate outcome.

But, hoping to learn more about his reasoning for a one-game suspension, I asked Smart about the details of the suspension and why he settled on the length he did. For example, perhaps there were additional penalties that he didn’t mention initially.

“I’ll be honest with you, I talked about it the other day,” Smart said. “It’s a personnel matter. We decided as an athletic department and we’ve moved on.”

As a football coach whose job depends on his ability to win games and someone who doesn’t want to further embarrass a UGA legend who in July was selected into the athletic department’s circle of honor (termed “the highest honor a Bulldog can receive”), that course of action is logical.

However, that’s not the entirety of Smart’s identity. He is the highest-paid public official in the state of Georgia. He is the most visible representative of the state’s flagship university. He is the leader of a highly visible organization that represents the state and its 10.9 million residents. He is someone who routinely asks for the support of the team’s fans, who commit their money, time and emotion to the Bulldogs. He is a leader of a group of young men whose driving habits have constituted a safety hazard. Perhaps most importantly in this case, he is someone who leads a team that carries influence over many young drivers at a time when traffic fatalities are on the rise.

He doesn’t have to be more transparent about his prevention and disciplinary measures or use the massive platform his position and success have earned him to speak out against the dangers of reckless driving. But he can. Maybe he even should.

People like Corey Jarvis are looking to Smart for leadership. A football coach and athletic director at Lithia Springs High, he sees impressionable young people falling prey to the dangers of driving recklessly.

“I think with ‘The Fast and the Furious,’ and I think the guys going around and doing the drag racing and stuff, that’s kind of caught on and it’s making it real hard for these kids,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He had a team member last year who couldn’t stop himself.

“We just got to the point where his mom was just like, We just need to take the keys. He can ride the bus,” he said.

Kudos to the young man’s mother. As Jarvis preaches safe driving to his team and tries to demonstrate that it’s a serious matter, he could use the example set by the leadership of the state’s most high-profile team – one that has demonstrated its issues with reckless driving and that is undoubtedly an influence on his players – that reckless driving is dangerous, unacceptable and will bring consequences.

“To me, those are the types of things that the kids really need to see,” Jarvis said.

Give Smart some credit for at least acknowledging that Jones had been suspended. But for the sake of a lot of people, including Jarvis and his team, he could have said more.

Janet Frick is another stakeholder who wants more from Smart. Frick is an Athens resident, a 26-year member of the UGA faculty, the mother of two UGA students and a past board member of the UGA athletic association. She has taught Bulldogs athletes, including football players, and is a dedicated fan of their teams.

“There is a huge concern among people in the Athens community about this continued issue from a safety perspective, from a team-culture perspective,” Frick told the AJC. “Everybody loves the Dogs, but I have heard a lot of people say this – and not everybody’s willing to say it publicly – but it’s impacting how people feel cheering for the team.”

After wide receiver Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint was ticketed for speeding three times in an eight-day period in May, Smart did apparently suspend him for the season opener against Tennessee-Martin but wasn’t as clear as he could have been.

“I don’t think I have to discuss that,” Smart said after the game when asked about Rosemy-Jacksaint not playing. “It’s one of those deals where we keep our discipline internal. Marcus knows why he didn’t play (against UT-Martin), hope we get him back.”

Again, he’s right. He doesn’t have to discuss it. He doesn’t want to further drag players who are young people who’ve made really poor decisions and already suffered public embarrassment. That’s admirable on Smart’s part.

On the other hand, they are young men who accept the adulation, publicity and money that comes with being a Georgia football player. They are fully aware that, of all sins, the one that will surely get their name on the ESPN crawl.

Driving at excessive speeds in a car made to do so in a place that appears safe for it is surely tempting. But it’s also entirely avoidable. After choosing to put people’s lives in danger despite what was presumably repeated warnings and personal knowledge of the risks, a one-sentence announcement that they’ve been suspended for one game for reckless driving doesn’t seem excessive.

And especially so when it can potentially be lifesaving. Parents of teenagers who worship the Bulldogs can point to Smart and his example to help justify their own discipline. High school coaches who believe a game suspension is in order for reckless driving can tell players (and parents) that if it’s good enough for Smart, it’s good enough for them.

It may well be that players have demonstrated significantly better driving habits in recent months. Hopefully so. It’d be great if Smart shared what has worked.

There are apps that parents (or coaches) can use to monitor the speed of their young drivers. Smart can make a PSA to educate parents about them.

The Georgia Office of Highway Safety is a partner of Georgia Public Broadcasting’s coverage of high school football in the state. GPB runs video features made by GOHS that educate teen and young adult drivers about the dangers of speeding, not wearing seat belts and distracted driving. They often include testimonials from crash victims and their families.

I can think of someone who has a story that is probably worth sharing, one that virtually everyone watching a Georgia high school football game would listen to.

Smart is a busy man. He has a million obligations. I can only imagine how heavy his heart is and that it’s probably uncomfortable or worse to discuss reckless driving and painful to specifically relive that tragic night.

There is no way to bring back the two young lives that were lost. But, as Georgia moves on, their families never will. Smart has an opportunity to honor them in a way that would be immeasurably more impactful and lasting than any championship trophy.