With game week in full swing, local radio personalities delved deeply into a recurrent issue that surrounds FSU star athletes.  Should head coach Jimbo Fisher play starting running back Karlos Williams on Thursday Night against the University of Louisville, or should he sit him with a criminal investigation pending?

As you most likely know, the starting running back has been implicated in a domestic violence case involving his live-in girlfriend and mother of his children.  The allegations are detailed here.   While this development could certainly be a factor in the overall outcome of the game, there is a bigger question, one that garnered much discussion, and one that should be explored further.  Where are the player’s rights in cases such as these?

First of all, there is the mandatory disclaimer that all allegations of domestic violence are serious and deserve the utmost in investigation, and ultimately punishment if proven true.  But the key ingredient that has to be discussed, are the last three words; if proven true.

As a former cop and current defense attorney let me assure you that there are always three sides to every story.  There is the victim’s side, the accused’s side and the truth.  The latter is usually somewhere in between the first two.  That equation doesn’t change, regardless of whether or not the accused is a football player or a construction worker.  The burden of proof is the same and the presumption of innocence is as well.

In Karlos Willams’ case there has been an allegation that he committed domestic violence with a simple assault to the mother of his children.  If proven, he would face a minimum of five days in the county jail and be placed on probation for a period of one year with court ordered counseling.  More importantly for Williams however, is the likelihood that he would be forced to serve a suspension from the football team and have any future in the NFL seriously hampered by the conviction.  With that in mind, many have said that Williams shouldn’t be on the field of play Thursday, or any other time until the investigation is complete.

However, as Lee Corso would say; “not so fast my friend.”  What about Williams’ rights?  What about due process and the presumption of innocence and the pesky constitution, and, and, and…  There is more to this case than simple outrage and political correctness.  At its core, there are rights of the accused that must be considered.  At the time of this story, Williams has not been arrested.  Williams certainly hasn’t been tried and a conviction is a long way down the rabbit hole.  For FSU to suspend Williams at this juncture could prove to be a mistake, and could result in legal action against the University.

An issue that is often overlooked is the fact that schools like FSU and Louisville are state schools.  That means any action taken by them is considered a “state action” and therefore they are governed by the Constitution.  Constitutional protections like due process, etc. are always in play with state schools.  Private schools aren’t required to afford the same due process rights that state schools are and as a result private schools can suspend whomever they please with little to no legal ramifications.  State schools are different.

Not only are state schools different, but the presumption of innocence is a blanket that protects all of us.  And everyone reading this should embrace it.  The fact of the Williams case is that we don’t know what happened.  What we do know is that Williams hasn’t even been charged with a crime; not in this case, or in any other case that is being discussed. (Williams has also been discussed in a drug related robbery from earlier in the summer.)  Williams has sought legal counsel; a move that raised considerable commentary from fans of rival schools.  Guess what, he should have sought counsel.  It is a right that most would be wise to exercise, especially in a high profile case such as this.

Look, no one is beating a drum for a criminal, , but without being charged and convicted the notion of arbitrarily suspending players is a reach.  Athletes like Williams have a finite number of games in which they can showcase their talents.  They have a reputation, and that reputation is a commodity. Like it or not, college athletics is a business, and the players are the employees.  No employee from any company would like to be suspended from their job based on the fact that the police were merely investigating them for a crime.  However, because the employee in this case is a student athlete, people feel compelled to pass judgment and rush to convict.

Further, there is likely little to no recourse for an athlete when an accuser is found to be lying.  Simply look at Florida quarterback Treon Harris who was wrongly accused of sexual assault earlier this year.  Who does he sue?  Where does he turn?  Can he sue the young lady who fabricated the entire story?  Sure, but what assets do most early twenty college kids have? What about the kids from the Duke Lacrosse team?  There is perhaps no bigger example of kids whose lives were deeply impacted, if not ruined, by a false allegation.  Where do they turn?  Simply put, the process exists for a reason.

If and when Karlos Williams is charged criminally, or internally investigated and found to have violated FSU rules, then he should be handled the same way any other student would be.  If that means criminal charges, or expulsion, then so be it.  But hear this, Karlos Williams has rights too and they shouldn’t be trampled upon because it’s game week.  For me, the most regrettable part of all of this is that I am compelled to defend the rivals’ best running back when nothing would make me happier than to see Lorenzo Mauldin and company crush him deep in the backfield early and often.


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Keith Poynter

Keith Poynter graduated from the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law in May of 2011. While in law school, Keith studied Sports Law as well as other core curriculum. Prior to becoming an attorney, Keith worked in the insurance industry for 6 years, and was a police officer in both Kentucky and Tennessee for 6 years. As an avid sports fan, former basketball official and current youth sports coach, Keith is heavily involved in sports when not at work or with his family at the lake. Keith's diverse background makes him an excellent source for legal opinion about issues surrounding the sporting world. Whether the matter be criminal or contractual, Keith's unique experience and education allows him to offer insight that may be missed by the casual fan. Keith is available for commentary on any legal issues that may arise in the Kentuckiana area and will routinely post articles concerning local and national sports law topics.

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