Pryor’s freedom of expression sacked

Before taking the field last Saturday, Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor wrote a couple of words on the black patches that he would stick below his eyes to draw away the shine of the sun.

One read “Vick.”

As political statements go, it wasn’t much. It actually wasn’t even political. It wasn’t pro life or pro choice. It didn’t dare mention health care. It wasn’t even pro-dogfighting. It was just a personal expression.

Pryor said he grew up idolizing Vick as a player and wanted to offer Vick some support as he returns to the NFL from a prison sentence for operating a dogfighting ring.

So Pryor opted for a silly eye-patch shout-out. Then postgame, he offered the kind of clumsy comment you might expect from a 20-year-old touching a hot-button issue.

“Not everybody is the perfect person in the world,” he said of Vick. “Everyone does, kills people, murders people, steals from you, steals from me. I just feel that people need to give him a chance.”

And with that you would’ve thought Terrelle Pryor killed the dogs himself.

In a telling sign of vocal minorities and misplaced priorities, of the shouts for silence and the misguided sense of ownership of college teams, the sophomore has been shredded on message boards and comment sections under newspaper columns.

Some of the very fans who roar their approval at his dazzling open-field runs are hot with anger over his support of a convicted felon.

They’ve deemed him “pathetic,” “stupid” and a person with “bad personality traits.” And that’s the printable stuff. A column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer called Pryor’s act “repugnant.”

According to this crowd, Pryor has insulted his team, his school, his state and his country. And if he wasn’t so talented, well, they might even call for his benching for this week’s big game against Southern California.

Welcome to college athletics, 2009.

Fans have taken their cue from the partisan politics of Washington and overrun the Internet with pitchforks. Heaven forbid a player or coach expresses an opinion on anything that anyone, anywhere disagrees with.

Individuality is dead. Groupthink (or, more precisely, having no thoughts) is demanded.

Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel, who understands no one gets in trouble for dressing too conservatively (hence the dork-chic sweater vests) or sounding too dull (there’s no issue he can’t opine vanilla on), had to not only defend Pryor but explain why he doesn’t crack down on these players who dare to offer an opinion on the world.

“It’s a little bit tough in this country to have too much of a policy on personal expression,” Tressel noted.

Well, that isn’t what some of his fans think – and it’s worth repeating that we’re talking about some fans. Not all fans or even most fans. Not that it matters. The “some” are more than enough to chill the air.

They’ve forgotten that campuses are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas where a diversity of thought is encouraged. They’ve rejected that college is supposed to be a time for young people to find their voice.

So they demand that players just shut up and run. Terrelle Pryor isn’t a student-athlete with his own voice or values to these people. He’s a wholly owned piece of property of Buckeye Nation, and he needs to appreciate what a privilege that is, preferably without speaking.

Not that Ohio State is the only place. Not even close. Fans everywhere have taken this entire “nation” thing too far. They believe these players and coaches serve at their whim and approval.

A football team may represent a university but a university doesn’t represent any one (or any one million) thing. A big, state school is about the inclusion, not the exclusion, of all ideas.

That includes (gasp) remaining loyal to a boyhood sports hero.

Or consider this week in Kentucky basketball, when coach John Calipari fell under fire from parts of his fan base for doing an apparently dastardly act – he sent a team jersey to Barack Obama.

Calipari even filmed a video of it for his Facebook page. Within hours, the comments below were so volatile that the post had to be deleted. Calipari was forced to remind everyone that sending the President of the United States a gift isn’t a political statement, it’s a promotional gimmick.

The greatest hero in Ohio State football lore is former coach Woody Hayes. He counted President Richard Nixon as a close, personal friend. In the Internet age, that probably would have sent one part of the political spectrum into meltdown mode.

At the same time, however, Hayes was so concerned about the nation’s dependence on foreign oil that he refused to drive to work. He walked 3 miles, each way. So the drill, baby, drill crowd might have gone nuts too.

Old Woody coached in what is referred to as the turbulent 1960s, but it’s these days, when everyone is so sensitive, everything so polarized and every voice so powerful that he wouldn’t have stood a chance.

If the conservatives didn’t run him out for walking, the liberals would have for talking (to the President).

Into that environment stood Tressel on Tuesday, the coach trying to back his player without angering the angry. He treaded lightly and talked about Pryor’s “compassion.” Then the school made sure Terrelle wasn’t available for any more comments.

It was sad, but smart.

These days too many college fans don’t care about the First Amendment, they just want their robots to deliver first-and-10.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009