Character and Dignity in the Wild World of High School Football Recruiting

It looks as though the Yuri Wright affair may finally now, mercifully, be over. Yuri Wright is a senior in high school; but not just any student at not just any high school: he was a nationally recruited cornerback at football powerhouse Don Bosco in New Jersey—or at least he was until recently, when Bosco expelled him.

What a life he was having. Colleges from around the country, including Michigan, Notre Dame, Colorado, Wisconsin, and many others, all wanted him. Then, suddenly, Michgan pulled its offer. Why? It turned out that he, like most other high school students, had a Twitter account. And for lo these last many months, he had been tweeting regularly, even during time he was ostensibly in school. What was he tweeting? Well, I will not recount or reproduce the tweets for you; though he closed his original account, screenshots were retained by many media outlets and are widely available on the internet. Be forewarned, however: They are vile. They discuss sexual acts graphically, they use disgusting language to describe women, they are obscene, profane, pornographic, they use derogatory racial epithets, and on and on. And it is not just one objectional tweet: there are lots of them, over a period of months.

When they were “discovered”—although he had some 1,600 followers, so it was not as if they were exactly private, and, quite frankly, I find the claim by Don Bosco to have been unaware of their content hard to believe—Michigan pulled its offer; other schools, like my alma mater Notre Dame, were apparently considering pulling their offer as well. Don Bosco then decided to expell him. Again, I am not particularly impressed with Bosco’s assumption of moral high ground. It cost them almost nothing: the football season is already over, and Yuri was probably on scholarship to Bosco anyway; so there was no downside to them to expelling him in January. Since Yuri has now opted to attend Colorado, the affair seems to be over, at least for the time being.

There are many lessons one might learn from this episode. One is that nothing on the internet is private. Nothing. Ever. Another lesson: whatever is once on the internet is there forever. So anything you write you should imagine that literally every person on the planet will read: Do you still want to write it?

But this was a high school student, not an adult. So some argued that he should be forgiven, given a second chance. I read many people saying things like, “hey, that’s how all high school students talk these days—especially boys in New Jersey!” I also read claims that his words were offensive only to older-generation white people who were unfamiliar with hip-hop culture or the language in some rap music. Some Notre Dame fans who had wanted him to commit there argued that Notre Dame’s Catholic mission requires it not only to forgive a mistake but also to teach virtue, so perhaps Notre Dame had a moral obligation to keep recruiting him, in the hopes that it could turn him into a virtuous person.

Right. Let’s not kid ourselves. Notre Dame would not even sniff an applicant who had displayed that kind of spectacularly questionable character and judgment—unless he was a spectacular football player. And it was not “a” mistake: it was months of display of very low character. It is moreover simply not true that all high schoolers talk like that. Not all high school boys view women like that; not all teenagers see the world and the races like that. To claim otherwise is an affront and slander to the vast majority of good kids out there—yes, even in New Jersey! And it is all still repellent and wrong regardless. Accepting it as inevitable or expected merely increases its occurrence, which is the opposite of what we should want.

That suggests the lesson I think this affair indicates. We are all about tolerance and freedom, as we should be, because it is required by the respect we should show to the decisions that free people make. But respecting the decisions that free people make requires not one thing but two: It requires not only giving people the liberty to act on the basis of their decisions, but it also requires holding them responsible for the consequences of their decisions. We often forget that second part—understandably so, since it is often unpleasant. But it is precisely as much entailed by respect for individual agency as respecting liberty to act is. Punishing people who act wrongly just is respecting their individual agency.

Shielding people from the unpleasant consequences of their decisions does them no favors. Not only does it inferfere with the process of developing good judgment, for that can happen only on the basis of feedback; but it disrespects their agency as not, in fact, up to the demands of liberty.

Now in Yuri Wright’s case, he is in that nether-realm between boyhood and manhood, so he is still developing his character and his judgment. And by the outward signs, things have not been going well. The fact that he has now already returned to tweeting with a brand new account, without taking even a short-term moratorium to reflect on his his life, is also not an encouraging sign. What better time, then, to hold him accountable for his actions, to make clear to him that those aspects of his character are unacceptable, and that bad judgment suffers bad consequences. Otherwise the feedback he gets will be all the wrong kind, and we might find that his judgment leads him to even worse places in the future.

One thought on “Character and Dignity in the Wild World of High School Football Recruiting

  1. What an exceptionally wise and invaluable post. Often explanations of the relationship between liberty and virtue sound strained, unconvincing, and even polyanna-ish. By marshaling an appropriate, real-life example, this post, like a great athlete, makes a difficult task look easy. Thank you, Professor Otteson, for this small gem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s