Unfairly Judged, Dez Wells Continues Quest To Reclaim His Good NamePosted by BHayes on August 21st, 2013
Bennet Hayes is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @HoopsTraveler.
With the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit pending and the “should college athletes be paid?” debate becoming increasingly commonplace at the water cooler, the American public is acutely aware of the supposed slights facing college athletes (particularly those playing football and basketball). The absence of stipend or salary for players, who are obviously the main contributors to this multi-billion dollar industry, will always be seen by most as the least fair element of the whole college athlete gig. Without forgetting all the benefits to being a college athlete – scholarships and exposure prime among them, let’s also make sure we remember how challenging sudden fame would be for any young adult.
Dez Wells knows better than most. Wells, now a junior at Maryland, was the victim of his own campus celebrity at Xavier a year ago. Even putting aside the fact that it was likely his status as a basketball player that induced an allegation of sexual assault (by all accounts and actions, the claim has been dismissed as a fabrication), Wells’ public figure prompted the Xavier administration to take a hard stance on the issue (for PR reasons), with Wells’ right to a presumption of innocence being thoroughly ignored throughout the process. Tuesday, almost exactly a year to the day he was expelled from XU, Wells filed a lawsuit against his former school, as first reported by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports. A year ago, it didn’t take long for many to come to the conclusion that Wells got a raw deal, but the escalation of the matter still left his name in national headlines next to the words “sexual assault”.
A victorious lawsuit would certainly be the biggest possible step towards fully regaining his public reputation, but the entire situation is a reminder of how different college life can be for student-athletes. We typically speak of exposure for college basketball players as a good thing, and in the basketball sense of the concept, it always is. But accompanying the time in the spotlight on the court comes the sharper microscope off it. Combine this suddenly public life that players live with today’s media climate, and you can understand why fans and media compete in a rush to judgment on so many of these young men (with Johnny Manziel serving as the most recent and significant example). What makes the Wells situation different from Manziel and others is that it was not just media and fans jumping to conclusions; the administration of his own school, the very group that should be ensuring Wells his due process, made that same immediate assumption of guilt. It’s a relatively unique situation indeed, but one that should make coaches, programs and schools aware that with today’s media firestorm, they need to make an attempt for both privacy and integrity when troubles happen to arise for their players. Of course that can be taken too far in the other direction (the Pierre Pierce situation at Iowa comes to mind, check out the bizarre situation the Hawkeyes found themselves in with Pierce this week), but any release of information seems to set off a presumption of guilt more often than it does innocence these days.
The upshot here is that Wells seems to have landed in a good place – and perhaps even a better one — at Maryland. He thrived a year ago for a team that fell off the NCAA Tournament bubble late, and is set to lead a young team with NCAA Tournament aspirations this season. Overall, the trajectory of his basketball career seems unaffected, which is great news. But Tuesday’s lawsuit is an important reminder that Wells still has much to reclaim. The stakes are simply higher for athletes than they are for your average college student, and higher stakes mean mistakes like the one Xavier seems to have made can have profound lasting damage. There’s no way to erase the headlines of the past, but Tuesday’s lawsuit is another step towards proving that they never should have existed.