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Musings from Arledge: JT Daniels, new USC staffers, and Matt Boermeester ruling

Well, the future of USC football is no longer part of USC football.

USC fans were excited when JT Daniels committed to USC and then worked his butt off to enter school a year early. And rightfully so; the kid had a legendary high school career, and it was hard not to be excited after hearing people like Jordan Palmer gush about the kid’s talent. (Palmer might want to revise that “they won’t miss Sam Darnold” prediction at this point.)

Some thoughts.

First, I think Daniels got a bad rap from a lot of USC fans for his freshman-year performance. You’re talking about a true freshman quarterback who didn’t even have the benefit of spring practice playing behind a porous offensive line for a lousy offensive coordinator in an offense that was some sort of Dr. Frankenstein creation – mismatched parts of disparate offenses stitched by Tee and Clay into some new, grotesque, monster of their own creation.

Tee: It’s alive! Oh wait, no, it’s not.

In that situation, of course the kid struggled. Those of us who have been watching USC for a while saw how badly Carson Palmer struggled under similar circumstances. We know now that Palmer wasn’t overrated or a bust; he was just stuck in a terrible spot. So was JT.\

That said, JT is no Carson Palmer. Carson was immensely talented: huge, fast, with a cannon arm and very good accuracy. He was the top pick in the NFL draft for a reason. JT is talented enough to play at the college level and play well, and if he’s as bright as the coaches say he is, he has a chance to be pretty good. Still, JT is a moderately talented player, closer to Matt Barkley than Carson Palmer in terms of talent, and he simply is not in the same class physically as the other star QB’s in his recruiting class, Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields.

I’m also not sure JT has Barkley’s leadership skills. It’s hard to lead as a true freshman, so we should tread carefully here. But JT’s personality makes me nervous. He seems smart and is probably a good guy, but he also strikes me as more of a loner than a guy who teammates will run through a brick wall for. But we’ll see; like I said, we should tread carefully on this issue for now.

In any event, after watching USC’s last two can’t-miss quarterbacks play, I think colleges need to be wary of recruits that have tremendous built-in advantages over the competition. Both JT and Max Browne benefitted tremendously from being in perfect situations. I’m sure both cases were good players, and I don’t mean to take away from their high school success. But when you’re projecting future QB play, a little skepticism might be in order when the QB’s surrounding talent in high school was so good that he never got touched and threw to wide-open receivers all the time. There are probably other quarterbacks who can look pretty good with a setup like that.

So what does this mean for both JT Daniels and USC?

I think it’s a bold choice for Daniels, and a questionable one. First, JT apparently believes he is an elite quarterback, because transferring to Georgia makes no sense unless you believe that. But if Daniels thinks he is an elite QB, why not stay at USC? Kedon Slovis is good; better than Daniels. (More on that below.) But I’m assuming JT doesn’t believe that, and besides, I would be willing to bet a large sum of money that Kedon’s backup plays this year, maybe a lot. Kedon has already suffered multiple concussions – and you don’t mess around with those these days – and will again be playing behind a questionable line. JT was going to play this year, and if he played well, he might just have kept the job permanently.

It’s not like JT had to escape a coaching staff that didn’t like him. Before Slovis came along, Clay thought JT was dreamy. It’s not like JT wasn’t going to get a fair shake if Kedon went down and JT dominated.

So I must assume that JT thinks he is an elite player and should be the clear started at an elite program.

I wonder.

And, second, as you might expect from a program that recruits extraordinarily well, Georgia has plenty of talented QB’s on the roster already. Stetson Bennett has been in the program for a couple of years now, can make plays with his feet, and is described this way by former Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker: “Stetson Bennett is a beast, man…. Stetson Bennett puts a lot of pressure on our defense.”

A guy that is already tight with the Georgia staff and team and who terrorized one of the best defenses in the country while on the scout team isn’t going to be pushed aside easily. Carson Beck is also in the program already and is a former four-star recruit with great size and a big arm. D’Wan Mathis is also a former four-star QB with size (6’6”) and a cannon arm. It is not at all clear that JT Daniels is better than these guys. He may find himself in a spot where it is even harder to get on the field.

In fact, as between an outcome where JT starts for multiple years at Georgia and becomes a high draft choice and an outcome where JT plays relative little, I think the safer bet – please, Jordan, don’t get mad at me – is on the latter.

I can only assume that JT badly wants to be a starting quarterback. Why else leave a program that was your dream school – a school that is literally tattooed on your body – when you have a good chance of getting real playing time? It has to be that JT wants to go where he can be The Man. Good luck being The Man at Georgia, JT.

And how does this play out for USC? Badly, I suspect. As I’ve made clear on a few occasions, I love Kedon Slovis. I love his accuracy, his guts, his fearlessness. But I would be shocked if Kedon starts and finishes every game this year, because I am deeply worried about his protection and his health. If the kid suffers another concussion, we might not see him again for the rest of the year. And that leaves USC with Matt Fink, a gamer, a true Trojan, and a good kid, but – let’s be honest – a pretty limited player and a bad fit for an offense designed to sling the ball all over the field 50 times.

I think the handwriting was on the wall as soon as Kedon came in and destroyed Stanford. At that point, we all knew that JT Daniels’ days at USC were likely numbered. But I still think this transfer is likely to come back and bite both JT and the Trojans.

Chris Claiborne has finally been added to the staff? Fantastic. Great Trojan and a guy that no doubt has the respect of So Cal coaches and players. I do think the new staff is a major upgrade over last year’s. Whether that is enough to overcome the liability at the major top of the pyramid is anybody’s guess … but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage payment on “yes” if I were you. Going cheap at head coach and hiring a good staff isn’t the surest method to college football success. Still, better staff puts Musings in a better mood. For now.

Well, you know what, since I’m already making questionable predictions here, let’s go all in: I think at least four or five of these assistance coaches are more likely to be at USC next year than is Clay Helton. (Go ahead: make a note of this so you can come back and laugh at me come December.)

I think we’re really playing college football this year, and if the games are played in empty or mostly empty stadiums, that’s a big advantage for the Trojans. USC generally gets modest help from its fans; the Coliseum is not designed to contain noise, and USC fans tended to be quiet even before we became surly and demoralized, so home crowds don’t mean much for the Trojans. But playing in quiet stadiums in Eugene, Salt Lake City, and a not-so-neutral Arlington could help a lot.

Okay, it probably won’t help much in Arlington.

In high school, my history teacher showed us Gideon’s Trumpet, a made-for-TV movie based on Anthony Lewis’ book of the same name. The movie tells the story of Clarence Earl Gideon, an impoverished, uneducated Florida man who was arrested for breaking and entering with the intent to rob a pool hall.

Gideon asked for counsel to be appointed for him at trial, that request was denied, he was forced to represent himself, and he was convicted. Gideon filed a writ of habeas corpus which eventually wound its way to the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously found a right to counsel for indigent defendants. On retrial, represented by a lawyer, the jury acquitted Gideon after only an hour of deliberating.

Thursday, the California Court of Appeal ruled in Matt Boermeester’s case. Boermeester, of course, was expelled from USC after an internal Title IX investigation concluded that Boermeester had committed “intimate partner violence” against his girlfriend, a USC tennis player. Boermeester filed an action in Superior Court seeking reinstatement and lost. He appealed and, yesterday, he won, with the court concluding that Boermeester was denied the right to a meaningful opportunity to cross examine the witnesses who testified in his hearing, and that this failure rendered his proceeding unfair.

Before talking about what I take to be the moral of this story, let’s clarify a couple of matters.

First, the Court of Appeal did not find that Boermeester was innocent of the charge. And, to be frank, I was troubled by the evidence that was presented in the hearing. It is entirely possible that the school’s expulsion ruling was entirely justified and appropriate.

Second, I would hesitate to ascribe bad motives to USC in this case. The truth is that just about every university in the country is struggling with its Title IX procedures, largely because the Department of Education gave direction to universities that is tough to square with traditional Anglo-American legal understandings of due process. And as a result, over the last few years, courts across the country have been routinely finding the resulting universities’ Title IX processes unfair.

Third, this analysis is not intended to be political, although this issue has clearly become politicized. The heroes in Gideon’s Trumpet were progressive lawyers and judges who understood that criminal defendants will not receive a fair trial if they are forced to defend themselves. And still today there are many people across the political spectrum who believe in the due process protections that have traditionally been the bulwark against arbitrary and unjust deprivations of life, liberty, and property.

I have been a trial lawyer for a little over 20 years. I’ve learned a thing or two about the American legal system in that time. It is expensive. It is often slow. It obviously does not always lead to just outcomes.

But we also get a lot of things right. John Henry Wigmore, the one-time dean of Northwestern Law School, famously called cross examination “beyond any doubt the greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of truth.” Wigmore was right. Hearings without meaningful cross examination should be inherently suspect. The Court of Appeal rightly concluded that Boermeester’s hearing could not have been fair without the opportunity to question those who testified against him.

The court did not have to decide what meaningful cross examination would entail in this case. But let’s be clear about something: giving an untrained college student the opportunity to ask questions – which even Boermeester was denied – should never be considered meaningful cross examination. Cross examination is hard. I have taught cross examination techniques at conferences across the US and in Europe, and I can tell you that even most experienced litigators are bad at it. As a skilled practitioner of the art, it would be absurd to suggest that we will have a fair proceeding if we pull a 19-year-old kid out of his chemistry lab and let him ask some questions. That procedure would be no more fair than allowing Clarence Gideon the chance to ask questions in the unfair trial that led to his initial conviction.

Cross examination in these Title IX cases really must mean cross examination by skilled trial counsel. Because the Court of Appeal ruled that the hearing was unfair since Boermeester never had a meaningful opportunity to cross examine the witnesses, it did not rule on his contention that the hearing was unfair because the Title IX investigator held the dual roles of investigator and adjudicator. But you can well imagine the problems that might result if district attorneys, for example, were responsible both for investigating crimes and deciding the guilt or innocence of the accused.

The issues we’re discussing will eventually be hashed out in courts, state legislatures, and Congress. I can understand why many people want universities to be responsible for rooting out sexual harassment and sexual violence and do not want to leave those issues to the civil courts and law enforcement. I can also understand why they do not want alleged victims to be subjected to rigorous examination, which would undoubtedly discourage some victims from coming forward and would be a painful experience on
top of what was already a personal tragedy for the victim. I understand why we want to avoid that.

But if that’s the route we as a people choose to go, we should be honest about what we’re doing: we are trying to protect victims and, in the process, we are creating some new ones, as we will undoubtedly destroy the lives of some innocent college kids in unfair hearings. Think that’s too strong? I don’t.

When a student is expelled from a university because he or she allegedly committed sexual violence, that student will suffer long-lasting and serious damage to their reputation and educational and career prospects. If the student is guilty of the alleged behavior, I am okay with that. But if not….

In the criminal context, over many years, we have concluded that we will have due process protections in place, knowing that this will lead to the release of some guilty criminal defendants, because we believe it is important to give the innocent a fair chance to prove their innocence. And I wonder whether a college student shouldn’t get the same benefit of the doubt that partisans on both sides demand for their nominees to the Supreme Court and their nominees for President of the United States.

So here’s the deal: I’m not okay with Matt Boermeester. I’m glad he was dismissed from the USC football team. Even if he’s telling the truth that he was not trying to hurt his girlfriend and the two of them were horsing around, I find his behavior repugnant. Indeed, if somebody were “joking around” with my daughter in a way that involved pushing her head against a brick wall and treating her roughly in a way that left bruises, I would be tempted to give that young man a thorough beating.

But I don’t have to be okay with Matt Boermeester, or Clarence Gideon, or the many dozens of criminal defendants whose cases have resulted in necessary protections for those accused of wrongdoing, to be pleased when courts insist on extending due process protections so those who are innocent have a chance to prove their innocence.

Carthago delenda est.

Chris Arledge

Chris Arledge is a graduate of USC’s Gould School of Law and is the co-founder and managing partner of an intellectual property law firm. Chris’s forgettable football career started at Elsinore High School, where his Tigers defeated Kyle Wachholtz’s Norco squad for the league title (Bring on Brad Otton’s team, too!), and ended at William Jewell College, where Chris was a team captain and an all-conference defensive back.

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