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John Blanchette: Robert Barber not about sports? Don’t kid yourself

This really shouldn’t be on the sports page, you know. Because it has nothing to do with football.

Nothing at all.

Because even if Robert Barber was just your average computer science major whose closest brush with the game comes on Saturdays from a seat in Section 29 at Martin Stadium, then Washington State’s favorite quarterbacking legend, a knot of football moms, his teammates and a preening state senator would still be snarling at Washington State’s president and Board of Regents for justice and an end to his suspension from school for his virally videoed role in last summer’s Pullman party brawl. We know this because it was the message all week, as the storm built to Friday’s regents huddle that bowed the walls of a campus meeting room:

Not about football.

But wait! On Friday, it was about football. Robert Barber needs football to take care of his family, it was proposed.

So then. About football.

But wait!

“A part of this is about football,” one speaker told the regents.

OK. Kind of about football.

But wait!

“This is really important – there’s a football game tomorrow,” said one of the moms, who then quickly pivoted to offer, “This isn’t about football.”

Dr. Seuss wrote about this, right? Oh, the Messages You’ll Mix.

It was left, somewhere in the middle of 90 minutes of public comment, to one of Barber’s Cougar teammates, Gabe Marks, to cut to the chase. Marks is sometimes barbed – he got under regent Ron Sims’ skin for suggesting he wasn’t listening – and sometimes measured and sometimes wise, as he was here.

“We have to be real about this situation for a second, you know what I mean?” Marks said. “My friend is from American Samoa. He’s been in America, the United States, for five years and football is the reason why he came here.”

Which is absolutely why the room was filled.

And why those filling it were so irate – after focusing their outrage earlier in the week on Robert Barber being denied the opportunity to graduate – when WSU president Kirk Schulz said Barber could complete his degree online this very semester, and they could no longer wave that flag.

Shortly after came the predictable outburst from everyone’s favorite Olympia cartoon, Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Grandstanding).

“If you don’t fix this,” he shouted at the regents as he stormed from the room, “I goddamn will!”

Baumgartner is vice chair of the higher education committee, so his words rang out with reckless intent –though speaking to reporters later he would demur that, “This is not a funding threat.” Perhaps he understands that the legislature is not meant to be a parallel justice system.

This seems to be the main beef with WSU’s Student Conduct Board, which meted out the punishment. Actually, when he wasn’t at his self-aggrandizing worst extolling his own resume, Baumgartner made reasonable points. Among them: that minority students are disproportionally subject to expulsion and suspension (which prompted a K-12 bill he helped enact), and that while WSU painted Barber as a campus threat in court filings Thursday, he was allowed the run of the place until the SCB acted. Speaking of mixed messages.

But the notion that Schulz and the regents should have granted blanket clemency to all SCB cases and disbanded the board was silly. If the process and panel are flawed – and some recent comments hint at a couple members being drunk with power – then they can be repaired by the review Schulz has ordered. More due process is always a good idea, but the SCB has been upheld in previous challenges, Schulz noted.

And for all the invoking of Elson Floyd’s memory Friday – and his purported intentions – it’s doubtful even Schulz’s predecessor would have left his people without cover in a public stoning. Think of it this way: There may have been times athletic director Bill Moos has been uncomfortable with Mike Leach’s policies or public posture. But Moos’ response is always, “It’s Mike’s program.” Even though it’s really WSU’s program.

There’s also this: Barber’s case does not rise to the level of emergency.

Because despite the impassioned pleas about his family and future, this will not affect his pro football prospects in the slightest. If Barber is NFL material, the NFL will provide. Hell, there’s a coach just across the state who lives to shepherd reclamations like this.

That doesn’t mean suspension isn’t a bad deal for Robert Barber. Though some of us are old-fashioned enough to think there should be campus consequences for waling on another student and inflicting serious injury, whatever the circumstances, few of us could settle on a definitive sanction.

I know this: the most courageous person in the room Friday was Alex Rodriguez, one of the victims in the party melee who spent six weeks with a wired jaw after being kicked when he was down – and who came to the microphone to speak on behalf of the friend court documents identify as the victim of Barber’s punches.

His regret was genuine when he said, “I wish it had never happened.”

This came after one of the well-intentioned moms rather haughtily sniffed, “Nobody here is defending the other guy.”

Well, that’s because he’s not this cause célèbre’s cause celebrity. He doesn’t have a team and a senator behind him. He doesn’t play football.

And for all the spewing about process and fairness, football is what this is very much about.


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