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February 16, 2011

FIU wrong to let Wittels start season (with poll); plus Heat all-star odds, Shannon follows the $$$, Bryan Cox, Kooch, Daytona 500 & more

[Calling all Red Sox fans! Especially you vintage fans to whom the year 1967 is special. I have started a new Twitter site devoted exclusively to the great No. 8, Yaz. Follow along at Twitter.com/carlyastrzemski].

FIU WRONG TO LET WITTELS START SEASON: FIU confirmed today that baseball star Garrett Wittels remains a player in good standing, and that's wrong. This is hard to write because Florida International 1aa1garrettw University suspending Wittels might have seemed, at least on the face of it, to be in conflict with "innocent until proven guilty" -- a legal truism we should all believe in. But it isn't. The standards to which athletes are held -- high-schools to colleges to pros -- in many cases is higher. That starts with the FHSAA's stance that being a student-athlete is a privilege, not a right. It continues with many colleges and universities (I'll cite examples) suspending or kicking athletes off the team automatically if they are arrested for a felony. It includes the NFL suspending or fining players who are in violation of the league's personal conduct policy, no matter the eventual legal outcome of the case. The thinking, and I agree with it, is that teams are entitled to insist that athletes representing them stay out of trouble and not embarrass them. This is in exchange for the privilege of their college scholarship or lavish pro salary. This isn't about Wittels' guilt or innocence on the rape charge he faces from a December incident in the Bahamas involving him, a few friends and teenage girls they met there. A Bahamian inquiry commencing April 18 will determine if the case proceeds. Wittels might be not guilty, might be innocent of everything but perhaps questionable judgement. If it matters, indications are he is a good kid, devout to his Jewish faith, hardly a punk. But, as he himself has said, "I just put myself in a bad situation." He did more than that. He put FIU in a bad situation. His arrest made national headlines and overshadowed the school's first-ever bowl win in football. Now the continuing cloud of the felony charge overshadows Friday's start of the baseball season and Wittels' own attempt to break the college-record 58-game hitting streak (he's at 56). FIU should be aware, but maybe isn't, that many other schools take action in situations like this. Missouri automatically suspends any player charged with a felony. Florida, West Virginia, Alabama, UCLA, Oregon, Arizona State and Pitt all have suspended players after arrests, and that's just recently. The Miami Herald surely would suspend me over a felony arrest. Chances are your employer would, too. Perhaps more apropos here, the crosstown Miami Hurricanes kicked a player off the UM baseball team last fall after his arrest on a drug charge. So it's a handy shield for FIU to use "innocent until proven guilty" as its justification for doing nothing -- as long as FIU knows many fellow universities hold their athletes to a higher standard, and should. What ought to be a feel-good story here, Wittels' hitting streak, feels wrong instead. FIU is in an awkward, no-win spot and, regardless of guilt or innocence, that's on Wittels. The school not only has not suspended him, but took a heavy, censoring hand with the media. Threatening is not too strong a word. FIU said it would suspend Wednesday's preseason press conference immediately if any question about the rape charge was asked -- and that credentials to cover the team might be revoked. Those are Gestapo tactics that it is hard to imagine athletic director Pete Garcia sanctioned. FIU should suspend Wittels indefinitely to help lift this cloud from the team and its season, the athletic program and the university. If and when Wittels is cleared, he should be reinstated, the hitting streak waiting. Even a token, symbolic suspension -- say, from the season-opening three-game series -- would have been better than nothing. A suspension, brief or indefinite, would not have implied the player's guilt or lack of faith in his innocence. Rather, it would have forcefully reminded all athletes that no one player, not even a star, is bigger than FIU's good name.

HEAT ALL-STAR GAME ODDS: Just in from Bodog.com, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are NBA All-Star Game MVP co-favorites at 13-2, with Dwyane Wade in at 17-2 and Chris Bosh 25-1. Blake Griffin is a prohibitive slam-dunk contest pick at 1-3. Ray Allen tops the three-point picks at 2-1, with the Heat's James Jones the longshot at 11-2.

1aa1randys RANDY $HANNON'$ $TRANGE DECI$ION: I'm taken aback with deposed UM football coach Randy Shannon turning down the defensive-coordinator position at ACC rival Maryland. Not that he did, but why. If he thought the job was below him and was holding out for a bigger program or head-coach job it would be harder to fault him. But reports are Shannon turned down the Terps because it would have meant giving up $1.5 million still due him in his buyout from the Canes. He's either sticking it to Miami or pretty baldly putting money above profession. Pick one. Neither is flattering.

1aa1kooch OFF THE MORAL SOAPBOX, BOB KUECHENBERG: The longtime great Dolphins lineman is battling his third DUI arrest. I feel bad for Kooch, pictured in his latest police booking photo. I hope this turns out OK for him. But I also think this: the local media (they know who they are) should stop going to the eagerly outspoken Kuechenberg every time an inflammatory comment on the current team is needed. I think he has officially forfeited any moral soapbox or de facto spokesman role on the shortcomings of today's athletes.

1aa1bcox BRYAN !@#$%ING COX!: Comes word that Tony Sparano might hire the team's vociferous '90s linebacker, Bryan Cox, right, as an assistant coach. Given Cox's fiery propensity for cursing and spitting and once being fined for giving the finger to Bills fans, it's hard to believe Rex Ryan isn't bringing him back to the Jets first!

1aa1dalee2 1aa1dalee DAYTONA 500'S HIGH DRAMA: Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt (pictured right) from injuries sustained in the Daytona 500. The 2011 edition of the race is this Sunday, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left), trying to end a long winless streak, has the pole position. What a day it would be if Junior can end his drought. I'll be up there columnizing, and glad of it.

Click back. Will be adding more stuff to this new post later...

THE LIST: HEAT IN ALL-STAR GAME: All-time appearances by Miami players:

7   Dwayne Wade (2005-11)

5   Alonzo Mourning (1996-97, 2000-02)

3   Shaquille O'Neal (2005-07)

2   Tim Hardaway (1997-98)

1   Anthony Mason (2001)

1   LeBron James (2011)

1   Chris Bosh   (2011)

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GREG COTE: READ columns and blog in The Miami Herald and MiamiHerald.com, including general sports columns, Friday NFL predictions in season and Sunday "Random Evidence" notes. FOLLOW on TwitterWATCH for appearances on ESPN's Outside the Lines and elsewhere. LISTEN on 790 The Ticket's Dolphins pregame show in season and Tuesdays at 4:20 p.m. JOIN in live chat Wednesdays 1-2 p.m. CONTACT at gcote@miamiherald.com. Correspond by email only, please; I don't answer snail-mail.

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