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Navigating the moral labyrinth of Illinois men's basketball

Revoking Kendrick Nunn's scholarship is the right thing to do. So, too, would be to keep him and try to make things better. This gets complicated.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Trigger warning: Rice punch.

This is what domestic violence looks like. It doesn't matter that this was one incident, two-plus years ago, perpetrated by one man in a two-second span. This is what we think back to, invariably, when we hear of athletes hitting women. It is the cloak Illinois will choose to wear if it allows Kendrick Nunn, who pleaded guilty, and Jaylon Tate, who has been reinstated after his charges were dismissed, to play for them again. It does not matter that Tate was absolved. It does not matter that both instances were likely much less extreme than the one shown above. It only matters that we've seen the above video, shocked that this is what sports thought of as a two-game suspension. The Ravens tweeted that the woman in the video, Janay Rice (nee Palmer), "deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident." The story was spun out of reality; and so, we've realized, can any other such story. Until we see the video of the specific incident, we remember the above video, and how much we had all been fooled.

It's not fair to Nunn and Tate to tie them to the Rice incident — you certainly couldn't use it to make a point in a court of law. But the court of public opinion has never held fast to fairness. It feels what it feels — and it feels uncomfortable allowing anyone associated with domestic violence to see the sun.

Illinois fans want Nunn gone, and made calls for Tate's scholarship, too, before the charges were dismissed. But asserting oneself into the moral labyrinth of the Fighting Illini men's basketball team is more than chucking big-decision grenades. It's too complex for that.

The urge to boot baggage-bearing players from the program, let's be clear, is partially motivated by selfishness. As fans of a given basketball team, you don't want to be morally conflicted about whom to root for. It adds a needless complication to an innocent pleasure. Cheering for the home team is supposed to be easy; cheering for a person who strikes women is very difficult. So, the thought goes, they've lost their right to play for the proud Fighting Illini. They're not worth our attention or scholarship money or support, which is reserved for morally upright young athletes. Boot 'em. End of story. It's important to note that this is a reasonable thing to feel.

But that decision assumes that college athletics are about how fans feel, and that's not true, necessarily.

Ultimately, it's the administration's decision what to do with Kendrick Nunn. As an administration, it is imperative to not allow your desire to win to supersede your obligation to apply fair and just discipline when conduct standards are breached. In other words, this decision can't be about winning. You don't keep Nunn because you have a dearth of backcourt players who can create a shot; you don't boot Nunn to open a scholarship because you hear Charles Matthews is leaning toward Champaign (which we haven't heard, so let's not get our hopes up). When you make decisions on those grounds, it can lead to such things as covering up the rape of young boys by your football team's defensive coordinator to preserve your reputation. Again, we're miles away from the cardinal example of Penn State, but the history is there for us to learn from, so let's not ignore it. This isn't to say that shortcuts aren't taken all the time because of the powerful influence of winning; Leron Black's six-game suspension (which includes two preseason games) probably would have been much stronger if he were a less-consequential player, or played a less-consequential sport.

So it comes down to two factors: Can Illinois keep Nunn, and can it let him go. First of all, scholarships have terms. Most allow for discretion, but there are parameters presented to players at the moment they sign that indicate what standard of behavior they must maintain in order to remain on scholarship. If the terms are violated, then his scholarship should be vacated. If they aren't, then you have to justify showing a seemingly repentant first-time offender the exit door to his opportunity for college education.

If your primary motivation for kicking a young man to the curb is "to set a standard for the program," also known as making yourself look better, is that really the proper moral response? Sure, you shed the weight, but it still exists out there somewhere, and you actively took steps to not have to do anything about it. Images are easier to rehabilitate than people, but people are far more valuable than images. Granted, Illinois men's basketball isn't an institution for moral justice. But that doesn't mean it has to steer clear of it completely. You can use your platform to reach people and advocate on behalf of those effected. You can take responsibility for your actions, understand your mistake, and reach others to try and prevent them from doing the same. Project all you want that this doesn't happen in our program, but, well, it did. So maybe instead of pretending it's not our problem, admit that it absolutely is.

That sounds like a lot of extra work. And it's easier to pretend that, A) Kendrick Nunn is just a bad person and, B) people who play basketball at Illinois don't make bad decisions. But he likely isn't, and they absolutely do. If Nunn wants to stay, he has to do more than stay out of trouble. He — and Jaylon Tate, too, lawsuit dismissal or not — has to apologize and go into the community and serve it to prove what kind of people they are. Nunn is required to do both of these things per his probation terms, but there's certainly room to go above and beyond. Talking to local high schools about what domestic violence is and why it's wrong would be a good start.

All of this hinges, of course, on what actually happened and what kind of people Josh Whitman and John Groce know Kendrick Nunn to be. You could argue that Illinois basketball is in a position where, sorry, getting its image right and winning some games is a higher priority than community outreach. You could argue that other basketball players deserve their scholarships more. You could argue that there's simply no place for domestic violence in college basketball. But that doesn't make it disappear, it simply makes domestic violence go find its place somewhere else.

So what if Illinois keeps Kendrick Nunn? It almost seems more likely; you'd think the best time to announce his scholarship revocation would have been in the wake of the news that he pleaded guilty — praise for swift action and such. The fact is, Illinois fans are in a position where they have to choose whether to root for several players of questionable character. I would say only this: Young people do dumb things, and while it's easier to shun them for this behavior, that doesn't do any good. You can be open to forgiving them, but have standards and make the forgiveness be earned. If Nunn, Black, and Tate are truly "Illini guys," to borrow a phrase from John Groce's signing day press conferences, they should exhibit the good traits that make them so. Assuming none of them committed actions too severe to make right (for an example of what this means, see above video), then let's see it. Serving a suspension, though it's completely necessary and just, doesn't actually help make anything better. So find ways to help. If you want to set a standard for the program, let it be one of confronting problems and making things better.

Or go ahead and cut the guy. Just be sure to check your integrity first.