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'Bottlegate's' Only Lingering Effect Is On Perception

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By now, everybody in the free world with a computer or Twitter account has heard of Tennessee starting quarterback Tyler Bray button-hooking a beer bottle into a Buick.

[Well, maybe not a Buick, but we ride with alliteration in these parts.]

You know the details by now -- college kids drink beer, decide it would be fun to toss beer bottles and golf balls off their apartment balcony, several thrown items damage a vehicle, girl witness calls cops, another girl sees damage to her car, reports to police, Bray offers to make financial restitution, no charges pressed, girl witness comes out the next day to see her car with a busted windshield, calls cops to report it, suspects retaliation from group of boys including Bray, apartment complex reportedly evicts Bray and his roommate, pandemonium ensues, world ends, season over.

OK, so those last few bullets came from reading tweets and message boards, but you get the point. Nevermind several people telling reporters that Bray was in the football complex during the time of the second incident and couldn't have done the damage to the second girl's car ... Bray was still named a suspect. Also, nevermind that there aren't any witnesses and Bray won't get in anymore trouble with the law over this retaliation incident unless one steps forward ... Bray was still named a suspect ... who has not been charged with anything and likely won't be.

To be quite honest, once we realized nobody was hurt, most Tennessee fans just wanted to make sure Bray's suited up on Saturdays throwing touchdown passes. Guess what, rival fan, we're all human, and we're all football fans. You're thinking it. I just wrote it.

Just because we want to see Bray playing doesn't change that it's still universally believed among UT fans that our quarterback -- the face of our program -- made a selfish, stupid decision that will have lingering negative effects on the perception of the football program and on his own maturity.

But that's all it's going to affect.

During the past 24 hours, I've read everything from "Bray should be suspended for the entire season" to "Well, I guess all that talk about him trying to become a better leader can be tossed out the window..." Neither of these things are necessarily true.

Let me start by clarifying my stance on what happened and Bray's role in it, just so nobody thinks I'm apologizing for him or making it sound like what happened is OK:

This boneheaded, frustrating head-scratching, we-shouldn't-even-have-to-be-talking-about-something-like-this-this-close-to-football-season ordeal was dumb. It's embarrassing, it's a shame and frustrating that we're even having to discuss it.

But it's simply not as dramatic as we're making it, folks. And it totally has no effect on what is going to happen on the football field in a little more than a month. The only damage this does to the University of Tennessee football program or to Bray is in the public's perception. That's enough, sure, but let's not let our drama bleed into concern about the state of our program or coaching staff or the makeup of our team again.

If it feels like I've written these words before, it should. Because I have. Many times.

During Lane Kiffin's brief tenure as UT head coach, we downplayed the things he said or did though they brought negative attention to the program. Sure, I was a Kiffin apologist, but that doesn't change that I was right in saying that bringing attention to the program had zero effect on what happened between the hash marks. Despite all Kiffin's off-the-field shenanigans, none of it translated to the football field. It didn't mean he was a bad coach. It didn't mean he didn't know what he was doing. It just meant he was an immature buffoon who made some really dumb decisions.

Bray's role in Bottlegate is much the same. Sure, it's a bit worse because it damaged other people's property rather than just his own reputation, but we're talking solely about lingering effects here. Let's not act like it's worse than it is. These girls will get their vehicles fixed -- either by the idiots who did it or by insurance companies that are put in place for these sorts of things. Nobody got hurt. Nobody broke any major laws. Nobody's going to jail.

It's an immature decision by a 20-year-old that has nothing to do with his ability to play football.

Eli Manning once got arrested for public urination and spent several hours in jail while he was Ole Miss's starting quarterback. Jay Cutler liked to drink alcohol and had several run-ins with authorities. Heck, our own beloved Peyton Manning got caught mooning a teammate in front of a female employee and had to settle. Several other quarterbacks also come to mind. College kids do stupid things [have you seen Bray's tattoo]? It's cliched, but it's just true.

Did it affect Eli's ability to be a leader on the field? What about Peyton's? The answer, of course, is "no" and "no." Immaturity does not equal a lack of leadership abilities.

It's totally possible for Bray to be doing things like watching more film, grasping more of the playbook, organizing 7-on-7 drills, realizing when to get his team into better check-downs and just overall committing himself more to being a better quarterback and still be making bone-headed, immature, boys-will-be-boys decisions off the field. It doesn't mean he isn't committed to his teammates or to football. It doesn't mean he thinks he's above the law. It doesn't mean that he's "off drinking beer when he should be in the film room..." It means none of that.

Let's not pretend he's all of a sudden Stephen Garcia because he -- gasp! -- drank a few beers while under-aged and thought it would be cute to throw beer bottles off his balcony and watch them break on the pavement. Heck, I still like breaking things, and I'm 32. I like to think I have better judgment than what happened at Bray's apartment, but I know I didn't when I was 20.

I also know that just because I did stupid things and mostly got away with them doesn't mean Bray should get away with the stupid things he's done. It also doesn't mean he should be hanged in effigy.

This will not have any looming effect on Bray's play or on the on-field product Tennessee will trot out there against N.C. State. It also doesn't give us any insight into the psyche of our quarterback and his ability to lead. That's just ridiculous and over-reactionary.

Now, since we now know that we shouldn't worry about that, what is concerning about this episode?

  • That a football program already being dealt negative blows in the national media for its on-field product the past few years will be dragged through the mud again. Really, this is the only REAL concern. Perception is important in all sports, and negative perception about Derek Dooley's job, the direction of our program, etc., has already cost us with some important recruits this season. It costs you in program buzz and in getting any recognition and in the overall way people look at your football program. UT is still rehabilitating its ego from the Phillip Fulmer years and the Kiffin fiasco. For your starting quarterback to be involved in something this ignorant does not look good for your program and embarrasses your coach who is fighting for his job. It also potentially could put Dooley in the spotlight to do something that really doesn't need doing.
  • That Bray potentially is costing himself some NFL money. We've all seen it before, so don't act like it's an exaggeration. It all starts with a throat slash, a few off-the-cuff comments and some message board rumors. Throw in even a petty run-in with the law like this, and Bray becomes a character risk to some NFL teams. Stuff like this does show up in background checks, and NFL teams are nothing if not thorough, especially when it comes to dissecting quarterbacks.
  • That Bray won't get punished and others will think it's OK to do dumb things. This one is kind of a stretch, but I agree it's a bit of a concern. I don't think Bray should be punished with any game time, not because we'd lose if he was, but because he hasn't been charged with anything and this is just a big, dumb ordeal to be involved in but nothing that is a big deal. He'll be punished internally most likely, and that will be that. But if somebody else does something dumb and uses the whole, "You suspended me a game and didn't do anything to Tyler ..." bit then, yeah, that can cause team rifts.
  • That Tyler Bray may simply just not be a good kid. Hey, if he wins, all is forgiven, right? But as somebody who loves UT, I'd like for Bray -- and Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers, etc. -- to be likeable guys. We've been "hated" by everybody for the wrong reasons (see Kiffin, Lane). It's time to be hated for the right reasons -- because we're winning.

That's really it, and I think reason Nos. 3 and 4 are a stretch. Ten years ago, something like this just really isn't news. Even if it was, it's not something that would be discussed, rehashed, spun and dissected for days upon days. Ten years ago, exactly nobody would have been clamoring for Bray to be punished or questioning whether or not this meant that he was just not born with any leadership qualities. We wouldn't have cared because we honestly wouldn't have known that much about it. The unimportant stayed unimportant. News was news when it became news, not when somebody tweeted something they heard. I miss those days.

Bray did a dumb thing. He should apologize to the team, they should accept it, and that should be the end of it. Given that he's been brash and arrogant and plays the marquee position for a team everybody loves to hate, this minor situation has turned into a major deal, and Tennessee fans are just as guilty for making it into something more important than it really is. But, while we're being so overly dramatic and wasting hours of our day hitting "refresh" on message boards to see the latest news, let's remember something:

Our -- and the national media's -- exaggeration of this story is the only thing driving the consternation over this situation. It's something I know Bray and all Tennessee fans wish hadn't happened, but its influence on what will happen Aug. 31 and after is nonexistent.