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Column: K’Vaughan Pope situation is sad reality of big-time college sports

Despite the fact that Pope is completely responsible for his own actions, I can’t help but feel bad for all he lost on Saturday night.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Ohio State vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, we all understand how competitive college football is. And we also all understand that when that competition is between teammates over playing time, inevitably someone will lose that competition. However, unlike in generations past, with the advent of the transfer portal and the proliferation of waivers, players moving between programs in today’s college football has become almost common place. But what happened at Ohio Stadium on Saturday night with now-former Ohio State linebacker K’Vaughan Pope was anything but common place; to be honest, it was just sad.

For reasons that have been reported, but not yet fully confirmed, in short, there was confusion on a play’s linebacker substitution package and Pope appeared to became frustrated about not getting onto the field. After a back-and forth with Ohio State director of player development C.J. Barnett, there was reportedly an argument believed to be between the linebacker and his position coach Al Washington.

Allegedly, head coach Ryan Day told Pope to go to the locker room (which the player had already retreated to once), throwing his gloves into the stands, Pope was escorted off of the field by Barnett.

Once in the locker room, Pope sent a pair of tweets, the first read:

Two minutes later, he sent a tweet that was deleted almost immediately that read:

And while Pope’s actions on the sideline and on Twitter on Saturday night rightfully angered many people, and led to his official dismissal from the team on Sunday, it all just made me sad. It made me sad, because this was clearly a young man who was hurting, and social media was piling on him with a schadenfreude glee that felt unnecessary and purposefully hurtful.

Obviously disappointment is part of sports; when there are winners and losers, disappointment is always part of the package. But I don’t feel badly for Pope in a football sense, because — other than injuries — he’s had plenty of opportunities to earn more playing time over his four years in the program; and it is the coaches’ responsibility to put the best players on the field. Instead, I just feel for Pope as a person.

Despite the attention and praise that we pay them, college athletes are still just young adults, and in the case of big time football players, they are being placed in unimaginably high-stakes situations and expected to perform at the highest level both on and off the field without exception.

Not only are these Ohio State football players at the center of a multi-million dollar operation, but they’re also the focus of an all-consuming fandom that is notorious for its irrational reactions to even the slightest deviation from their unimaginably high expectations. With all of that money. and those expectations, comes an insane amount of pressure; some people handle that stuff well, some people don’t.

And as much pressure as all that brings, the players also have life-long expectations of their own that they are trying to achieve. And what makes expectations that are born within us at an early age so powerful and stressful is that they eventually transcend expectations, or even goals, and become full-fledged dreams.

And as frustrating as it can be to have your expectations dashed, to have dreams crumble around you is infinitely more painful, and that is what I imagine we witnessed on Saturday night.

I don’t know K’Vaughan Pope, but I know what it takes for these young men to become players at a place like Ohio State, and I know what type of dreams great athletes like Pope can start to develop as kids. And while I wouldn’t want to speak to K’Vaughan’s specifics, I would not be surprised if Saturday night was the end to more than one life-long dream; and to me that will never not be at least a little bit sad.

From the time that truly gifted football players are young, they are told that if they dedicate themselves mind, body, and soul to working at their game, that eventually it can take them to college and then on to life-changing fame and fortune in the NFL.

So, in most cases, the truly elite, sign up for the journey that they have been told can lead to everything that they’ve ever wanted. They sacrifice large portions of their youth to make football their life, in part, because of the promise of what lies ahead. But the more that they put in the work required to make those dreams become realities, the more that their identities become entangled with their talents. So by the time that they reach high school — and certainly a blue-blood football program like Ohio State — in many ways, there is very little daylight between them as people and as players; either to those on the outside looking in, or for how the athletes see themselves.

So, the more that these players sacrifice to accomplish their goals and the more that they begin to identify themselves increasingly through the lens of their football-focused selves, the more that they stop seeing their goals as childhood dreams, and instead they build them up into what — in their minds — is an inevitable future, methodically and meticulously mapped out years in advanced.

By that point, these players have spent so much time planning and visualizing their planning futures, imaging the joys that they will bring, using them as the carrot at the end of a very fraught stick, that these inevitable outcomes have now become more than just a part of who these athletes are, they are their identity. And not just in the way that others see them, but more importantly in how they see themselves. It can become very difficult to imagine a life without this future that they have been assured of since childhood.

So, when frustrations mount, and a player like Pope begins to realize that this inevitable future that he has been been striving towards for most of his life is very much evitable, it is understandable that emotions would be raw and bad decisions could be made. And, to me, that’s sad, because you know that those decisions were likely made in pain, frustration, and desperation. Imagine the emotions that you would feel when you realize that all of your years of dreaming and your entire sense of who you are as a person finally comes crumbling down around you.

I remember being Pope’s age, and I know that I likely made more bad decisions than good ones. Saturday night, Pope made a series of bad decisions. The difference between my bad college-age decisions and his is that mine weren’t witnessed by dozens of media members, nearly 100,000 fans, broadcast on national television, and then regurgitated on social media ad nauseam, and I can’t help but have sympathy for a kid going through that — even if the fault is solely his.

Of course, none of this is meant to absolve Pope of his actions, as he is completely responsible for everything that he decided to do. He handled his obvious frustration and anger in the worst possible way, and he did it in public. He was selfish, he was immature, he was out of control, he was disrespectful. So, this is on him; but that doesn’t mean that I can’t still feel badly for him.

Empathy is not something that is given out as a reward for good behavior. That would be transactional, and transactional empathy is not, in fact, empathy at all. Often times, the people who need empathy the most are the ones who we don’t think actually deserve it; and, not coincidentally, they are also often the ones who would benefit from it most.

There are consequences for every action, and the consequences of K’Vaughan Pope’s actions on Saturday night will now shape the rest of his future. Perhaps no more than a few weeks ago, Pope was likely still holding on to his childhood dreams and envisioning a triumphant return to the Ohio Stadium field that would catapult him to all of the generational wealth and joy that he had imagined since childhood.

If those football dreams do eventually come true, it won’t be as a member of the Ohio State football team. That is a fact, and the inevitable conclusion to Saturday night’s outbursts. But it is also sad. Sad for K’Vaughan, sad for his now broken dreams, and sad for anyone who has had to face a difficult reality before they were ready.

I wish K’Vaughan the absolute best on whatever is next for him, and hope that whatever the new versions of his dreams are that he is able to make them come true.