Owens absolved, but Navy case has no winners

Commentary

July 23, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Forget the campus fame, the media coverage, the proud alums and the smiling boosters. There's no real meaning behind any of that.

The game clock only hints at this possibility, but there's a point for everybody when you realize that the game is over. When you step off the playing field, your role changes.

One minute: a star quarterback, the team's most valuable player, playing in a bowl game. The next: a worried defendant, the accused, marooned far away from a football field.

One minute: a successful coach, the father figure, a leader of men. The next: a character witness, the supporter, taking the stand in a courtroom.

There's no scoreboard that will tell you this, but there wasn't a single winner when Lamar Owens, the Naval Academy's quarterback last season, was cleared of rape charges last week.

On Friday, a military jury recommended no punishment for Owens in connection with two lesser charges.

Navy coach Paul Johnson was at home when he heard the news. He picked up the phone and called Owens. It went to voice mail, and the coach said that he was happy for Owens, happy for his family, and that he hoped they could all move forward.

As tough as the past six months have been, moving forward is no easy challenge. Not for Owens and not for his accuser. Not for the academy and not for Johnson's football team.

"Lamar and his family, for them this has been a tremendous pressure," Johnson said. "I wasn't really worried about the program. The program stands on its own. I can see where for some people, though, the verdict does vindicate Lamar and maybe it does vindicate the program a little bit."

Johnson has remained mostly tightlipped about the case. He spoke with reporters during the team's spring practice but has said little else. Even after the verdict, Johnson was careful with his words when I spoke with him Friday evening.

But you could tell how highly Johnson regards Owens. The two met six years ago when the coach recruited Owens to play for him at Division I-AA powerhouse Georgia Southern. Then, when Johnson accepted the Navy job five years ago, he persuaded Owens to follow him to Annapolis.

There's a reason that Owens' defense attorneys called on Johnson as a character witness. The coach took the stand and said Owens had always been "above reproach," but the judge, Navy Cmdr. John Maksym, barred Johnson from sharing any opinions on the charges brought against Owens.

"What they were saying Lamar did, well, it was just totally out of character," Johnson told me Friday. "The accusations weren't the Lamar that I knew."

That's why it was so easy for Johnson to tell everyone to just allow the case to play out. Johnson says he was confident that if Owens was not guilty, the evidence and testimony would reveal it.

"I think some people are quick to jump to conclusions," he said. "But my take all along was: Let's wait and see what happens. People want to rush to judgment, but that's not fair to anybody. You have to give a guy a chance to defend himself."

The charges never made sense to anyone who knew Owens. He was from a good home - his father works for the power company, his mother is a prenatal nurse. He attended a military school before coming to the Naval Academy. He recited Scripture to friends and attended Bible study sessions every Thursday.

In fact, after the accuser went to academy officials with her allegations, several of Owens' teammates wanted to confront her en masse. Owens pleaded with them not to. He even went to Johnson and asked the coach to also discourage his teammates.

They all love Owens. It's why the players voted him Most Valuable Player of last season's 8-4 team. It's why they were in court for 10 straight days, sitting together in the gallery as a show of support.

They all breathed a sigh of relief Friday. What they knew about their friend, now everyone knew.

But no one thinks this is completely over. When someone levies a serious charge, such as rape, the pounding of a gavel doesn't make everything disappear.

Owens has completed his classwork but isn't certain he'll be allowed to graduate. There's also the possibility that he could be expelled from the academy and forced to repay costs for his taxpayer-funded schooling: $140,000.

"He's been remarkably upbeat," Johnson said of Owens. "I think he's handling stuff very well."

Owens won, but so much has been lost. In sports, victory is supposed to be the ultimate reward, but that doesn't always translate neatly to the real world.

There's so often a gray area - between consent and force, between innocence and guilt, between winning and losing.

"Nobody wins in these situations," Johnson said.

Owens is a free man now. The Midshipmen begin practice next week. And life at the academy is back to normal.

But not really.

There are lessons in this for everyone - surely, for Owens and his accuser, but also for team officials and school administrators. It's just unfortunate that this is how lessons are learned.

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