It’s been no secret how ardent a supporter of Dan Mullen I am, and always have been. He was one of my co-top picks to replace Jim McElwain in 2017, and was high on my list two coaching searches ago as well back in 2014. His first year in Gainesville only surpassed my expectations: he turned Feleipe Franks from a nightmare into a competent SEC quarterback, and the program from a four win laughingstock into a New Year’s Six Bowl winner. He’s restored the swagger to a once proud program, the brash culture that breeds winners, and has, by all accounts, made Florida football fun again.
But no human being goes to the grave having operated every nanosecond of his or her life in the ideal manner. Everybody makes mistakes. And with the situation regarding Chris Steele, pretty much everybody involved made one, the aggregate effect of which was an apocalyptic and unsalvageable screwup- a statement that very much includes, but is not limited to, Mullen as the effective CEO of the program.
Let’s go back to January. Chris Steele immediately detected something was wrong with his roommate, Jalon Jones, who as we all know by now has been accused of sexual battery against multiple women. A source close to the team told me that Steele initially approached Jones with his concerns about him, and the conversation ended with Steele feeling no better about his fellow freshman than when it began. Within the next 96 hours, Steele requested a room transfer.
Steele approached someone on Florida’s staff and told them that he had serious reservations about rooming with Jalon Jones. He did not specifically mention that Jones was causing young women physical and emotional pain, but though he was vague in his description, he made sure to include his true feelings about him. His pitch to UF staff was based on the fact that Jones was a troubling character and that he feared that one day, Jones would do something he should not do and that he, Steele, would become guilty by association. And he was right!
It is unknown whether Jones outright committed an act of sexual battery prior to Steele filing his request, or if he had just displayed warning signs and toed but did not cross the line from inappropriate to illegal behavior. We can all guess our answers to this, but it is not known for a fact.
But what I do know is that Steele did not provide the coaching staff with details that left them with no choice other than to make a move in that very instant. Today’s climate has dictated that rumblings of sexual violence must trigger a domino effect of alarm bells, and so had Steele laid that out in his explanation regarding why he wanted a new living situation, UF would have been placed in the position of either pulling out all the stops to fulfill his request, or ignoring a report of sexual violence on its campus. I’m certain that had Steele explained the severity of the issue with Jones, Florida would not have hesitated to act.
Without that critical piece of information, Florida essentially deferred on Steele’s request. The name and title of the person who made this decision is not known, but this person’s decision was relayed to Florida’s coaching staff, who relayed to Steele that they’d be happy to move him in the summer. Steele was clearly unhappy with the prospect of rooming with somebody he was (correctly) worried would get him in trouble one day, and shortly thereafter alerted his parents to the situation. Sure enough, less than three months later, Jalon Jones’ name was in a police report- and so, for that matter, was Chris Steele‘s. One for something far worse than the other, but nevertheless, it should go without saying that people try to keep their names out of police reports as much as possible.
Steele’s parents were understandably over the moon with their fury. How could they have let their son travel 3,000 miles across the continent and not be taken seriously when he made a good faith effort to keep himself away from bad characters? At the absolute minimum, that’s several hours’ worth of questions at the NFL combine for Steele that could have been avoided had Florida taken his request seriously and taken instant action. The Steele family trusted Florida’s staff to keep their son safe and out of trouble, and they didn’t do it despite being presented with a direct request to do so by their son. And I understand, as I’m sure the Steeles do, that there is only a finite amount of living space in Gainesville and thus moving him would not have been an easy task on such short notice, but I’m inclined to believe that in clear extenuating circumstances, it could have been arranged for Steele to spend the rest of the spring semester on a blowup mattress in an off-campus apartment with some of the upperclassmen. So while difficult, it wasn’t altogether impossible to adhere to his request.
Now, of course, there’s another side to this, one that some fans have not been shy about pointing out. Football is a sport that demands toughness by every definition of the word. It also demands a brotherhood that bonds every single participant for life with a common experience that will be remembered forever. Disagreements, disputes and even fistfights among teammates do happen, but most of the time are resolved with no lasting consequences. Within football’s culture, approaching your school’s staff so early in the semester and telling them that your roommate is freaking you out, he’s going to get in trouble one day, you’re worried you’ll be dragged down by association, and therefore you need to be moved to a new room and that the only acceptable timeframe to make this move is right now, can certainly be seen as being a diva, a bad teammate and a potential locker room problem. Allow me to lay out in crystal clear terms, it turned out that this was unequivocally not the case with Chris Steele- but the point is that this attitude is prevalent among football programs, and there are some individual players who advance that aforementioned notion.
And that worked against Steele, as did the fact that he was a five star recruit from California, because it’s very much within the realm of possibility that Florida coaches had this mindset about Steele when pushed about giving him a new rooming situation before the sun rose the next day. It was not Dan Mullen’s decision to hold firm on the “wait until summer, we’re not making special accommodations for you” verdict when Steele pressed, nor was it Todd Grantham’s decision, but they also had the opportunity- and the leverage to fight it with the person who did bang the metaphorical gavel on said decision and they didn’t do it. Would it have been easy to do, or commonplace? No to both, but nor was Steele’s decision to approach them with his concerns in the first place on both the easy or the commonplace counts. If an eighteen year old college freshman can do the right thing for himself despite its degree of difficulty and rarity, why can’t fully grown adults do the same?
Of course, as we all know, Jones has been removed from the campus and the program, which means that there’s obviously no cover-up going on here as rival fans are claiming/hoping. No sooner was Florida presented with the eloquent detail that Jalon Jones inserted his fingers into a woman’s vagina against her will than they gave him his walking papers. And the reason the school did not do more than just that was because none of Jones’ accusers wanted to pursue criminal charges. By no means is Florida guilty of attempting to conceal any information regarding the terrible things that Jones did, and once the reports they received about Jones moved from the abstract (he’s a bad character and I’m worried I’m going down with him by association) to the concrete (penetrating a woman despite being repeatedly told to stop) they did take action. Florida did not handle this with an ideal response, or an acceptable one, but nor did they do anything nefarious or malevolent. And they did do something- granted, the baseline expectation for this scenario, which is not exactly worthy of a birthday cake, but it is something.
But for Steele and his family, it was too little too late. The trust the Steeles had for Mullen and his staff has been broken, and it’s not likely to be fixed. Chris is back home with his parents now, completely moved out, and in the NCAA transfer portal looking for a new home, which leaves Mullen in the unenviable position of having to re-recruit a top tier kid with a high level of character. Mullen flew out to California two days ago to meet with his family and present his side, which included an apology, pointing out that Jones was removed from campus when more details about him came to light, and a promise to do better. And we’ll see what happens here, but I don’t believe it worked. Barring an unforeseen development, Steele is gone.
More importantly, and more unfortunately: the Gators lost one of their most talented players in the 2019 recruiting class because he tried to get away from someone he feared would get him into trouble, and Florida told him that he had to continue living with him for another four months. They let him down. And they let future players down, too, by setting the precedent of not taking a player’s concerns about his teammate seriously enough to ensure that they can feel safely out of the way of their roommate’s net of trouble. I’m positive that the people involved here feel terrible, would act differently if they could go back and do it again, and will act differently should a similar situation arise in the future, but for this situation it’s too late. They learned a valuable lesson, and the pricetag for that lesson read “3-4 years of Chris Steele’s services on and off the field.”
All Florida can do now is learn from this error, take players’ claims of this nature more seriously or at the very least investigate them, and do better moving forward. They owe it to future Chris Steeles, who make a good faith effort to distance themselves from people they feel could get them into trouble, to listen to what they’re being told, recognize that it takes quite a lot for a college football player to ask for a different living situation regardless of what they’re told, and take appropriate action.