Heisman Trophy Football

Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, winner of the Heisman Trophy, kisses the trophy Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Craig Ruttle

A year ago, like many American voters, I faced a dilemma.

In the vast majority of local, state and national elections of my adult life, I’d voted for the Republican candidate. I still adhered to the idea of voting for a person rather than a party, but in my case the GOP person’s beliefs and approach to government usually meshed well with my own.

But I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Donald Trump. I won’t get into all the reasons why, but suffice it to say that I wasn’t impressed with the character of the man. (I wrote in Marco Rubio, which some may call a “wasted vote,” but at least I could live with it.)

I share my electoral consternation because I faced another such dilemma this past week. I’m one of the 870 electors for the Heisman Trophy, and I found myself unable to cast a vote for arguably the most outstanding college football player in America, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. And, again, it came down to a character issue.

Some, especially Sooner fans, may ask, who made you the moral arbiter of college football? In response, I would say that I’m not that guy. What I am is a voter for the most prestigious individual honor in sports, and the recipient of that honor should live up to the responsibility of the prestige.

But don’t take my word for it. It’s spelled out right there in the first sentence of the mission statement of the Heisman trust: “The Heisman Memorial Trophy annually recognizes the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

When it came to Mayfield, it’s that last word that stuck in my craw. Integrity. The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles, or moral uprightness.

Did the Oklahoma quarterback really “best exhibit the pursuit of excellence with INTEGRITY?” Not in my view.

It would be different if it were the “College Football MVP” award. Most valuable player? OK, that’s Mayfield. He’s a marvel with the ball in his hands. He is intelligent, poised, elusive, dynamic – kind of a cross between Fran Tarkenton and Drew Brees, with some Johnny Manziel swagger mixed in.

I’m not anti-swagger, either. When Mayfield planted the OU flag on Ohio State’s field, I didn’t hold that against him. That’s harmless bravado. A little self-indulgent, maybe, but not enough to scratch him off my ballot.

But it’s the totality of Mayfield’s questionable decisions that gave me pause. It’s his offseason arrest for public drunkenness. It’s the tweaking of Texas Tech fans with a “Traitor” T-shirt. It’s chirping at Baylor in pregame, “You forgot who daddy is. I’m going to have to spank you today.” It’s his “errant” (eye roll) pregame pass that plunked a TCU player in the head. It’s the profanity-laced tirade he directed at Kansas while grabbing his crotch, an incident that prompted a slap-on-the-wrist suspension for a quarter of OU’s next game.

Following several of those incidents Mayfield would later stare into the cameras and apologize. Then he’d go out the next week and act like a spoiled brat all over again.

I’m sorry. I’m a parent. When my kids apologize for their disobedience but don’t correct their behavior, I know better. It’s not genuine. They’re only sorry they got caught.

The crimson and cream-colored devil’s advocate would say, well, what about the fact that Kansas egged it on against the Sooners? Jayhawk players didn’t shake Mayfield’s hand before the game, and a KU defender delivered a late-hit cheap shot after one of Mayfield’s passes.

Hey, I don’t condone that type of knucklehead behavior either. But you don’t have to stoop to their level. It doesn’t seem like Mayfield ever needs much provoking, anyway.

One well-reasoned Sooner fan friend of mine brought up the cases of Cam Newton, Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel – past Heisman winners who carried their own off-the-field baggage. OK, here’s the thing: I can’t account for how anyone else votes, only myself.

Newton’s win came before I was a Heisman elector. I did place A&M’s Manziel No. 1 on my ballot in my first year as a voter in 2012, but if you’ll recall Johnny Football was something of a mystery as a freshman, since the university shielded him from the media much of the year. He had one scrape outside a nightclub, but many of the controversies that would come to define Manziel were still months and years away.

As for Winston, I didn’t vote for the Florida State quarterback in 2013, because of character concerns.

That same OU pal noted that Mayfield routinely gives back to the Norman community, even beyond his court-mandated community service. He’ll apparently read to elementary school students, visit sick children in the hospital. That’s admirable. But I wonder what those same children think when they see him grabbing his crotch and acting like a jerk?

“I think about the kids that are watching,” Mayfield said following the Kansas game. “That’s not something that I want to do.”

Do you really consider the kids? It doesn’t seem like it. Because if you did, perhaps you wouldn’t have crossed the line in the first place.

For me, the player who best personified the pursuit of excellence with integrity this season was Stanford running back Bryce Love. From the moment I saw Love break a 62-yard run on his first play from scrimmage this season, I’ve been fond of the way he plays. (How could anyone not be enamored with a guy named Bryce Love?)

Love was consistent – he rushed for more than 100 yards in all but one of Stanford’s 13 games – while juking and jiving his way past would-be tacklers with what he called his “Spidey sense.” Plus, I had no qualms about the character of the Stanford junior, an aspiring pediatrician who is described by teammates as unfailingly humble.

Now, I could have withheld my first-place vote from Baker Mayfield and still put him elsewhere on my ballot. I don’t fault anyone, like my colleague John Werner, who went that direction, nor do I take issue with those media members who voted for Mayfield No. 1.

It’s their vote. They vote their conscience, just as I do mine. I just figured if I was going to take a stand on the integrity issue, I would go all-in, and leave Mayfield out of my top three altogether.

A few years ago, I embarrassingly started a Twitter spat with an ESPN reporter who had left Jeff Bagwell off his Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Now, I always try to avoid instigating confrontation on social media, including ignoring the trolls who want nothing more than stir up their own trouble. But I immaturely tweeted at this reporter, “Voters like you are part of the problem.”

In response to my tweet and others like it he’d received, the reporter responded something to the effect of, “It’s my vote. You’re welcome to join the Baseball Writers Association and get your own.”

That comment stuck with me, and I never bothered that guy again.

Sports fans are some of the most passionate people on the planet. They love their teams, and they’re often devoted to the players on those teams. No doubt that Oklahoma fans (and some others) will disagree with my analysis of Baker Mayfield. They might even vehemently disagree. That’s their right.

But it’s my ballot, and I’m the one who has to live with it. If you don’t like it, with all due respect, get your own.

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