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On Texas TE signee Reese Leitao, core values, mistakes, and privilege

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Tom Herman differentiates between mistakes and core value violations. Mike Perrin believes Leitao made a mistake.

reese leitao
Reese Leitao (left)
via @laitao_reese

By many accounts, Texas Longhorns head coach Tom Herman failed his first morality test upon his return to Austin, hiring former Baylor staffer and vocal Art Briles supporter Casey Horny as a quality control assistant out of a sense of loyalty and a supposed commitment to alignment.

By some accounts, Herman and athletic director Mike Perrin failed the second test on Tuesday, when Perrin released a statement announcing that tight end signee Reese Leitao will be able to enroll at Texas after his felony drug charge was reduced to a misdemeanor.

Central to the discussion of Perrin’s decision are the core values that Herman claimed to carry over from former head coach Charlie Strong, who stood strong in those values while dismissing numerous players from the Longhorns program. Many of those dismissals came after several rounds of drug tests early in his tenure.

In early February, not long after Leitao signed with Texas and not long before his arrest, Herman stood in front of the Texas High School Coaches Association with the five core values emblazoned behind him.

As those core values apply to Leitao, that crucial difference between a mistake and a core value violation is paramount.

Herman obstructs the slide slightly, so it’s difficult to read the text at the bottom that delineates that difference, but we do know that Herman views mistake as correctable and that Perrin believes that Leitao made a mistake.

“Based on several discussions with people who know Reese well as a person both on and off the field, he’s been a good student, highly-regarded teammate, and leader among his peers,” Perrin said in a statement released by the school on Tuesday. “All indications are that he’s a young man with a history of good character and behavior who made a poor decision.”

We also know that Herman distanced himself somewhat from this decision — he didn’t release a statement alongside Perrin and spoke only through a Texas spokesperson.

“I support Mike’s decision and look forward to getting Reese on campus,” Herman said.

If Herman had wanted to take a stand on this particular issue in support of those core values, however, he likely would have been able to overrule Perrin, which obviously didn’t happen.

The context is crucial here, too, as Leitao’s credentials as a student-athlete clearly weighed heavily in the decision by the Tulsa County prosecutor to accept his plea deal and in the decision by Perrin to allow him to enroll at Texas.

Leitoa’s father, Dave, who is now the head coach of the DePaul basketball program, was an assistant at Tulsa for two years, which allowed Reese the opportunity to enroll at Jenks.

More than just a powerhouse football program with 16 state titles, Jenks is also one of the top public schools in the state, regularly producing National Merit Scholars. Leitao took full advantage of those educational opportunities — he had a 4.0 GPA and was known as “mature beyond his years.”

As part of Perrin’s decision-making process, the athletic director met with Leitao and his parents to make his own personal assessments of Leitao’s character and level of contrition.

“I recently met with Reese and his parents and found him to be contrite, sincere, and accountable for his actions,” Perrin said. “He has taken ownership of his mistake and the consequences that come with it.”

To understand why Leitao will have the opportunity to play football at Texas despite that admission that he was selling Xanax at Jenks, it’s also important to understand the role of privilege in this case — his privilege has helped insulate him from the worst of those consequences.

Playing football at Jenks carries with it significant privilege.

The school has won 16 state championships since 1978, most of them in the 6A classification, where Jenks has competed since 1993.

Like many top programs in Texas, Jenks is big business in Oklahoma, which thereby affords the school and its head coach prominent positions in the community. In fact, head coach Allan Trimble was making a salary of over $100,000 during the 2008-09 school year when he was suspended for numerous recruiting violations that he committed along with his staff.

So when Trimble stood up for Leitao’s character, that carried significant weight in the community — the longtime Jenks head coach has won 13 state titles in 21 years at the Oklahoma powerhouse and likely earned some increased sympathy last summer when he was diagnosed with ALS, but decided to continue coaching.

Without that support from Trimble and other school administrators — and the impact that support had on the prosecutor’s office — Leitao might not have been able to secure his plea deal.

Understand, however, that the credibility of Trimble and school administrators wasn’t merely handed to them. The school’s academic reputation and success on the football field were hard won by all parties involved, though Trimble admittedly pushed some boundaries to make sure he had the necessary talent available.

The further elements of privilege extend to Leitao’s family, as his father received a five-year contract from DePaul in 2016 and has made millions of dollars in his coaching career, which has included previous head coaching stops at Virginia and Maine, in addition to his his first stint at DePaul.

The lucrative profession allowed the elder Leitao to hire the top-rated criminal defense attorney in Tulsa — Allen Smallwood, a Tulsa native who has spent nearly his entire life there with the exception of his time in the Marines and at Oklahoma State.

A former president of the Oklahoma Bar Association, Smallwood has received numerous awards and honors and has been extremely active in different organizations and associations over his long career.

Had Leitao’s family been unable to afford a high-powered criminal defense attorney, the Texas tight end signee likely wouldn’t have secured his plea deal.

Even then, Smallwood was surprised at the end result of the court case.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever accomplished this with the initial filing to what it is now,” he told the Statesman.

Other than Leitao’s personal reputation around Jenks and the larger city of Tulsa and the support of his head coach, the quality of his legal representation was likely a critical factor in his ultimate plea deal.

But that raises another critical question.

Should Perrin have based his decision on the perception of guilt as a result of Leitao’s admission or on the end result of the legal process? Or some combination thereof?

Over at the Austin-American Statesman, columnist Kirk Bohls believes that Texas made a poor choice — he believes that Perrin should have based his decision on the perception of guilt as a result of Leitao’s admission.

“Texas made the wrong decision by clearing the way for tight end signee Reese Leitao to play football for the Longhorns after his felony drug charge was reduced to a misdemeanor with a four-year deferred sentence,” Bohls wrote.

“Longhorns head coach Tom Herman and men’s athletic director Mike Perrin are taking a big risk by bringing Leitao aboard. Leitao deserves a second chance to make good, and I hope he makes the most of it, but I think he forfeited his privilege to play for the Longhorns.”

Bohls also noted that the key fact here in the argument against Leitao’s enrollment is his admission of selling the Xanax he was caught with during the administrative search at Jenks that led to his original felony charge.

At the time of that search, Leitao had 20 Xanax pills on his person — 19 of them stashed in a bottle in his underwear — and more than $2,000 in cash.

The question then becomes whether Leitao was a drug dealer at Jenks and whether that ultimately matters in assessing that critical difference between a mistake and a core value violation.

The story coming out of Jenks is that he was not a drug dealer, according to Horns Digest:

A source connected to Jenks High School told HD it was their belief Leitao offered to take the tablets from a female Jenks student from a well-connected family in Tulsa, because Leitao didn’t think he’d get checked by campus officers.

In other words, Leitao attempted to trade on his reputation to help someone else, at least in this version of the events that led to his arrest.

According to Smallwood, his client had been selling Xanax for “about a week,” which he termed a “momentary lapse of judgement.”

The Tulsa County prosecutor felt similarly and was therefore willing to take a chance on Leitao, believing that he would make good on his second chance.

And so is Perrin.

Where Bohls seems likely to be wrong here is in calling Leitao a “big risk” — nothing about this case or Leitao’s history suggests that he’s likely to find himself in a similar scenario at Texas.

In Herman’s initial statement following Leitao’s arrest, he indicated that the school was going to “let the legal system run its course” before addressing it.

The legal system ran its course and Leitao received a misdemeanor for possession of a controlled substance. That’s the bottom-line result, regardless of his previous admission.

If Leitao’s admission of selling Xanax was enough to disqualify him from enrollment, Texas would have announced that at the time of his arrest.

Instead, the administration assumed that he was innocent until proven guilty and following a period of information-gathering and “considerable reflection,” Perrin reached the decision that Leitao will be able to enroll at Texas.

Understand that Leitao’s case is an entirely unique confluence of core values, mistakes, and privilege — separating those elements and making value judgements about them is a difficult process that inevitably involves the interjection of numerous personal morals.

Those personal morals and resulting judgements ultimately depend upon the weight given to Leitao’s admission of guilt to Jenks administrators and the cognitive dissonance provided by the end result of the legal process.

From the legal standpoint, Leitao came out with a second chance, albeit one with some problematic circumstances attached to it. However, despite those elements of privilege that allowed for Leitao’s plea deal, perhaps it is worthwhile to grant him the grace of forgiveness in light of that decision.

Mike Perrin already has.