The University of Tennessee athletic department is developing an image problem. Possibly a big one.
With Friday's announcement that basketball players Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams and Melvin Goins were arrested on gun and drug charges following a routine traffic stop near campus, UT is in danger of becoming the new millennium version of 1980s Miami football or 1990s UNLV basketball.
Without the national championship bling, of course.
Not seven weeks after three Big Orange football players were briefly charged with attempted armed robbery -- charges that later forced football coach Lane Kiffin to dismiss freshmen Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards -- another embarrassing and troubling incident has slam-dunked Bruce Pearl's hoops program.
What's next? The Valentine's Day release of "Vols Gone Wild"? Orange inmate jumpsuits for men's basketball warm-ups? Turning all those headbands into house arrest monitoring devices?
Beyond that, isn't it time Vols athletic director Mike Hamilton enforces the notion that a UT athletic scholarship is a privilege rather than a right?
Isn't it time that the UT brass -- whether it be Hamilton or officials higher up -- demand that the school's athletes behave in a way that emboldens its alumni and booster base rather than embarrassing them?
Big Orange loyalists can still cling to the argument that the football team's problems were isolated in nature. The incident that sidelined freshman defensive back Jantzen Jackson for two games and rid the program of Richardson and Edwards involved three of 85 scholarship players. Another embarrassment concerning a shoplifting charge against a fourth player still leaves 95 percent of Kiffin's roster untouched by scandal. At least for the moment.
But Smith, Tatum, Williams and Goins make up nearly a third of the scholarship basketball roster. Moreover, Pearl has counted on Smith to lead this team. Instead, the senior captain could now be the leading candidate for dismissal, since he's charged with possessing a firearm with an altered serial number, which is a felony offense but apparently is being treated as a misdemeanor in this case.
Then again, Smith has gotten closer to the NBA than ever before. Or did you miss the early Friday story that Washington Wizards teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton (the former Georgia Tech point guard) drew guns on each other inside the Wizards locker room during a Christmas Eve argument over an alleged gambling debt that Arena owed Crittenton?
Gives a whole new meaning to shooting guard, doesn't it?
But regardless of how the law ultimately judges the Vols' Four Flops, this has been an awful autumn for those Big Orange loyalists who believe that college should lift character rather than lower it, however quaint that concept is in today's winning-is-everything culture.
And if two arrests involving firearms in two different sports within seven weeks of each other don't swiftly force big changes in athlete conduct, they should at least demand small changes quickly -- particularly in Pearl's program, which for too long has only half-jokingly portrayed itself as the island of misfit toys.
For starters, get rid of the headbands, the ragged T-shirts under the jerseys and the nine styles of socks on any given game night. Cleanliness may or may not be next to godliness, but whether they like it or not, these guys represent more than themselves and Pearl. They represent the entire University of Tennessee, if not the whole state.
Yes, such a change would take away some individual freedom. But basketball isn't an individual sport. Moreover, almost any attorney will demand that Smith, Tatum and the gang clean up their images before appearing in court. So why not improve their appearances on the court as well?
Finally, get rid of the guns among all athletes, regardless of sport. The right to bear arms also demands responsibility. If you're driving around town stoned with guns under the front seat of your car in the middle of the afternoon, you don't deserve a firearm.
Maybe Hamilton, Pearl or both will come down hard on the Four Flops, and maybe they won't. Maybe the law will administer that tough love before it ever crosses a UT desktop.
But something needs to happen quickly, lest Pearl's island of misfit toys begin to resemble Alcatraz.