The trouble with justice is that it’s a subjective concept that we allege to be purely objective when applied properly. Blindfold and scales and all that.
Yet, an individual’s point of view determines so much of the makeup of this nebulous notion. Furthermore, our collective perception of whether justice (again – whatever that may or may not mean) is being “served” generally, or whether the system in question “works,” is often dependent upon a few highlighted examples that garner overwhelming attention from the media and the public. Even when the truth might be that justice prevails in 998 instances out of 1,000, if the two outliers that account for 0.2% of the sample receive 50% of the media attention, human nature compels us to focus on those two and ignore or downplay the other 998.
Perhaps that’s an instructive preface to the unfortunate, quite possibly unjust case of Mr. Troy Davis.
Davis, you see, was unique. In all the annals of history, he was the first – the very first – to rush for over 2,000 yards twice in Division I-A (now FBS) history.
He accomplished this feat in both 1995 and 1996. He also had the misfortune of playing for a bad football team: The Iowa State Cyclones.
Iowa State finished last in the Big Eight (remember that?) in 1995, and last in its division in the inaugural season of the expanded Big XII (ditto). Somehow, Davis managed to rush for 2,010 and 2,185 yards, respectively, in those two years. That’s a remarkable feat in any season, much less a season limited to eleven games.
Davis finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting after his junior campaign. With both winner Eddie George and runner-up Tommie Frazier seniors in ’95, Davis’ chances at the 1996 trophy looked realistic.
It was not to be.
Despite a phenomenal year in which he tallied five 200-yard games in what was perhaps the best conference in the country in the mid-90’s, Davis came in a close second to Florida quarterback Danny Weurffel in the ’96 Heisman chase. Davis failed to win despite the fact that he actually finished first in three Heisman voting regions. In fact, had it not been for the South section (one of the six regions, and the one that includes Florida), Davis would have finished ahead of Weurffel.
The deep-seated bias against Davis in the South was too much to overcome.
To add insult to injury, Davis didn’t even win the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back. That recognition went to Byron Hanspard of Texas Tech – a player from Davis’ very own conference, and a player Davis had beaten out for Big XII Player of the Year honors.
Were these decisions just? Proponents would argue that Weurffel was instrumental in leading his team to the SEC and National Championships that year, and that difference was enough to give him the edge over Davis. The case for Hanspard isn’t as solid, but rests on a similar foundation: Texas Tech finished with a (barely) winning record of 6-5 during the regular season and played in the Alamo Bowl. The Iowa Hawkeyes trounced the Red Raiders, but, nonetheless, their overall performance was much stronger than a poor ISU team’s 2-9 effort.
Critics would counter that Davis’ case had undeniable special circumstances. They would say that a player that productive had never played on such a bad team. At a minimum, there was reasonable doubt as to whether Weurffel deserved the award over Davis. Alas, these arguments failed to persuade enough of the Heisman electorate.
Troy Davis struggled during a brief NFL stint, but went on to have a productive and successful career in the Canadian Football League. Davis put together five 1,000-yard seasons in the CFL. He was also named a CFL All-Star three times and All-CFL once. He won a Grey Cup title in 2005 with the Edmonton Eskimos.
The Heisman Trophy voters are spot-on more often than not. Although never unanimous, there’s usually a clear choice for the honor and little fanfare after the fact about how things “should” have turned out, much less clamoring for a different result.
No matter your sympathies or ideology, it’s a sad tale. Saddest of all, what’s done is done. Even if what happened may properly be called a miscarriage of justice, there is now no way to rectify it.
The Troy Davis example remains one that left parts of the country doubting the propriety of the system . . . even if the reality is that system almost always gets it right.