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Ching: Rainey’s situation reveals priorities

Barring the moral upset of the century, Florida football coach Urban Meyer will announce Thursday that Chris Rainey will play in Saturday’s game against Georgia.

Should Rainey’s expected reinstatement come to pass, that makes this a perfect time to re-examine our priorities and the emphasis our sporting culture places on winning.

Many fans thump their chests over their coaches’ empty rhetoric about doing things the right way until their team stops winning – as has happened in Gainesville, where the Gators have lost three consecutive games for the first time under Meyer. We’re more than willing to see the coach look the other way – in fact, we encourage it – when the losses start to pile up, however.

That’s what makes the Rainey situation so interesting. It’s a case study in the moral leaps a fan base will make to keep a player with electrifying touchdown-scoring ability on the active roster and to support the actions of a coach whose only concern appears to be winning big.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Rainey is the Gators receiver who last month pleaded guilty to misdemeanor stalking – he was originally charged with felony aggravated stalking – after threatening to kill a girlfriend.

He admits sending her a text message that read, "Time to die (expletive)." Later when police arrived and the girlfriend called Rainey to say an officer wanted to speak to him, he reportedly said, "Wait and see what happens when they leave" – a statement Rainey later denied making.

To be fair to Rainey, the girlfriend helped get the charges reduced by testifying on his behalf, saying she did not fear Rainey and did not want him to be prosecuted.

But since we’re trying to lay all the facts on the table here, it’s also worth pointing out that Rainey has produced nine plays that covered 30 yards or more in his Florida career. Without Rainey and most of the explosive playmakers who dotted the Gators’ offensive roster in recent years – think Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Louis Murphy, Aaron Hernandez and Andre Caldwell, among others – the Gators’ once-dominant offense has lost its bite.

With those players in the fold, Florida led the Southeastern Conference in most offensive categories. This year, the Gators rank toward the bottom, not only in the SEC, but in the nation.

They’re 89th in the nation in total offense and 62nd in scoring offense after ranking sixth in total offense and 10th in scoring offense in 2009.

So it hardly seemed like a coincidence when, after totaling a measly six points and 281 yards against Alabama and following that with 243 yards in a loss to LSU, Meyer allowed Rainey to return to the team in a limited capacity the day after the LSU game.

He still didn’t allow Rainey – whom Gators center Mike Pouncey described this week as "our best player" – to play in the next game, a 10-7 home loss to Mississippi State where the offense turned in another anemic effort, but Meyer has all but made it known that Rainey will return this week.

And the timing behind his decision couldn’t seem more obvious, considering the implications of Saturday’s game against the Gators’ arch rivals. Somehow both Georgia and Florida can still win the SEC East title, and the Gators’ chances are greatly improved with a player of Rainey’s caliber back on the field.

Rainey sat out five games for violating one of Meyer’s self-stated "core values" of Florida football – that value being respect toward women. While Florida’s values statement does not specify a pre-determined punishment for disrespecting a woman – or threatening to kill one, in this case – apparently that will net you five games.

Even if Meyer shocks the world and doesn’t let Rainey play Saturday, he’s already allowed him back on the team. If not Saturday, he’ll play soon enough.

And I suppose that’s fine. Florida has entrusted Meyer with producing a winning football team and a program that won’t shame the school with its players’ actions off the field. If he and his administration feel five games are enough, that’s their decision to make.

But don’t feed us that hokey "core values" baloney ever again.

CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel – a Florida grad himself – took Meyer to task over that very issue after he allowed Rainey back on the team.

"Meyer cares only about winning games, and if he’d stand there and tell the world, ‘I care only about winning games,’ then I could live with it," Doyel wrote. "I’d still be embarrassed that a dangerous cretin like Chris Rainey was allowed to represent my school so soon after telling a woman that it was time to die (expletive), but I could live with Meyer being true to who Meyer is, which is a cutthroat coach concerned not with his players or his university, but with his career winning percentage and the $24 million contract that comes with it."

This is most certainly not a "Coach X and his school are superior to Coach Y and his school" discussion. The order of Meyer’s priorities is clear – and he’s far from alone in his profession on this issue. He’s just the coach in the crosshairs today.

One reason coaches behave that way is because their fans don’t care about what goes on behind the scenes between Sunday and Friday. They don’t care if the players visit children in the hospital or go to class or make good grades or graduate and make something of their lives.

Most fans care only about winning and, to a lesser extent, whether their team’s players stay out of jail and remain eligible to play.

I’d wager Gators fans support Meyer’s decision by an overwhelming margin, and many of Georgia’s fans would, too, were the shoe on Mark Richt’s foot.

There’s one tricky little detail of Rainey’s case that’s impossible to ignore, however.

Regardless of whether his girlfriend truly believed her life was in jeopardy, Chris Rainey threatened to kill her and it bothered her enough that she felt compelled to call the police.

Personally, I don’t want to associate with someone who threatens to commit murder or have them represent me in any way.

I’m sure Urban Meyer feels the same way – unless, apparently, the threatener in question is really good at scoring touchdowns and the offense is in a slump.

• David Ching is the sports editor of the Banner-Herald. Phone: (706) 208-2239.       E-mail: david.ching@onlineathens.com.                                  

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