GAINESVILLE — When sophomore cornerback Janoris Jenkins was arrested early May 30, it brought national attention to the Gator football program for something other than its athletic achievements.
It was the 24th instance in which a Florida player faced a misdemeanor or felony charge since coach Urban Meyer took over in 2005, and it greatly intensified the debate over whether the program has become one that wants to win at any cost.
The Gators have won two national championships in Meyer's four years, and despite growing national attention on the arrests, Meyer insists Florida is not a renegade program.
"This group of players we have now are by and large a pretty good group," Meyer said in a statement. "They are 18 to 22 years old, and like most young people, they are trying to find their way."
Police said Jenkins, 20, was involved in a fight downtown, then later ran when told to stop. His attorney said Jenkins attempted to break up a fight, then fought back when an attacker grabbed at a gold chain he was wearing.
It was the 20th arrest of a UF player under Meyer. The other arrests include accusations of throwing food at a sandwich shop employee, assaulting a girlfriend and using the credit card of a fellow student after she died in a motorcycle accident.
"It is a continual part of our program to mentor and guide our players, and it is not an exact process," Meyer said. "Although we have been very successful with most, we are by no means perfect. We are disappointed when we encounter some issues along the way, but we are going to continue to educate and teach our players."
Although 24 run-ins with the law in four years seem alarming — in that span Georgia had 30, Tennessee 21, FSU 16, USF 11 and Miami two — Gainesville law enforcement officers say they should be put in the context of the general student population.
"There are about 80,000 students in Gainesville," said Lt. Keith Kameg, public information officer for the Gainesville Police Department, including Santa Fe College in his total. "When you see or hear about 24 arrests, that's not even a blip. In maybe 80, or possibly even 90 percent of the cases, if they (involved) a student not on a sports team that's being looked at nationally, you'd never write about them."
Kameg said student arrests are common because of the nature of most offenses: a combination of alcohol, underage drinking and immature behavior that often leads to physical altercations.
"We know as law enforcement it's faster, easier and more efficient to take people to jail to stop the fight and get them away from the situation before it gets worse than to mediate it on the streets," Kameg said.
"And those factors usually will provide that on any given weekend, if it's busy, you can easily see 20 to 30 arrests — misdemeanor citations and total arrests — of college students."
Of the arrests under Meyer, five have involved two players: Jacques Rickerson (two) and Ronnie Wilson (three). Both were dismissed from the team.
"I am in no way trying to excuse the actions of those football players, but when you're a police department that is in a college town of significant size, and by that I mean more than 100,000, you're going to have issues with students," Kameg said. "That is a total fact of life.
"We understand the community is under the microscope, students are under the microscope, and if you are on the No. 1 team in the United States, the microscope just got infinitely larger. And the one thing I will say, speaking strictly for the police, the University Athletic Association and the football staff have tried to work with us on all fronts."
The most recent joint venture between the police and the association kicked off June 18. Players began participating in a ride-along program with Gainesville officers. The ride-alongs, available to anyone, were agreed upon after recent conversations among Meyer and law enforcement officers after Jenkins' arrest.
Athletic officials say Meyer has been tough on players who have been arrested. They point out that the most egregious offenders were dismissed from the team and contend that the other athletes have been disciplined by Meyer in ways that generally have not been made public.
"No one works harder in this area than Urban," athletic director Jeremy Foley said in a statement. "Anyone who can't see his desire to influence young men positively and make them better citizens has no idea who he is as a coach and a human being.
"It is really easy to focus on negative issues. … No one here condones our players stepping out of line, and everyone here wants to get better."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389.