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UF SUSPENSION A LESSON FOR FSU

The Gators react quickly and correctly in taking action on QB Harris.

A terrible allegation. An appropriate response.

This is how you do it.

If you are looking for leadership, looking for responsibility, looking for how to do things the right way, the University of Florida is showing everyone how responsible leaders are supposed to act.

Florida quarterback Treon Harris is being investigated in connection with an alleged sexual assault of a UF student early Sunday morning, just hours after rescuing the Gators season and, perhaps, saving coach Will Muschamp's job.

Notice the phrasing there. He is being investigated.

Not arrested. Not convicted. Investigated.

The school could hide behind due process. It could release a statement asking everyone to let the case play out, to allow the facts to come forth before convicting and condemning a talented young man with an apparently bright football future.

It could do what most schools would do, which is to scoff and hide and defend and cover up the possible actions of a star athlete and do anything within its power to protect the football team's reputation.

Florida, for the moment, has chosen another path.

Florida has decided to put the welfare of a student ahead of the football program. It has determined that getting to the bottom of this serious allegation is more important than beating LSU. It is saying that it takes sexual assault more seriously than a football game.

It has decided to suspend Harris, who seemed in line to be the Gators' new starting quarterback.

"We have no tolerance for sexual assault on our campus," UF president Bernie Machen said in a statement. "The university is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for every member of the UF community. We must strive to protect all of our students from sexual harassment and assault, and do everything in our power to promote a safe learning environment."

Somebody pass these words along to Florida State, would you? Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of sexual assault in January 2013 - with the allegations becoming public in November - and he kept right on playing, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading FSU to the national title.

It's important to note that charges were never brought against Winston, but it's equally important to note that charges have not been brought against Harris, either. But Winston played on and Harris is suspended.

Unlike FSU, Florida is handling this the right way.

Florida State supporters will read that last sentence and be outraged, of course. Here is a Gators player who might have committed a heinous crime and somehow Florida State is being criticized.

But even Seminoles fans would have to admit that there is a stark contrast to how Florida is handling the Harris situation compared to how FSU dealt with the Winston case.

Florida's action has been swift and hard. The president - not the athletic director, not the head coach - is the one making the decisions and speaking on behalf of the university. The University Police Department immediately called in the Gainesville Police Department to help with the sensitive investigation.

All in all, Florida's goal seems to be finding out exactly what happened in that dorm room early Sunday morning as opposed to finding a way to keep its football program out of trouble and one of its stars on the field.

Is this to suggest that Florida takes sexual assault more seriously than Florida State? No. What it does mean is that Florida is more wise about it, perhaps because of the Winston case and the way Florida State mishandled it.

To be honest, one could even argue that Florida really didn't have a choice but to suspend Harris.

After the public outcry in recent weeks and months over the Winston case, as well as the NFL's high-profile issues with domestic violence against women, Florida had to act first and ask questions later. Anything short of an immediate suspension would have made it seem as if Florida was doing what sports teams have always done, which is side with their stars until the evidence proved otherwise.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing and encouraging to see the way Florida has responded.

It hasn't kicked Harris out of school. It isn't ordering him off campus. It's just saying he can't play football.

In other words, it is putting football in its proper place.

For far too long, sports programs from high school to the pros have enabled their stars by treating them as if they were better than everyone else. It's no surprise then when those athletes think they can do whatever they want just because they can hit a baseball or slam-dunk a basketball. For once, a high-profile university is standing up and saying that athletes aren't above the law and that their welfare is no more or less important than any other student.

We have no idea how this Florida case will turn out. Maybe Harris did something criminal, maybe he didn't. This likely will turn into a nasty case of he-said/she-said in which we might never get the truth.

But, for now, finding out the truth is taking precedence over everything else, including a few football games that really don't seem so important anymore.

Isn't that how it should be?

- tjones@tampabay.com

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