Alabama’s Nick Saban Was Scared, Really? How He Mishandled Jermaine Burton’s Discipline

Alabama coach Nick Saban should have watched or re-watched the classic film “Clear And Present Danger,” which offers one of the best media relations strategies, before he decided not to suspend wide receiver Jermaine Burton last week.

CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence Jack Ryan, played by Harrison Ford, is in a damage control meeting with the President of the United States. Peter Hardin, a former college classmate of the president who is a prominent businessman, has just been murdered as ordered by a drug lord (see Ozark) in a money laundering scheme.

“The press is going to have a field day with this,” the president laments.

“It will come up. When it does, we’ll downplay your relationship with Hardin somehow. We’ll defuse it.”

The president notices that Ryan does not seem on board.

“Do you disagree?”

“Yes,” Ryan says. “I would go in the other direction. If a reporter asks if you and Hardin were friends, I’d say, ‘Good friends.’ If they ask if you were good friends, I’d say, ‘Lifelong friends.’ Give them no place to go, nothing to report, no story. I mean, it’s no sense in defusing a bomb after it’s already gone off.”

Later, Ryan is watching television at home, and the president says exactly that at a press conference.


A bomb went off after Tennessee’s win over Alabama two weeks ago in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. As Burton left the field amid a mass of orange-clad humanity, he shoved a female Tennessee fan in the back of the head. It wasn’t a punch. She didn’t fall. And she wasn’t hurt, but that’s defusion and not the point.

She either got in Burton’s face or just crossed his vision. That’s more defusion because that often happens after college football games when fans rush the field, which is very common.

Alabama Tried To Defuse Jermaine Burton Shove

After video of Burton’s exchange with the woman came out a few days later, Alabama coach Nick Saban partially owned his player’s mistake, but he also tried to defuse it.

“I think it’s a difficult situation for the league,” Saban said. “I think it’s a difficult situation for all of us that are in that situation,” he said, which is true, but field stormings have been happening for decades. And that’s not the point.

“We certainly don’t condone any mistreatment of anybody whether they should or shouldn’t be there,” Saban continued. First part of that sentence is better, but he went back into reverse for the second part, because that’s not the point. There are almost always people on the field who shouldn’t be there after huge college football games, and Saban knows this. He has been in a handful of huge games just about every year since he got to Alabama in 2007. Was he really not expecting it?

Nick Saban Says Jermaine Burton 'Was Scared' Prior To On-Field Altercation With Tennessee Fan
Alabama coach Nick Saban decided to start wide receiver Jermaine Burton last Saturday against Mississippi State. (Getty Images)

“I think you have to have respect for other people,” Saban said, which was good and what he has undoubtedly told Burton.

“But at the same time, it’s a difficult situation for all of us,” he added, because he just couldn’t let his player take all the blame, which is wrong.

Alabama WR Jermaine Burton ‘Was Scared’

On Saban’s radio show last Thursday night, Saban made his best comment. “Respect other people. That’s on us to do that, and that’s certainly a lesson for all of us to learn relative to this.”

At this point, I thought Saban would do the right thing and suspend Burton in addition to the other discipline he is likely receiving from Saban along with some counseling.

Alabama wide receiver Jermaine Burton. (Getty Images)

Instead, Burton, a junior transfer from Georgia, started as usual on Saturday at Mississippi State and caught two passes for 40 yards in the Tide’s 30-6 win over Mississippi State.

Weak. What kind of message did Saban send to his other players?

When asked about his decision, Saban incorrectly reverted back to defusion.

“Look, I don’t know how many of you have been in a situation like that, but I talked to him,” he said. “He was scared.”

Burton was wearing equipment. He had a helmet. He should’ve put it back on as soon as he saw the field stormed. It was a scary scene for anyone with or without equipment, but when one is scared, one should not make a situation scarier. Keep to yourself and get off the field as quickly as possible. Burton’s swat of the female fan could have led to a mob of Tennessee fans going after him.

“I was scared,” said Saban, who was flanked by four police officers and has been walking through fully populated fields on occasion after games since his days as head coach at Michigan State in the 1990s and at LSU in the early 2000s.

“Some of our other players were scared,” he said.

Was Nick Saban Briefed By An Attorney?

OK, that’s three uses of the word “scared.” Was Saban making a preemptive stand for Burton should the woman decide to sue? The state of Tennessee has justification-of-force laws if “an individual has a reasonable belief that there is imminent danger of serious bodily injury,” according to Tennessee Code 39-11-611 (c).

Probably not, but the threat of a lawsuit would scare Burton and his teammates straighter than Saban deciding to go ahead and play Burton in the next game.

But then Saban made perfect, hard sense again a sentence later at the postgame press conference.

“I think you have to learn to respect other people because we have a responsibility to do that regardless of the circumstance that we’re in,” he said. Key words: “regardless of the circumstance that we’re in.”

Despite the entire postgame scene or if Burton was cussed at, spit on or even pushed by someone off camera, you do not hit a person who has not hit you, particularly a female fan.

“We had him in a counseling program,” Saban went on. “It’s about having the proper respect for other people. I didn’t think it was necessary to suspend the guy. If you knew the whole story, maybe you wouldn’t either. But I’m not going to divulge that.”

Incorrect. Because “regardless of the circumstance (or the whole story),” you “respect other people because we have a responsibility to do that,” to use Saban’s own words.

Saban should have suspended Jermaine Burton because that would have left the media with virtually “no place to go, nothing to report, no story,” as Jack Ryan said.

Instead Saban says the “whole story” is not out there, advancing the story.

Saban knows that many, including some at Alabama, wanted him to suspend Burton, but he probably didn’t want to publicly convict him or throw him out there as an example.

Nick Saban Has History Of Not Suspending Players

Saban did the same thing back in 2016 when star offensive tackle Cameron Robinson and defensive back Laurence “Hootie” Jones were arrested in May of that year in their Monroe, La., hometown. Robinson was charged with felony possession of a stolen gun and misdemeanor marijuana possession at 2:30 a.m. at a park in Monroe. Jones was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana and carrying a weapon in the presence of narcotics.

The district attorney dropped all charges famously because he said he didn’t want “to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adoloscence working and sweating while we were all home in the air conditioning.”

The DA didn’t say if the car they were in with a gun and weed had air conditioning. Saban famously did not suspend either player for any games that season, but they were disciplined quite a bit in the aftermath.

Asked why he did not suspend either by Paul Finebaum that summer, Saban shot back with edge, “Because I’m not going to convict them in the public. You said that I was going to get criticized by you and the public and the media because I’m not going to suspend him. And I really don’t care about that.”

But public discipline can be very effective. Saban knows that because he has often done it that way.

Part of Saban’s thinking with Burton is that of a contrarian, which he has also done before. You’re telling me to do it, so I’m not going to do it.

Worse than that, Saban is contradicting himself. He has often said the best way to discipline your child or your player is by taking away something they value. All players value playing time more than anything else.

Nick Saban Has A Deeper History Of Suspending Players

Saban knows this, which is why he has suspended so many players from games during his coaching career, including star players, and he has often done it publicly.

He suspended two-year starting linebacker Prince Hall multiple times in 2007 in Saban’s first year at Alabama when he was weak at linebacker. He sent home highly recruited freshmen linebackers Ryan Anderson and Dillon Lee before the national championship game in the 2012 season. Starting linbacker Trey DePriest was suspended for the season opener against Michigan in 2012.

“He made a mistake,” Saban said of DePriest, who violated team rules. “It wasn’t a very smart thing to do. And there has to be consequences.” Yes, that is needed.

In 2013, he suspended starting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a first round pick in 2014, for two games and linebacker Xzavier Dickson for the Sugar Bowl.

Tailback Alvin Kamara, who has become one of the best backs in the NFL, was suspended multiple times for “behavioral reasons” in 2013 before he transferred to a junior college, then to Tennessee. Starting defensive back Geno Smith was suspended for the 2013 season opener against Virginia Tech for a DUI.

Starting left guard Deonte Brown, tight end Kendrick James and offensive lineman Elliot Baker were suspended for the Orange Bowl in the 2018 season.

Former Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2020, was twice suspended by Alabama coach Nick Saban in the 2019 season. (Getty Images)

In 2019, Saban suspended star wide receiver DeVonta Smith, tailback Najee Harris, who was a top rusher in 2018, and tailback Brian Robinson for the first half of the season opener against Duke, and all they did was miss a team function.

In 2021, Saban suspended linebacker Quandarrius Robinson for three games after a DUI when he was involved in a three-car accident in which there were no injuries.

Also in 2019, Saban again suspended Smith, who was his leading receiver at the time with 38 catches for 636 yards and nine touchdowns and would win the Heisman in 2020, for the first half of the Tennessee game for punching Texas A&M safety Leon O’Neal, who had just punched Smith.

“That really can’t be tolerated,” Saban said of Smith’s punch. “It’s a lesson that all players need to learn from in terms of you can’t make emotional decisions on the field. You can’t do what you feel like doing. You have to have enough discipline to walk away, even if you’re provoked into something. Obviously, the (A&M) player shouldn’t have punched him, but he also should have had the discipline not to punch him back.”

At LSU in 2002, Saban kicked safety Damien James, one of his best defensive backs, off the team with four regular season games to go for repeated team rule violations. LSU lost the SEC West title less than a month later in the final seconds at Arkansas because of a blown coverage in the secondary.

What Message Is Alabama Sending To Its Players?

“From a program standpoint and for the overall discipline of the players, you have to have accountability,” Saban said when he suspended James.

Two decades later with Jermaine Burton, Saban forgot that “overall discipline” and “accountability” part.

Forget if a suspension would have appeased the media and many others and likely ended the story. Saban should have suspended Burton because it was the right thing to do, particularly for his other players.

So what message did Saban send to his other players by not suspending Burton?

If Alabama loses at LSU on Nov. 5, and the field is stormed (which it will be for what would be LSU’s first win over the Tide in Tiger Stadium since 2010), will another Alabama player say this?

Hey, I can push one of these fans. Jermaine did, and he still got to play the next game.

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

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