Mark Story

Greg McElroy’s criticism of Kentucky’s Matt Elam went too far

SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy, the quarterback of Alabama’s 2009 BCS championship team, said last week Kentucky nose guard Matt Elam, pictured, is “lazy and as underachieving a player as we’ve seen in this league in some time.”
SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy, the quarterback of Alabama’s 2009 BCS championship team, said last week Kentucky nose guard Matt Elam, pictured, is “lazy and as underachieving a player as we’ve seen in this league in some time.” Herald-Leader file photo

At the Governor’s Cup Luncheon last month in Frankfort, I asked Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops about senior nose guard Matt Elam.

Elam, who turned down scholarship offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Tennessee to choose UK in 2014, will enter his senior season this fall having started all of nine college games in his career and recorded a meager 42 tackles in three years.

Matt Elam, No. 69, with Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops at UK’s 2015 Media Day. In June, Stoops said he met with Elam in mid-April to challenge the senior-to-be nose guard to make the off-season sacrifices necessary for him to end his college career on a high note. Jonathan Palmer

Stoops said he held a meeting with Elam in mid-April to discuss what the former John Hardin star could do to end his college career on a positive note in 2017.

“Matt is a good worker, does good things in everything that is expected of him when he is with us,” Stoops said. “(But) there are sacrifices you have to make (to succeed) when you are away from the (UK football) complex and you are away from your coaches. That will be up to Matt.”

I thought of that exchange last week when SEC Network college football analyst Greg McElroy put the 6-foot-7, 360-pound Elam on full blast.

While criticizing the overall level of play produced by Kentucky’s defensive line in 2016, McElroy, 29, singled out Elam.

“This was an embarrassing effort last year, particularly the former 5-star, Matt Elam, who’s lazy and as underachieving a player as I’ve seen in this league in a long time,” McElroy said.

While you can argue that McElroy, the starting quarterback on Alabama’s 2009 BCS championship team, was making basically the same point Stoops made about Elam the month before, his criticism of the UK nose guard crossed a line.

In the current wild west media culture, it may be quaint to even mention standards for discourse. Still, as someone who has spent almost my entire journalism career covering sports in a college market, I’ve thought a lot about what level of media criticism is appropriate when directed toward people who are still, in theory, students in school to learn.

This is where I come down. I think it is fair to evaluate how college athletes perform in games.

If the quarterback continually fumbles the ball, it’s just being honest to say his turnovers are hurting the team. If the punter keeps shanking kicks, it’s fair game to say his team needs him to perform better.

And if the lavishly praised prospect does not produce at a level commensurate with his recruiting hype, I think it’s fair to point that out.

Matt Elam, shown at Kentucky’s 2016 Media Day, had nine tackles last season, four of them in UK’s season opener against Southern Mississippi. Charles Bertram

Where I think you’ve gone too far, however, is when critique of performance on the field spills over into criticism of the personal characteristics or the personality of a college kid.

To me, that’s where McElroy — who I think is good on TV, by the way — crossed the line with his remarks on Elam.

They were too personal.

Elam has not produced in his first three seasons at Kentucky at a level one would have expected from a player who held scholarship offers from Alabama and Ohio State.

Matt Elam, No. 69, made one of the six tackles he had in Kentucky’s 2015 season-opening victory over Louisiana-Lafayette. Ken Weaver

Yet the perception that he was a consensus 5-star recruit entering college football is erroneous. There was actually quite a divergence of opinion in the evaluations of Elam.

Recruiting service 24/ had Elam as a 5-star recruit and the No. 164 overall prospect in the United States in 2014.

Recruiting service had Elam as a 3-star recruit and the No. 5 overall prospect in the state of Kentucky in 2014.

So portraying him as an underachieving 5-star is not a wholly accurate picture.

Matt Elam, right, on the day he announced he was turning down scholarship offers from Alabama, Tennessee, Ohio State and Notre Dame, among others, to choose Kentucky. Timothy D. Easley

Nevertheless, if you believe Elam has struggled in college football due to a lack of effort, perhaps McElroy’s brutal public commentary will light a fire under the big nose guard and propel him to a strong finish to his UK career.

However, it’s also conceivable that Elam’s past performance at Kentucky reflects his ultimate performance ceiling. That, to turn a Parcells-ian phrase, he is what his record says he is.

Either way, Matt Elam is still a college kid. In a better world, that should mean media evaluations of his football performance stay out of harsh critiques of his personality.

At SEC Media Days, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was asked about comments from SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy that Matt Elam is lazy and an underachiever.