By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Ole Miss athletics director Ross Bjork brushed off criticism for the school’s handling of basketball star Marshall Henderson and says steps are being taken to help Henderson get past a history of substance abuse.
Henderson detailed some of his past in an interview granted to ESPN’s Andy Katz earlier this week.
It was not news to Bjork, who made the decision to suspend Henderson – and not to remove him from the team – in July.
The Wall Street Journal cited police records in reporting that Henderson was cited for driving without proof of insurance in an early May. That traffic stop also turned up small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, according to the report.
Henderson was not arrested on the belief that the amounts were so small that the case would not have been prosecuted, the report said.
Ole Miss takes on NCAA Division II South Carolina-Aiken in an exhibition game tonight at 6 at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Henderson will not play tonight. He’ll also miss the Nov. 8 season opener against Troy and the first two SEC games – Jan. 9 against Auburn and Jan. 11 at Mississippi State – are part of the suspension announced by the school earlier this week.
Henderson was not removed from the team, because there was no arrest and he had not violated team policy to the point that such action was required, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
Kennedy, beginning his eighth season as coach, has removed players from the program before.
“I know there’s a lot of speculation about Marshall and failing a drug test or tests. We don’t get into any of those details, but if that line is crossed as it relates to the rules as they are written, then the penalty would have been the same for him,” Kennedy said.
Henderson led the SEC in scoring last season with 20.1 points a game and was a key player as the Rebels equalled a school record with 27 wins, won the SEC tournament and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.
Bjork was hired in the spring of 2012 and spoke immediately of operating the department with a focus on the well-being of student-athletes.
“That’s really the genesis of all this, to help the person first and foremost. Andy and I talked the first time and said we really didn’t care if he ever played another basketball game at Ole Miss. He needs help,” Bjork said. “We have a big system in place that is helping Marshall through this. This part is really subject to privacy, as he goes through all that. There’s not a lot of detail I can give, but I can tell you it’s a robust program. There are a lot of things in place to monitor him, and as he goes through this he’s getting better every single day.”
It was an easy decision to become heavily involved in the handling of Henderson, he said, pointing out his involvement with women’s basketball players after former coach Adrian Wiggins was removed abruptly prior to the start of the 2012-2013 season.
“As an AD if we’re going to talk about student-athlete welfare the core of our values then the AD should be involved and have a personal relationship with all of our student-athletes if I can,” Bjork said. “That takes a lot of time and commitment, but if you’re going to speak about their welfare it has to start at the top.”
Bjork says he isn’t concerned about perception for the administration in the aftermath of the Henderson decision.
“I don’t have a problem defending the fact that we are helping a young man through a difficult process. I am confident in the conversations we had relative to basketball and how those were treated with the highest integrity related to whether he would play again or not. Our focus is on what’s best for our program and what’s best for the young people in our program.”