Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch on why BCS Playoffs could destroy the NCAA

 “The real question is when the conferences will be large enough to be able to announce they will sponsor a national playoff championship system in football for, say, the top eight teams.”

Throughout his career, historian Taylor Branch has cared for underdogs.   

In 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for the telling the story of those who sparked the American civil rights movement in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years.” In 2009, Branch published recollections from a series of interviews with Bill Clinton during his presidency. Branch had roomed with Clinton for four months in 1972 as both men coordinated presidential candidate George McGovern’s Texas campaign. McGovern would lose to the favored Richard Nixon.   Branch and Clinton next spoke 20 years later in the Oval Office, which the “Comeback Kid” had reached in part by nurturing an image as a fighter of entrenched power.

In his cover story for The Atlantic’s October issue, “The Shame of College Athletics”, Branch stands up for athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sports’ largest organizing body. Sixty-two colleges and universities founded what’s now called the N.C.A.A. in 1906 to protect their athletes from on-field danger and off-field exploitation, but the organization has exacerbated exploitation rather than limit it, Branch contends.

For decades many colleges paid their athletes, but in the mid-1900s the N.C.A.A. consolidated its power through the development of two ideas – amateurism and the student-athlete. Both principles are actually cynical hoaxes, Branch writes.    

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies.

New cases winding their way through courts threaten to upend this status quo. In 2009, Ed O’Bannon, who led U.C.L.A. against Arkansas in basketball’s 1995 national title game, filed a class-action antitrust suit against the N.C.A.A..  O’Bannon had seen his likeness used in video games, and it chafed him the N.C.A.A. and U.C.L.A. still profited from those game sales while he couldn’t. Former basketball and football players have joined the suit as co-plaintiffs. They seek to expose the untenability of a waiver clause found in a “Student-Athlete Statement” the N.C.A.A. requires to be yearly collected from each college athlete.

Q. Taylor, explain the controversy surrounding this clause.

A. In it, you attest you are an amateur and you’re giving the N.C.A.A. the right to exploit your image to promote sports. The N.C.A.A. has been trying to maintain it can keep athletes amateurs not only while they are in college but for the rest of their lives in so far as the N.C.A.A. owns the value of the athletic performance. If the pattern of [legal case] history is run through, everywhere else those kind of monopoly restrictions have been the challenged, the N.C.A.A. lost.

Q. Some people say college athletes are already compensated because a degree ends up being worth a lot of money. Moreover, even if that degree isn’t finished, some athletes can leverage their fame from their playing days for profit. Your response?

A. That’s right, but the real nub of the question is how do you justify the N.C.A.A. rules that forbid schools from paying them a nickel more than a scholarship and forbid the athletes from getting a Christmas card from a pro coach? If they were already getting paid everything they were worth, you wouldn’t need to put in systems that forbid them by collusion among the schools from bidding for their services. These athletes are generating hundreds of millions of dollars collectively more than the value of their scholarships.

Continue reading Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch on why BCS Playoffs could destroy the NCAA

Joe Adams, Jake Bequette, D.J. Williams: Trendsetters?

For some private schools like Pulaski Academy, winning state titles is no longer a shock. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

For decades the best players in central Arkansas came from the area’s biggest public schools. What’s now known as Little Rock Central High, for instance, has produced at least eight NFL players, which is the most of any school in Pulaski, Lonoke, Faulkner or Saline counties. Next in line is Little Rock Hall High, which has produced four NFL alumni. Three other schools have produced three alumni each: Lonoke High, what’s now called North Little Rock High School and Little Rock Parkview High.

Jefferson Prep, a new-defunct college preparatory school won a Class A state title  in 1981. That’s the year that signaled private high schools in Arkansas had arrived as a collective power. Generally, though, such domination has been relegated to the 5A classification and below levels. Plenty college-level players have come from these schools but it seemed public schools still had cornered the market on NFL-caliber players.

That is changing – and fast. As far as I can tell, after poring through this, the first NFL player from an Arkansas private school was Jeb Huckeba, a 2001 graduate of Searcy’s Harding Academy. In 2009, Johnathan Luigs of Pulaski Academy became the second, and last year D.J. Williams of Central Arkansas Christian became the third.

That number could double soon if all three of the following Razorbacks are taken in the NFL Draft this Thursday through Saturday: Jake Bequette (Catholic), Joe Adams (CAC) and Broderick Green (Pulaski Academy). Looking ahead, other potential pro players who have attended Arkansas private schools include Michael Dyer (Little Rock Christian), Kiehl Frazier (Shiloh Christian) and Hunter Henry (Pulaski Academy). This trend seems to be a logical outgrowth of the multiple state football titles private schools have racked up in the last 15 years. Success breeds success, and the more a program develops a reputation for developing elite players, the more young high school players want to go there.

In 2008, Robert Yates of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette explored some of the tension developing between the state’s public and private schools. The longtime prep football writer wrote some private schools are accused of “advantages – perceived or real – that include no attendance boundaries, screening potential students, offering financial aid, higher participation and flat-out recruiting.”

Continue reading Joe Adams, Jake Bequette, D.J. Williams: Trendsetters?

D.J.Baxendale On The Move

I traveled to Fayetteville a couple weeks ago and sat down with Hogs pitcher D.J. Baxendale on the same afternoon the news broke that Petrino hadn’t been alone, and Razorback football changed forever … the baseball team isn’t as hot as it was a month ago, but fortunes can change in the crack of a bat. That could happen as soon as this weekend against Ole Miss on the road…

 Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Granted: if D.J. Baxendale had to choose a place to call home, it makes sense central Arkansas would be it. The preseason All-American pitcher graduated from a Sherwood high school and has lived in Vilonia, Conway and Jacksonville. He still visits plenty of friends in the area, and helps kids on his dad’s traveling teams based there.

That Baxendale considers any one area a home is a bit of surprise, though, considering this admission: “I probably lived in 50 or 60 houses throughout my life.” Mostly, his parents’ work caused the moving. D.J.’s father Greg Baxendale has been a Cleveland Indians scout, a recruiting assistant for Rollins College in Florida and the head baseball coach of Hendrix College in Conway. D.J. Baxendale says the moving – which included two stints in Arkadelphia and a stint in Massachusetts – didn’t faze him. He learned to easily make friends, to constantly adapt.

Few baseball players have adapted so well in an Arkansas prep career. At semester of his 10th grade year, Baxendale moved from Arkadelphia to a Jacksonville area just north of Sherwood, where he attended Abundant Life School, an affiliate of the Sylvan Hills First Baptist Church. He immediately helped the school make the 2A state championship game. “Even at a young age, he was not easily distracted,” says Wes Johnson, former coach at Abundant Life.

After Johnson left to coach elsewhere, Baxendale and two other players transferred to Sylvan Hills High School across John F. Kennedy Blvd. By the time the dust cleared on two seasons there, Baxendale had finished one of the state’s best careers in recent history with a 6A state title and 4.12 grade point average. The accomplishments stoked great expectations for the college level.

Continue reading D.J.Baxendale On The Move

Shekinna Stricklin Joins Mt. Rushmore of Highest Arkansan Draft Picks in Major Sports League History

On Monday, Morrilton native Shekinna Stricklin became the second Arkansan to be taken as a  #2 overall pick in the draft of a major sports league*  By my count, only former NBA players Jim Barnes and Joe Barry Carroll have been drafted higher among native Arkansans. Congrats to Stricklin, who will soon be starting training camp with the Seattle Storm. Throughout her college career at Tennessee, she proved to be the one of the most versatile women in college basketball (I’d say #2 overall, after Delaware’s ridiculous Elena Delle Donne, who likely has been giving Joe Foley nightmares for weeks)

Here are athletes with Arkansas connections to be taken highest in a major sports league’s regular draft**:

  • Number #1 – Jeff King of Arkansas Razorbacks (1986 by MLB’s Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • Number #1 – Jim Barnes of Tuckerman (1964 by NBA’s New York Knicks)
  • Number #1 – Joe Barry Carroll of Pine Bluff (1980 by NBA’s Golden State Warriors)
  • Number #2 – Lamar McHan of Lake Village and Arkansas Razorbacks (1954 by NFL’s Chicago Cardinals)
  • Number #3 – Cortez Kennedy of Osceola (1990 by NFL’s Seattle Seahawks)
  • Number #3 – Kay Eakin of Atkins and Arkansas Razorbacks (1940 by NFL’s Pittsburgh Pirates) [h/t to @bwaldrum for bringing Eakin to my attention]

None of the above #1 picks graduated from an Arkansas high school like #2 picks McHan or Stricklin. Jeff King was a Colorado native. Joe Barry Carroll moved to Denver as a child and Jim Barnes moved to Texas as a teenager.

*Yes, I consider the WNBA a major sports league. Basketball is a major sport, and millions of women play it. Although those women can earn more money in overseas leagues, no female league in the world surpasses the WNBA in terms of a) quality of basketball competition and b) a platform for marketing opportunities.

** No supplemental or January drafts for me. Also, call me lazy and irresponsible, but no checking of the NHL or MLB draft histories either. I simply can’t believe an Arkansan has snuck into the top three picks in either of these sports, despite the wee-est sign of emergent national cache in soccer. For that matter, I would be shocked if an Arkie has gotten into the top 10 picks in either sport.

But I’m open to surprise. So please, somebody, surprise me.

UPDATE: Surprise accomplished. Turns out former #1 overall MLB draft pick, Pat Burrell,  spent the first few years of his life in Eureka  Springs before moving to California, playing against Tom Brady in high school football, becoming an actual Hurricane at the University of Miami and then a metaphorical hurricane of drinking, sexing and bat-swinging at subsequent major league stops in Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and San Francisco. [h/t to Caleb Hardwick]

Going All Emperor Commodus On Bobby Petrino’s Legacy

This isn't the role Jeff Long wanted. But he's had to play it during the last five tumultuous days.

UPDATE: Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long made two revelations on Tuesday night that made Petrino’s firing a no-brainer. Still, before those discoveries were made, there would have been much deliberation…

Battered, bloodied, bruised.

Bobby Petrino’s reputation took quite a tumble last week in the tangled aftermath of his motorcycle’s crash 20 miles southeast of Fayetteville. For a few days it looked as if the Sunday wipe-out could actually help raise the tough guy image of Arkansas’ head football coach.

On Tuesday, Petrino showed up at a press conference looking like he had just gotten into a brawl with his entire offensive line. Wearing a neck brace, and likely a little dopey on pain meds, he emphasized it’s still all about creating a winner out there on the spring practice field while sneaking in some banter about avoiding brain damage despite failing to wear a bike helmet. Then, a couple days later, the world was introduced to a 25-year-old University of Arkansas employee named Jessica Dorrell.

And the bottom fell out, and didn’t stop until Tuesday night, when it was announced Petrino’s Arkansas coaching days were over. It was a decision the majority of  Sync magazine voters supported.

Obviously, he damage from this scandal extended far beyond Petrino’s cracked neck vertebra and four broken ribs, far beyond the pain he inflicted on his own wife and four children, or Dorrell’s fiance. It became a public matter on March 28 when Dorrell was hired as student-athlete development coordinator for the football program, moreso when Petrino forgot to tell his boss, Jeff Long, she’d joined him on his Harley-Davidson for a Sunday evening joyride. University policies usually don’t smile on supervisors promoting mistresses. Nor do employers typically take to an employee’s lying.

Long, the athletic director, has determined Petrino’s ultimate fate at Arkansas. He must go. There’s has been much to weigh, and Long will get flak from many Arkansas fans for making this final call. The 51-year-old Petrino has built a complex legacy – has a college head coach ever been forced out on as much of a  high note (as far as on-field success goes)? For every plus Petrino had, there seemed to be a minus. To wit:

A previous version of this column ran in Sync magazine.

Bobby Petrino, Brain Damage and America’s Most Unorthodox Football Coach

When it came to practicing motorcycle safety, this pass-happy guru totally erred it out. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

It doesn’t seem a Sunday night motorcycle crash has altered the M.O. of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. Although confined to his hospital room on Monday night, he still reviewed paperwork from a recent spring practice. By the next morning, he was watching practice live, four broken ribs, cracked vertebra, sprained neck and pain meds be damned. A few hours after that, he fielded questions from the press and even cracked a joke about the extent of his injuries: “Yeah, I don’t think I have any brain damage, but that’s yet to be seen. If I start not punting at all in the games or something, then we’ve got a problem.”

Petrino may have been joking, but I’m pretty sure one person not laughing was the coach of a private high school school only two and half hours from Fayetteville who has built a national reputation by refusing to punt among other unorthodox strategies. Kevin Kelley believes punting on fourth down is nearly always a bad idea, even when pinned deep in one’s own territory with 20 yards to go. Economists say the numbers back Kelley, who has won multiple state championships with Little Rock’s Pulaski Academy while putting up absurdly proficient offensive statistics.

While Kelley’s football philosophy has been much trumpeted by media – Time voted it the 33rd-best invention of 2009 – actual football coaches haven’t followed suit. Although some college coaches have made pilgrimages to Kelley’s office to learn his secrets, none seem to have incorporated his strategies into their own playbooks. Former Texas Tech Mike Leach might have been the college coach most publicly open to Kelley’s ideas, according to this Associated Press interview, but he was fired before he could implement them. Leach now coaches at Washington State University and may become the first major college coach to deliberately use Kelley’s methods.

Why do you think college coaches haven’t already tried Pulaski Academy’s system? Despite a wealth of data confirming its superiority, are coaches on the whole still creatures of habit who put more stock in intuition than freakonomics? On the whole, I think adopting such a new-fangled approach  just seems too risky for multimillionaire coaches with more to lose than a high school P.E. teacher coaching on the side. Risk aversion as a rationale doesn’t stick in Petrino’s case, though. He had plenty more to lose Sunday evening when he got on his motorcycle without a helmet [but with a 25-year-old hottie].