What Happened to the Kneeling Razorbacks?

A look at the six Razorback basketball players more than a year after their national anthem protest.

On Nov 3, 2016, six female Razorback players locked arms and kneeled as the national anthem played before a home basketball game. “Recently you all know that there’s been a lot of killings from police officers of African-Americans and other minorities,” Razorback Jordan Danberry said afterward. “Me and my teammates took a kneel today during the national anthem to speak for those who are oppressed. As Razorback student-athletes we have a platform to do that.”

The protest came with significant cost. The kneeling Razorbacks and their coaches (specifically former head coach Jimmy Dykes), who publicly supported them, suffered severe public criticism mixed with support. Former athletic director Jeff Long also supported the players’ rights to free speech. Long, too, sustained public heat for that support. This event, and his initial hiring of Dykes, almost certainly played a role—albeit a small one relative to the football program’s struggles—in Long’s firing just last week.

Four of the six protesters ended up quitting the team. At least one has transferred to another program. The classifications below refer to the player as of the 2016-17 school year.

Sophomore Jordan Danberry

The Conway native quit the team within weeks of the protest, and transferred to Mississippi State. Vic Schaefer, said Danberry should be academically eligible and ready to play for MSU against Little Rock on Dec. 10.

Senior Tatiyana Smith

The Plano, TX native quit in November, 2016 due to an undisclosed medical reason. She was on track to earn a criminal justice degree by May 2017.

Sophomore Briunna Freeman

Quit the program by early January, 2017. The UA honored her scholarship through the end of the academic year.  She returned to her home state of Georgia.

Freshmen Kiara Williams and Jailyn Mason

They are the only kneeling Razorbacks still on the team in the first year of new head coach Mike Neighbors.“It hasn’t been a discussion this year,” Neighbors said early this season. “I think that was last year, they’ve all lived through it already, and I don’t think that’s been something that they talk about doing again.”

Williams, an Alexander, AR native, is averaging 7.7 points and 6 rebounds a game for the 2-1 Razorbacks. Mason, a Mason, OH native, averages 9.3 points and 3.7 rebounds.

Redshirt Freshman Yasmeen Ratliff

The Alpharetta, GA native left the program by the end of the season. Interestingly, her father, Theo Ratliff, was an NBA All-Star and the best defensive player in the history of Wyoming basketball. When it comes to college sports protests, there is another, more direct link between the Wyoming Cowboys and Arkansas.

In 1969, Pine Bluff native Ivie Moore became one of The Black 14, a group of Cowboys football players who launched one of the most significant college sports protests of the era. I write more about it in my book on Arkansas heritage, sports and race relations.

Here’s the first page of the Ivie Moore chapter:

Wyoming football

Sports & Race Talks at the Clinton House Museum & Pine Bluff historical museum

My book tour continue with talks in Fayetteville and Pine Bluff about state heritage, race relations and sports. Here are the press releases for the events this week:

  1. Interested in social justice and sports? At 6 pm on Thursday, Evin Demirel will be the featured speaker at the Clinton House Museum. Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas and will discuss Muhammad Ali’s visit to the UA in 1969 and sports as an agent for social change. Free cheese and wine will also be served at the free talk and signing. Go here to RSVP. Of his book, Razorback legend Ronnie Brewer says, “It will speak to athletes, coaches and history lovers across the state and region . . . But its reach should be wider–it’s national history as well.”
  2. Are you interested in social justice or sports? At 2 pm on Sunday, sports historian Evin Demirel will be the featured speaker at the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Historical Museum. Demirel is the author of African-American Athletes in Arkansas and will discuss Muhammad Ali’s visit to Pine Bluff in 1969, the national championship-winning Merrill High football programs of the 1930s and sports as an agent for social change. His book, which features rarely seen photos of UAPB athletic teams from a century ago, was completed with the help of UAPB’s museum and cultural center.Here is one such photo:

Merrill High football

The Arkansas Sports Media Is Turning On Bret Bielema

Three of the state’s leading sportswriters lay into Bielema following the Coastal Carolina debacle

For years, Bret Bielema and the Arkansas sports media enjoyed a prolonged honeymoon. On the whole, columnists, reporters and broadcasters enjoyed covering him and he seemed to enjoy riffing with them. In the times I interviewed him his first couple years, his enthusiasm and swagger always made for a fun, interesting conversation.

Bielema, after all, is a likable guy. And it helped that in his first three seasons at Arkansas, his teams clearly improved. Perhaps the culmination of the good times with local media came near the end of 2015 season, when sports radio host Bo Mattingly began producing a feel-good, behind-the-scenes mini series on Bielema and his program. No doubt, Bielema knew such a project could only help market his personality and the Razorback brand to potential recruits and fans.

Public image, after all, is so important in the entertainment industry. That’s one reason Jeff Long signed on to be the chairman of the College Football Playoff Selection Commitee, a position that for two years gave him and Arkansas much national exposure.

This year, though, as the 4-5 Hogs have seemingly regressed in every phase of the game, the local media has begun to turn on Bret Bielema. And things are getting more heated in the aftermath of Arkansas’s worst win of the modern era, a 39-38 unthinkable catastrophe-aversion against Coastal Carolina, a 1-8 Sun Belt team.

The local media doesn’t turn on coaches on a whim, like so many fans are apt to do. Media members understand that their access to covering games and interviewing players and coaches depends on maintaining a standard of professionalism and accuracy. Calling for a coach’s head after one bad game, or two or even three, is the kind of quick-trigger reaction-ism most professionals avoid.

But when enough bad efforts and worse executions happen over a long enough stretch, as they have in Arkansas football since last fall, then it becomes obvious that the issue is something systematic. And now, some big names in the Arkansas sports media landscape are calling this out. To wit:

1. Wally Hall, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist

Today, in his game recap column, Hall writers earlier this season Coastal Carolina team had lost to Arkansas State—traditionally only the second-best program in state—by 34 points and 10 of the Chanticleers’ points came against A-State subs. After lamenting the Hogs’ woeful defense, Wall also delivered this indictment:

Perhaps the biggest concern should be the leadership at the UA, and that means at the top. Who allowed a program that was in the Sugar Bowl after the 2010 season to slip to the point it has to charge back to slip by a visiting team that hasn’t won a Sun Belt game?

It should be noted that Bret Bielema wasn’t even hired until 2012. Regardless of whether “leadership” here means Bielema, or athletic director Jeff Long, or both, Hall is no longer holding back on the public criticism. That’s a bad sign for Bielema’s future at Arkansas.

2. Kurt Voigt, Associated Press Arkansas sports reporter

Speaking of Bret Bielema’s future at Arkansas, that’s a topic which in late October Voigt wanted to interview Long about. Most AP reporters strive to stay objective and report “just the facts.” But since that request Voigt hasn’t been afraid to chime in with observations and details that cause a buzz.

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