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

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.

Continue reading The Arkansas Sports Media Is Turning On Bret Bielema

Thomas Jefferson and the Kneeling National Anthem Razorbacks

Why the Razorbacks’ national anthem kneeling fulfills some Founding Fathers’ vision for America

A statewide hubbub erupted earlier in November after six members of the Razorback women’s basketball team kneeled during a pre-game performance of the national anthem. “You all know that there’s been a lot of killings* from police officers of African-Americans and other minorities,” Razorback Jordan Danberry, a Conway native, said after the game at Bud Walton Arena. “Me and my teammates took a knee today during the national anthem to speak for those who are oppressed. As Razorback student-athletes, we have a platform to do that.”

Their head coach, Jimmy Dykes, and the UA athletic director Jeff Long defended their actions. “I am very, very proud of them,” Coach Dykes said. “They had very, very strong, well-informed, educated opinions based on their real-life experiences, their real-life emotions. Mr. Long added: “University campuses are places of learning and thus places where differences of opinion and varying perspectives are recognized. We respect the rights of our student-athletes and all individuals to express themselves on important issues in our nation.”

Already, thousands of Arkansans — including high-profile politicians — have begun blasting the Lady  Razorbacks who refused to stand. Laura Rushing, for instance, Tweeted: “I might just take a knee on UofA funding. Leadership needs to go!”

State senator Jason Rapert chimed in: “I agree Senator. Perhaps we reconsider the U of A budget since some in leadership don’t get it.”

I respectfully disagree, Sen. Rapert et al.

Public funding of higher education should not be cut because young women dared exercise their rights of free speech in front of fans who had paid to watch them do something else. Coach Dykes and Mr. Long should not be fired for their support of these women.

If anything, they should be praised.

A red white and blue flag wrapped around a soldier’s tomb is a strong symbol, sure. It often elicits strong emotions, yes. But a flag and a tomb are, at their core, manufactured products. The United States of America is supposed to represent something different.

The Razorbacks’ protest in Fayetteville reminds us the United States of America itself is a manmade invention, too. It had a beginning and will have an end. The more important things it represents, though, precede it and should persist long after it fades.

More than 240 years ago, the Founding Fathers did not conjure the United States as something that in and of itself should deserve and command respect, gratitude and unswerving loyalty.

Instead, they created it as a governing apparatus with a primary function of preserving the rights and freedoms of individuals living in specific geographic areas.  And one of the those liberties is the right to free speech without (financial or corporeal) punishment if said speech offends those in power.

The fabrication we call the “U.S.A.” exists to edify and protect its people, not the other way around.

The U.S.A. was founded as an ongoing political experiment meant to be refined and perfected by ongoing criticism, protest and peaceful dissent.  “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty,” George Washington wrote, “is finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American People.”

In a 1804 letter, Thomas Jefferson wrote: ”No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.”

Today’s “press” is more fragmented and prevalent now than in Jefferson’s newspaper-centric day. The protesting Razorbacks have taken of advantage of this. They deliberated with Coach Dykes beforehand on the consequences of their actions; they knew word of it would quickly spread on social media and online news sites.

So did Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who sparked this most recent round of athlete protests by sitting out of a national anthem in an August preseason game.  “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said afterword.

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

This sentiment rubs many Arkansans the wrong way. They believe it disrespects the U.S. soldiers who have died in order to protect the U.S. and the very First Amendment rights the Lady Razorbacks exercised by kneeling on the court.

It doesn’t. Because often these soldiers and these athlete protestors act and suffer out of love for the very same thing: life and liberty. We can call it “American” life and liberty, but the adjective pales in importance to the nouns following it.

Granted, the costs entailed are on different scales. Soldiers can lose life and limb; Athlete protestors can lose sponsorship money and fan support. But both sides believe they are acting in defense of the things which matter most.

Hog fan Mike Todd touched on this in a recent post on the Razorback Coaches Facebook page. He wrote his father was a World War II Navy veteran. “When an activist in LR was going to burn the flag on the Capital steps I asked him what he thought of that. He said it was the guy’s right. I said ‘But you fought for that flag.’

I’ll never forget his words: ‘I didn’t fight for a flag. I fought for the rights it stands for – including burning it if you want to.’”

At its best, the “United States of America” and all the red, white and blue-clad pomp and circumstance this manmade invention may entail, provides a structure through which we can peacefully disagree and learn from that disagreement — without fear of retribution.

Before threatening to cut funding to Arkansas’ flagship university, our state’s leaders would do well to remember that.

 

*According to analysis by the Washington Post, black people in America are two and a half times more likely to be shot and killed by police than white Americans.

Arkansas AD Jeff Long on coaching search, John L. bankruptcy and playing in-state competition

Some interesting stuff from Arkansas’ athletic director Jeff Long, who spoke at the Little Rock Touchdown Club today.

He came out in true Jeff Long fashion, not so much with guns a-blazing – more like rumor flame extinguishers a-spraying – with stuff like this:

“Somebody shared with me that somewhere I was quoted as saying I was going to make the next head football coach at the University of Arkansas the highest-paid coach in the country. That’s simply not true. That would be an irresponsible statement to make.”

Here’s more of Long’s insight into the coaching search

HOW FAR INTO THE PROCESS OF SELECTING A NEXT HEAD COACH?

“Just research at this point … You know, in our world unlike the business world, you just don’t pick out a candidate and go and get him. We have some unwritten protocols that we file try to follow. They’re getting blurrier in our profession – what’s appropriate and what isn’t. I’m going to try to walk that line and and not invade or intrude upon a coach who’s a season. That’s important that you do it the right way. Certainly, there are a lot of third that are trying to get us information parties that are out there that are trying to get us information about those who are interested in those who might not be. We’ve got to walk a fine line there.”

ON REACTING TO FANS’ SUGGESTIONS FOR NEXT COACH

“Trying to judge who you all think would be a quality candidate is really, really difficult because I’ve gotten letters and e-mails from everything from high school coaches to retired coaches to NFL head coaches, so there’s everything in between”

ON THE WIDTH OF THE NET HE’S CASTING

“Certainly top assistants are not out of the question. I think if you just look around our own conference and you look at some of the schools that have great tradition, have great resources and maybe reside in a state with great recruiting – they could have gone out and chosen a proven head coach, and they ended up with a top notch coordinator. So, I’m certainly not going limit my head coaching search to only current head coaches. There are a lot of offensive coordinators, defensive coordintors, who make that step like a Bob stoops did 10, 12 years ago when he went from a coordinator at Florida to a national championship in two years.”

WHEN WILL YOU DECIDE?

“I’m hopeful that we will have a decision made within a couple weeks after the end of the regular season.”

Continue reading Arkansas AD Jeff Long on coaching search, John L. bankruptcy and playing in-state competition

John L. Smith is to Red Skelton as Art Briles is to …

Would a salary in the $5+ million range finally lure Baylor’s Art Briles away from Texas?

Who should Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long decide is the best match as head coach for downcast but still fiercely loyal Arkansas fans, for the world-class facilities they have funded and the enduring expectations of a greatness that keeps slipping away?

Arkansas hasn’t won a national title since 1964, and the previous head coach put a mistress before the goal of leading the program to another. There are plenty candidates,  some of whom could find potential openings at Tennessee and Auburn more attractive. Let’s get this out of the way: the next coach shouldn’t be Bobby Petrino again. And it certainly shouldn’t be someone whose demeanor inspires way more comparisons to Red Skelton* than Red Auerbach.

It should be someone who brings these attributes to the table:

1)  Genuinely inspires players – Before the Alabama game, I asked Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton if they planned to step up in Wilson’ absence. Both said they would – “I have to will this team to victory,” Davis said. “Of course,” Hamilton said. Not just with “playmaking ability but also just being a leader, vocally. Because Tyler was really the guy as far as vocally rallying the troops together and taking charge in the huddle.”

Wilson, of course, called his teammates out after the Alabama game for not playing as hard in the second half. But it’s not the job of Arkansas’ best players to also be its best leaders. The next coach should realize this, and embrace it. Naturally, someone who really cares about his players will also most inspire them. As much as some people are clamoring for a hire of West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, his reputation for drunken cavorting should remove him from Long’s final list. Former UNC coach Butch Davis has plenty Arkansas connections attractive to boosters, but I believe his legal entanglement in the wake of a recruiting scandal should – and will – prevent him from landing the job.

Continue reading John L. Smith is to Red Skelton as Art Briles is to …

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.

Dead Horse A-Twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 2

 

In Part 1, we rehashed some of the latest attacks on the University of Arkansas’ long-standing policy of not playing other in-state colleges. The main reasons for those seeking to maintain this policy haven’t changed much through the decades, but the lines of argument for changing the policy have evolved.
And Arkansas State’s football success this season adds new weight to some of these arguments.

To start with, let’s cast naivete aside:  No way Arkansas plays Arkansas State simply because it would be fun for fans, or because playing in-state competition would theoretically pour more money into the state government’s coffers, which would benefit all public universities in Arkansas.

Nope, if Jeff Long’s gonna entertain even the slightest sliver of this possibility, he’d better believe the game would help the UA’s athletic program bottom line now and in the future. This fall, he unveiled plans for a shining football palace which is part of a $320 million plan. This project isn’t touted as a luxury, though. Taking a long view, Arkansas’ AD understands that keeping up with the Jones in the SEC means financing expensive stuff to attract the nation’s best coaches, trainers and players.


Could replacing Troy or North Texas with ASU  on the football schedule help the UA achieve this faster?

Without developing additional streams of revenue and fundraising, Arkansas can’t afford to keep up with far bigger SEC rivals like LSU and Alabama.

Arkansas leaves money on the table every time it plays any Sun Belt team not named Arkansas State. Here’s why:

1) Arkansas paid $900,000 to play a Sun Belt team, Troy, earlier this season in a “rent-a-win”, or guarantee game. Meanwhile, in a similar David vs. Goliath type setup, Illinois paid ASU $850,000. It stands to reason that UA would have the financial upper hand in multiple ways if negotiating a contract to play ASU, including the actual guarantee game fee. It’s likely UA possible could get away with paying ASU even less than what Illinois would pay them. Either way, UA could save $50,000 to $100,000 by playing ASU.

2) No matter how good Arkansas or Arkansas State are playing, an early-season match-up between the programs would sell out the 72,000 seats of Fayetteville’s Razorback Stadium, where the game would likely be played every time. If necessary, the stadium’s seating could be expanded to nearly 80,000 and this would be needed for at least the first time the game was played. A solid Sun Belt team like Troy usually brings around 70,000 people but another 10,000 helps the bottom line, especially if each of the tickets are sold for more than usual. Which, for this game, would make sense.
General admission tickets could be sold at an elevated price ($100, as suggested on a local sports talk show) and if UA fans hesitated to pay that amount, ASU fans would certainly make up the difference.

3) At least for the first couple of times the programs played, there would be a veritable trough-ful of licensing and merchandising opportunities for UA athletics to wallow in. Just conjure up a nice “Natural State Showdown” logo involving the helmets or mascots of both programs, then milk that sucker for all its worth through T-shirts, cakes, commemorative videos, calendars, key-chains – whatever you can stamp. There’s no doubt this stuff would fly off the racks for at least the first couple games.

Continue reading Dead Horse A-Twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 2

Dead Horse A-twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 1

You probably don’t want to look.
That poor horse, dead as doornail, flat on its back in a fog of speculation.

It’s been lying there since 1946, you know – ever since John Barnhill arrived in Fayetteville as Arkansas’ coach and athletic director and instituted a policy of not playing in-state school in any sports.
At the time, the likes of LSU and Alabama were swooping into his state and snatching its best high school players. There was no way to compete with this if Arkansas was fractured into multiple programs of similar size.
Nope, there had to be one program dominating the market,he thought. Let’s cultivate fervent loyalty to stretch into future generations whose best players wouldn’t think twice about declining LSU or Alabama’s overtures to play for their home-state favorites.
Now, why shouldn’t that program be the Arkansas Razorbacks?

Look closely at the horse. It’s been there an awful long time, yet it’s hardly decayed.
Behold! On closer inspection, the damn thing appears to have twitched a time or two.
Impossible. It’s been dead so long, right?

Many Razorbacks fans prefer to roll their eyes when the question of whether Arkansas should play Arkansas State arises. This horse has been beaten a million times, they’ll say, and though plenty reasons have been thrown out as to why Barnhill’s policy has endured through the decades, there’s one common argument used most frequently:

“It’s as simple as this: Win, and no one is impressed because you were supposed to win to begin with”, Hogville poster JamesWParks wrote in 2007.
“Lose, and your [sic] a laughing stock.”

And so it has been for generations. First, longtime UA athletic director Frank Broyles upheld Barnhill’s decree. Since 2008, current UA atheletic director Jeff Long has done the same.

But while the major reasons for keeping the UA from sweating with its in-state brethren have remained the same for decades, reasons to reconsider that policy are evolving. That process, it appears, is speeding up.

Continue reading Dead Horse A-twitchin’: Arkansas State’s success breathes new life into old debate, Part 1