2016 Best Column: Lindsay Schnell

Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This category might have produced the best group of columns I’ve read in many years. Nice writing and very enterprising column ideas. But as I usually remind, make sure the column has something to say, not just a glorified feature. Now I made a few exceptions this year since a several of the second lace, third place and honorable mention columns told great stories and were well written. But I picked the winner over some of these great human interest stories because the writer wrote a true column, took a stand on a sensitive subject and had a strong opinion. Backed it up with emotion and fact. Same with the second-place winners, tough can’t believe I made an exception for columns starting with “I,” a pet-peeve of mine. But somehow these worked. Wish I had more awards to hand out.

By Lindsay Schnell, CampusRush.com

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — He started his media availability, as many athletes in this era do, by posing for a selfie, making sure anyone who would later view the photo could see all those gathered to talk to him.

Yes, 522 days after becoming infamous, Joe Mixon finally faced the media Tuesday morning at Orange Bowl media day.

Mixon told the roughly 50 reporters gathered around his small table that he was there to answer football questions only, a point previously made clear by an Orange Bowl representative who said that any media member who didn’t stick to the script would be asked to leave. This, for a player who was making his first public media appearance since he punched a female Oklahoma student and broke bones in her face in four places in July 2014—and who was allowed to stay on scholarship and earn his way back on to coach Bob Stoops’s football team.

But rather than answer questions, Mixon deflected them, just as he has done all season with would-be tacklers in the Sooners’ drive to the College Football Playoff semifinal Thursday against Clemson.

Two months before former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice blew up America’s willingness to tolerate an athlete’s violence against women, Mixon was granted a second chance by one of the premier programs in college football, which is on the verge of playing for its eighth national championship.

Mixon is one of the most talented tailbacks in college football. The 6′ 1″, 217-pound redshirt freshman averaged 6.8 yards per carry, gained 749 rushing yards and 345 receiving yards, and scored 11 touchdowns this season for 11–1 Oklahoma. He came to Norman from Oakley, Calif., as a five-star recruit lauded for his playmaking ability. And this fall, Mixon and sophomore tailback Samaje Perine have formed one of the best rushing tandems in the country. Mixon’s play has been crucial for a team determined to show last year’s 8–5 season was a fluke, and that the Sooners still belong in college football’s upper tier.

Mixon pleaded in October 2014 to a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from an incident the month before outside a Norman restaurant. Days before the Sooners started fall camp, Mixon punched a female student, knocking her to the ground and breaking her jaw. Yes, the victim put her hands on Mixon first. There is no doubt this is a complicated situation, but that’s not an excuse. This is a clear-cut issue. Hitting a woman should never be accepted. Ever.

It’s 2015, and we like to say we take these issues seriously.

But really, do we take them seriously enough?

The victim underwent surgery and Mixon was suspended from the football program for a year in August 2014. Except he was kept on scholarship, and he did not lose any NCAA eligibility. Oklahoma lists 2014 as a redshirt season for Mixon. So he sat out his first year on campus (which is common for freshmen at major college football programs) and he didn’t practice.

Some fans think this story is old news and that the media needs to move on. As soon as Mixon is willing to answer some questions—remember, this is first time he has spoken to reporters since the incident—we will. Alas, he wasn’t interested in that Tuesday. (Mixon said his lawyer advised him not to answer any nonfootball questions on Tuesday.)

Asked if he had a desire to answer any nonfootball questions, Mixon said no.

Asked if he thinks he should answer those, he said, “Not here.”

Asked if he was worried about alienating female football fans, he said, “Next question.”

Asked if he feels sorry for what happened, he said, “I won’t answer that.”

He credited his coaches, teammates and girlfriend with helping him stay the course in his year off the field.

Early in the media session, Mixon said he would describe himself as a great person, and I—one of the few female sports reporters in the scrum—followed up, asking why he would choose to use that adjective. He answered by saying that if we got to know him, we would see how he was and become convinced.

Mixon may not understand it yet, but great people are about action, not talk. If someone is truly great or humble or intelligent, he or she shouldn’t have to say so. Great people answer the tough questions and confront difficult situations simply because they hold themselves to a higher standard.

Would the female he punched—or her father—describe Mixon as a great person? Would any person off the street who is not an Oklahoma fan read about Mixon’s off-field situation and say he is great? If a man struck Mixon’s girlfriend, Taylor Sibella, or Stoops’s daughter, Mackenzie, and broke four bones in her face, would Mixon describe that guy as a great person?

In the spring, Oklahoma president David Boren expelled two students who had led racist chants during a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity event that had been captured on video. In a press release, Boren praised his school for how it handled the divisive video, saying: “I am extremely proud of the reaction and response expressed by our entire university family—students, faculty, staff, and alumni about this incident. They are ‘Real Sooners’ who believe in mutual respect for all.”

Perhaps he meant to say “for all men,” because allowing one male student to break the jaw of a female student and remain on scholarship is anything but mutually respectful.

In the wake of the SAE incident, Sooners senior linebacker Eric Striker became a spokesman for social justice, passionately condemning racism and demanding that his campus and community recognize the need for a zero-tolerance policy. Striker is one of the most thoughtful and engaging athletes in sports today. And it’s great that Oklahoma, as a football program and a university, is represented by someone like him, as well as by senior center Ty Darlington and redshirt junior quarterback Trevor Knight, who also took strong stands on the issue.

But the school is also represented by Mixon, redshirt senior linebacker Frank Shannon (suspended in 2014 following a Title IX sexual assault investigation) and, last year, by wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (welcomed to Oklahoma after being dismissed from Missouri in April 2014 following accusations of physically assaulting two women).

When asked about this, athletic director Joe Castiglione said each case is different, and advised reporters to look into Oklahoma’s track record before concluding that the program has created a culture tolerant of violence against women. I did: Mixon, Shannon and Green-Beckham—three tremendously talented athletes, each with the skills to help the Sooners win football games, and each with a well-known history of disrespecting women. What was that about mutual respect?

I asked Striker and Darlington, both of whom will riff on pretty much any topic, if they had concerns about Oklahoma looking hypocritical in all of this. The Sooners are arguably the most socially conscious team in collegiate athletics: They want to set the tone not just in how they win championships, but also in how they speak out for what they believe. Yet here they are, in the College Football Playoff, partially because their coaching staff and administration were willing to welcome back a player who punched a woman.

To their credit, Striker and Darlington answered the question. Striker said he believes people make mistakes and shouldn’t be judged solely for them. Darlington said this is a nuanced issue that can’t be wrapped up in a 15-second sound bite.

Both are correct, but still I’d like to ask Mixon a few of those prohibited nonfootball questions:

Why does this program get to pick and choose when it takes a stand on a touchy subject?

Why did he deserve a second chance, and why did that chance get to come at the highest level?

Do the Sooners, a championship-level program, hold themselves to the highest standard?

Is he remorseful?

What would he say to a young girl in Norman who asks her parents why that football player they cheer for hit someone like her?

And finally, this: Does he worry about his image, or has he reached the same conclusion as the 85,000-plus fans who stand in thunderous applause every time he scores a touchdown in Norman?

The video of Mixon’s punch isn’t available to the public, so he continues to skate by. There might be lots of dispute about him being a great person, but everyone can agree he is a great football player.

Lindsay Schnell

Lindsay Schnell

Lindsay Schnell

AGE: 29

COLLEGE: Oregon State

BACKGROUND: Lindsay has been a staff writer at Sports Illustrated since February, 2013. Prior to that she covered the Ducks and Beavers for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., where she still lives (she does not enjoy craft beer or running, so please don’t ask her for brewery or trail recommendations). The daughter of a long-time college basketball coach (her father) and former Pac-10 official (her mother), she grew up a hoops junkie, but decided she could cover this football thing after witnessing Oregon State’s stunning upset over No. 3 USC in 2006, her sophomore year at OSU.  At SI, she writes a weekly walk-on series, and last year was honored by the USBWA for her profile of college basketball’s most eccentric character, Bill Walton. She’d led the charge in narrative podcasting at SI, a new passion of hers. In her “free time” she enjoys interior decorating and outfit styling, and is mulling the creation of a lifestyle blog. In the offseason she adopted a black lab mix and named him Lupin, after her favorite Harry Potter character, which was basically the best decision of all time.

2015 Best Column, by Ted Miller

ffaw_redesignComment by the judge, Alan Cox: Great look at the change in attitude and expectations of Oregon’s football program. Solid argument as to why they needed to win the championship to validate the program and to show the Playoff would expand the sport. Even more interesting in hindsight as we will see what happens to Oregon going forward having lost the championship.

By Ted Miller

ESPN.com

Coach Rich Brooks led Oregon to an 8-4 finish in 1989, his 13th season in Eugene. If that elicits a “so what,” understand the Ducks hadn’t won that many games since 1963. Five seasons — and two losing records — later, Oregon played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1958, losing to Penn State by 18 points, though the Ducks’ media guide celebrated the program’s effort as proving it “belonged in Pasadena.”

Ted Miller, ESPN.com

Ted Miller, ESPN.com

In 2013, Oregon went 11-2, beat Texas 30-7 in the Alamo Bowl and finished ranked No. 9 in the nation. It was considered a down season, and some wondered if first-year coach Mark Helfrich had what it takes to lead the Ducks, post-Chip Kelly.

Times change and so do expectations.

“We do sit back every now and then and kind of laugh at it, us that have been around here a long time,” said first-year Ducks defensive coordinator Don Pellum, who’s accumulated 31 seasons with his alma mater as a player, administrator and assistant coach.

For the vast majority of its 119 seasons of football, a winning record was an ambitious wish for Oregon. Yet now, as the Ducks eyeball defending national champion Florida State, winner of 29 consecutive games, as more than a touchdown favorites in the Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual, the simple reality is Oregon needs to win the national title.

After going 69-10 over the past six seasons, playing for a national title in 2010 and finishing ranked in the top five three times, the Ducks need to finish the deal and be the last team standing. They need to make this their year.

That need is not only about program validation, though that’s a big part of it, as the Ducks have accomplished everything else. It’s not only about opportunity, though the greatest player in program history — Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota — is likely off to the NFL next year.

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2014 Best Column, by Dennis Dodd

Comment by the judge: Well researched, compelling look at the problems with the Heisman system. Did due diligence in trying to get comments from all of the Heisman trustees and provided great reasoning for giving up his Heisman vote. Especially liked the reference to how media members writing freely about their Heisman votes has only helped publicize the award.

By Dennis Dodd

CBSSports.com

Dennis Dodd

Dennis Dodd

To: William Dockery

President, Heisman Trust

17 Battery Place, Suite 1226

New York, NY 10004

Bill:

I respectfully resign my Heisman vote effective immediately.

This is my way of getting out on my own terms before the Heisman Trustees can throw me out. Monday is the deadline in your organization’s ham-handed attempt (in my opinion) to make secret a process that has been a joyful, celebrated American sports tradition for decades.

As you know, in August voters were notified if they didn’t agree to hide their Heisman ballots, voting privileges would be up for review. A heretofore unenforced “non-disclosure requirement” was mentioned.

Last month about 50 of the 928 voters from 2012 were admonished for revealing their ballots. I was one of them. Your letter arrived with the names “Johnny Manziel,” “Manti Teo” and “Collin Klein” highlighted from my column with a yellow marker like I had cheated in class.

We had until April 8 to atone for our sins — aka promise “in writing” we would hide our ballots from public consumption after the voting deadline (early December). Even then, you stated regional and state representatives “will take your explanation into consideration when determining the 2013 electorate.”

So this is what Heisman double-secret probation feels like. It’s not worth it.

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2013 Best Column, by Ben Frederickson

Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Touching story of young boy and his enthusiasm for Wyoming football. Well researched with good quotes from Wyoming coach and a player.  

By Ben Frederickson

Casper Star-Tribune

Ben Frederickson

Ben Frederickson

The chubby-cheeked, brown-eyed boy from Rock Springs beamed on game days.

He loved to watch the University of Wyoming football team play in War Memorial Stadium, especially when his dad let him go down, close to the field, to be near the players.

Phillip and Cherilyn Hansen had taken their son, Hunter, and his older brother, Phillip Jr., to Laramie three times to join the crowd of brown and gold. Together, the family had cheered for their Pokes.

But things changed after July 29, 2011. Instead of trips to Laramie to watch his favorite team, Hunter made trips to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

Hunter was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a white-blood-cell attacking cancer that starts in bone marrow — and then spreads.
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