Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This LSU-Texas A&M contest was a complex game, and thought the writer did a wonderful job capturing the emotion of what was taking place with LSU head coach Les Miles, but also gave us a feel for the actually took place in the game, too. Great depth to this piece. A pleasure to read.
By Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Advertiser/Gannett Louisiana Newspapers
BATON ROUGE – After two weeks of being stalked by the elephant in the room wanting to fire him, LSU football coach Les Miles rode a pair of “elephants” off into the sunrise. His sunset will have to wait.
LSU trampled Texas A&M, 19-7, Saturday night in the regular season finale to snap a three-game losing streak and save Miles’ job in front of 80,000 at Tiger Stadium. Then offensive tackle Vadal Alexander, who is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, who is 6-5, 300, put Miles, a hefty former Michigan guard in his own right, on their shoulders and carried him across the field amid chants of “Keep Les Miles … Keep Les Miles.”
Moments later, Miles met with LSU President F. King Alexander, who assured him he would remain the Tigers’ coach following two weeks of his job hanging in the balance as LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and some members of the Board of Supervisors, cast as Miles’ executioners, readied to release him.
“Scary. I want you to know, scary,” Miles said of the players’ ride, not the walk through the valley of fired at press conferences, a radio show and a Gridiron Club booster meeting over the last week.
“I want you to know, one, they’re tall,” Miles said of his purple and gold elephants. “And when you’re sitting up there, you know, I now know what it’s like to ride an elephant. Scares you to death, and you just pray that you can hang on to the ears, because there’s just not much to grab on to. But I was thrilled. I was touched, pleased.”
Miles had little to cling to over the last two weeks as well. Three publications produced stories that said Miles was coaching for his job after 30-16 and 31-14 losses to Alabama and Arkansas that followed a 7-0 start, 4-0 opening in the Southeastern Conference and a No. 2 national ranking. Then LSU Board of Supervisors member Ronald Anderson said that even if Miles beat Ole Miss and Texas A&M to finish 9-2, “it’s still something that needs to be looked at,” in reference to Miles’ job status.
“It’s the way they lost the two games,” Anderson said.
Then LSU lost the third straight game in similar fashion, falling behind early by 24-0 at Ole Miss and only getting back in the game briefly before a 34-17 loss that completed the trilogy. Not since 1966 had the Tigers lost three in a row by 14 or more.
Suddenly, it looked over, particularly amid reports that Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and/or his agent, Jimmy Sexton, had been contacted about Fisher, who was the offensive coordinator when LSU won its first national championship in 45 years in 2003 and won the 2013 national title at Florida State, taking the job.
Miles talked like it was over or near over as well at two press conferences last week, at his radio show Wednesday night and at a Gridiron Club booster meeting on Friday where he said it looked like he would not be coaching LSU’s bowl game. All the while, Alleva said nothing, saying only that he would comment after the season.
“I’d get up in the morning early, have me a little breakfast, and I’d go off to work,” Miles said when asked about his last two weeks, knowing he may be fired. “Occasionally I’d see somebody staring at me, like, ‘Are you going to? Are you not going to?’ I’d say to them, ‘I’m going to work. I love my job. I’m doing my job as best I can.’”
Then, the momentum of the Fire Miles movement slowed by Friday as national media continued to harshly criticize LSU for being on the verge of firing the freewheeling “Mad Hatter” despite a .769 winning percentage, a national championship in 2007, a national championship game appearance in 2011, two SEC titles and four double-digit win seasons from 2010-13. On Saturday morning, Board of Supervisors member Stanley Jacobs finally broke LSU’s silence with a statement to Gannett Louisiana supportive of Miles.
“There has been much speculation that Les Miles is coaching his last game tonight,” Jacobs said. “For that to happen, there would have had to have been a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. No recommendation has been made. He is our coach, and I wish him well.”
Later Saturday, the Palm Beach Post reported Fisher had told Florida State’s president he was staying at Florida State. Then LSU defeated Texas A&M as Miles was cheered before kickoff at Senior Night ceremonies and during and after the game. Alleva, meanwhile, was roundly booed when he appeared via recording on the giant video board welcoming fans to Death Valley before the game. The fans’ signs in the stadium favored Miles in a landslide. “Keep The Hat, Fire The Rat,” said one.
“When I walked out there for Senior Day, I did expect cheers,” Miles said. “But it was their insistence of cheering and getting my attention. I wondered at first, ‘Is that for me?’ Then I said, ‘That must be for me.’ So I took my hat off, and boy I tell you, I was just really pleased.”
LSU proceeded to run behind Alexander and company to a vintage Miles victory – 244 yards rushing and only 83 passing – while the troubled defense held the Aggies to 89 yards on the ground and 250 total.
“It was a nice night,” Miles said. “Victory is always enjoyed, especially when it comes a couple of weeks late. It’s nice to be the head coach at LSU. Proud to be associated with a great institution. It’s a joy. Nice to have them come say, ‘You know the job you’ve been doing, you still can do it.’ And I like that.”
Alleva tried to make nice afterwards. “I want to make it very clear and positive that Les Miles is our football coach,” he said. “And he will continue to be our football coach. Les and I have talked, We have talked about this program, and we are committed together to work and compete at the highest level.”
Jacobs is glad Miles will be still LSU’s coach. “I’m thrilled to death that Les is staying,” Jacobs said after the game. “I did not know he would be until we started winning in the second half. He deserves to be our head coach.”
Not all board members were as happy. Anderson was reached after the game, but had no comment, though he did intimate that Miles may have had him in mind when answering a question after the game concerning those who wanted him gone.
“There’s probably a guy or two I’d like to meet in an alley and just have a little straight talk with,” Miles said. “But I’m not built that way.”
Miles won his LSU career saving game his way – with the run and not the pass. “The game itself was an imperfect fistfight,” Miles said. “The guy who delivered our body blows was Leonard Fournette.”
Fournette gained 159 yards on 32 carries, and the sophomore tailback from New Orleans became the school’s all-time leading rusher for a season with 1,741 yards, passing Charles Alexander’s 1,686 in 1977. His 4-yard touchdown run with 2:50 to go put the game on ice at 19-7 and started more of the “Keep Les Miles” chants.
“The motor seems to be pretty stinking strong,” Miles said defiantly when asked if he was told to change his offense for next year.
“I can say, it’s been one of the longest few weeks of my life,” Fournette said. “It was hard for everybody. It’s been hard – not just about Coach Miles, but when you lose three. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to deal with.”
The Tigers (8-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) will likely return to the top 25 on Sunday, and next week will learn its bowl destination. A bowl in which Miles now plans on coaching.
“I want you to know something, I love coaching football,” Miles said.
“The players love him as our coach,” LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre said. “I love him as my coach. He’s been a great coach since before we’ve been here. He’s built a legacy here.”
The Tigers won at least eight games in a season for the 16th consecutive season and will be going to a 16th straight bowl – 11 straight under Miles.
“We wanted to come in here, and we wanted to get a win,” LaCouture said after letting Miles off his shoulders. “We needed it. We wanted it. Coach Miles deserved it. We love him to death. We thought as a team that he deserved the win. Let’s make one thing clear – the chain of command starts with Coach Miles. That’s how we think of it. We wouldn’t want anyone else here.”
COLLEGE: University of Missouri-Columbia
BACKGROUND: Guilbeau won a first place this year for the first time since the 2001 contest, when he took Game Story in the now-defunct “Loose Deadline” category, which appealed to him, for an account of “morning in Tiger Stadium” after a watershed upset the night before by unranked LSU and first-year coach Nick Saban over No. 11 Tennessee. His Game Story winner in the current contest on tight deadline — was an account of LSU’s 19-7 victory over Texas A&M last season that saved Coach Les Miles job — until early this season that is. Guilbeau also placed second this year for a Column describing the same dramatic week when Miles’ future hung in the balance a year ago. His honorable mention was for a Feature on LSU running back Leonard Fournette. … Guilbeau, a native of the New Orleans area, had honorable mention in Column in 2015 and 2014 and placed several times in early FWAA contests in the 1990s with a second in Game Story, two thirds in Column and a fourth in Enterprise. He has covered college football for more than 30 years at the Tiger Rag Magazine in Baton Rouge (1983-84), the Montgomery Advertiser (1985-86), the Alexandria Town Talk (1987-93), the Mobile Register (1993-98), the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004) and since 2004 at the Gannett Louisiana/USA Today Network, where he also covers the Saints. Guilbeau lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Michelle, a former political reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate who is now communications director for state treasurer John Kennedy, and their boxer mix Bailey Bama, who (don’t tell LSU fans) is from a pound in Union Springs, Ala., and has never seen LSU beat Alabama in football.
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.
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.
Comment by the judge, Michael Weinreb: An eye-opening, surprisingly frank and timely examination about how college football is affected by issues of race and identity.
By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com
NORMAN, Okla. — Five months after he went viral, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker sits in a dimly lit meeting room, more composed but just as emotional.
His head lowers when he thinks back to that spring night. His robust shoulders shrink as the pain returns.
The text message arrives the evening of March 8. A teammate asks if Striker has seen the video of a fraternity singing a racist song on a bus. “There will never be a n—– in SAE!” members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon chant. Striker’s first thought: Please don’t let this be at Oklahoma. But it is.
He grabs his phone. “Same m—–f—–s talking about racism don’t exist are the same m—–f—–s shaking our hands, giving us hugs, telling us how you really love us,” a shirtless Striker says during a 19-second Snapchat video. “F— you phony-ass, fraud-ass bitches.”
The Snapchat sent shockwaves. Striker had touched on the fundamental disconnect black college football players from across the country cite: On Saturday nights, they’re celebrated as heroes, but the rest of the week, they’re profiled in classes, at parties and in their communities.
“Like Striker said, everybody loves you on game day,” Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard said. “Everybody loves you after you win and you go out to Midtown, but behind closed doors, who are you? What are you?”
College football locker rooms often transcend race, and universities serve as cultural melting pots for people to learn about one another and discuss important topics. But when racial flash points occur, or even subtle, everyday occurrences, black athletes must navigate the bridge between sports and society.
Since the Striker video, ESPN interviewed more than 40 players from 15 programs across the country and surveyed another 99 players anonymously about their reaction to Striker and their own encounters with racism and profiling. Many players applauded Striker for speaking out and were eager to share their own opinions and experiences that mirror his at Oklahoma.
It’s a complicated conversation — one with numerous questions and few answers — that Striker started.
“At the end of the day, this is bigger than the sport of football,” Striker said, his deep voice softening and scratching as he spoke to ESPN.com last month. “If I move on and I just continue and maybe not raise awareness and keep playing football, I wouldn’t feel good as a person.”
OU just the tipping point
Norman is like most college towns. Dive bars and dance clubs rub elbows near campus. Beer and burgers are cheap, and there’s little buzz when the students are gone. And the SAE incident, while generating national attention, isn’t unique to Oklahoma.
“I’m quite certain it has happened numerous times at predominantly white institutions across the country,” said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California-Berkeley and one of the nation’s leading voices on race in sports. “There’s a continuing reality of racial antipathy on many, if not most, of these predominantly white campuses that is in stark contradiction to the cheering that happens on Saturday afternoon at the stadium.”
Last year Ole Miss, still trying to distance itself from its racially charged past, saw one of its students hang a noose around the statue of civil rights activist James Meredith, the university’s first black student in 1962. Also in 2014, Arizona State’s Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by throwing an urban-themed, blackface-inducing party advertised with hashtags such as #blackoutforMLK.
In April, a University of South Carolina student was suspended after a video of her writing a racial slur on a whiteboard spread through social media.
Black players condemned the SAE incident at Oklahoma, but several said the attention it generated places a spotlight on the racial reality. “It goes on [at] every single campus,” Auburn linebacker Kris Frost said. “It’s embarrassing for the university, but at the same time, it’s good for people to understand that things like that do go on … but it’s all about evolving. It’s all about getting better.”
One reason Striker’s initial reaction resonated so strongly is he wasn’t afraid to come forward. Many athletes said they struggle with speaking out about racial issues because they’re afraid of being ostracized or a distraction to the team. Some schools have banned players from all social media.
“You kind of have to hide your opinion as an athlete,” Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones said. “Sometimes you’re not able to be as outspoken because of the people who look up to you. When you’re in that situation, you really can’t say the right thing. Somebody’s going to get offended because of the diverse people who follow [us] on social media.”
Striker faced a similar dilemma at Oklahoma. He apologized for how he delivered the Snapchat reaction, a gesture some scholars said was unnecessary. “A double standard,” said Charles K. Ross, an associate history professor at Ole Miss and director of the school’s African-American studies program.
“What this brother did when he blew up is not just reacting to that incident,” Edwards said. “That comes from a last-straw kind of disposition. You’re constantly living under that tension. How are you going to cope with being a football player, a de facto star on campus, and at the same time being an African-American, where by definition, in certain sectors of campus outside of the athletic arena, you are the other, the alien, the unknown, the one to be feared and distrusted and avoided?”
Striker understands the consequences of voicing his views, especially about a subject many deem too controversial. But he refuses to stay silent.
“It’s a hard balance because any time I get to say something, I will, but I still love the game and I have a goal of bringing my team together and being a great leader,” he said. “I feel like I owe that to them, but I also feel like I owe my voice to black people as well when anything bad like this is happening.”
According to a 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, black men made up 2.8 percent of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate students but represented 57.1 percent of football programs in six major conferences — the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC.
At Notre Dame, for example, the Penn study found that black men made up 1.8 percent of the student body but 45.6 percent of the school’s basketball and football teams. “It’s almost assumed when a huge black guy walks in a room, he’s a football player,” said Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.
The demographic reality brings labels.
“From the time a black scholarship athlete walks on campus, he is profiled,” Edwards said. “It is assumed that he is there under special admissions. It is assumed he is there with no particular academic competitiveness. It is assumed he is someone that is going to have to be monitored in terms of citizenship. So he is not going to be automatically admitted to the parties, especially those at historically white fraternities. He is going to be profiled in the classroom as soon as the professor realizes he plays on the football team.”
Players who spoke with ESPN were predominantly happy with their social lives on campus but also described some difficulties blending in.
“I can’t pick out a white guy on our team who will be left out of parties if people don’t know him,” a black player from a Pac-12 team said. “It’s sad. In these people’s minds, they look at you — a big tall black dude, probably dressed a certain way, and they get intimidated by it. They get scared.”
Black players said they encounter assumptions based on their skin color, but their appearance often brings even more.
Notre Dame cornerback Matthias Farley said people see how he looks — “I have dreads; I usually have a long beard; I have tattoos,” he said. “They’re like, ‘What is this guy going to say?'” — and make snap judgments. Farley enjoys talking with those people and dispelling preconceived notions. “You meet people and you know they have a stigma of you, and then you break it and they don’t know what to do with themselves,” he said.
Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle, a Rhodes scholar at FSU who is in his third year of clinical rotations for pediatric neurosurgery at three hospitals in South Florida, said he could see hesitancy in white students when they saw him surrounded by teammates with “long dreads, gold teeth, long white tees … and some Air Force 1s on their feet.”
It wasn’t until Rolle approached them that their views changed.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, OK, he’s not like that. He’s a little bit different,'” Rolle said. “‘He’s a good one.'”
In addition to their size, football players are easily identified because of the team-issued clothing they often wear. Black and white players both told ESPN.com that they intentionally avoided wearing issued gear in class, especially at the start of the academic year, to avoid being profiled by professors or classmates.
But for black players, wardrobe choice might not be enough.
“He could wear khakis and a nice button-down shirt,” said Shaun Harper, a University of Pennsylvania professor who founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. “But even if these guys unsport themselves or take away their athletic representation, the black kid is still going to be the black kid. They’re still going to presume he’s a student-athlete. They’re also going to presume he came from some poor, failing public school and he only came there for his sport, and he’s not smart.
“The white athlete could much more easily blend in.”
Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said the racial isolation black football players experience on campus isn’t new. Black college football pioneers Paul Robeson and Fritz Pollard went through similar things while starring for teams at Rutgers and Brown, respectively, in the 1910s.
“Fast-forward to today,” Shropshire said. “Not only do you have racial isolation but now you have isolation that occurs with the time that is spent playing a sport and the lack of time you have being a student.”
Ross calls black football players “the most stereotyped group” on campus, especially in classes. It’s why Ross encourages black players to reach out to their professors, sit in the front of their classrooms and do anything to “not fall into that paradigm.” Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu has made headway in his classes but said, “It’s not always easy to take that jump. It’s intimidating.”
“I’m in one of the most rigorous majors in the College of Arts and Letters, maybe in the whole school,” said Notre Dame wide receiver Corey Robinson, a first-team Academic All-American last year — the first sophomore at a Division I school to earn that honor since 2008 — who majors in liberal studies and sustainability. “As a black student-athlete here, I care about my education. I work hard and I get great grades in my major.
“I try to change the stereotype a little bit.”
Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson doesn’t want his classification as a black football player to limit positive experiences in classes. He’s proactive in reaching out to nonathletes and creating positive interactions. “If I’m known for just football,” Johnson said, “then I’ve failed.”
Life in the community
Black football players have seen the images from Ferguson, Missouri, and Charleston, South Carolina. They have read about Christian Taylor, a defensive back at Division II Angelo State who was shot and killed Aug. 7 by police officers responding to a burglary call at a local car dealership.
It makes football seem trivial for them.
“Every time I turn the TV on I see another black guy dying or another black person dying from a [police] officer, and it’s like I’m playing this game of football and probably winning in spots, but am I really winning when I turn on the TV and I see my people dying?” Striker said, choking up and slowly dropping his head. “It hurts — it hurts me to see that every time.”
Striker’s mother prefers he doesn’t drive, fearing what would happen if he gets pulled over. If Striker is stopped and asked to present documents, she has advised him against reaching into the glove compartment, so as not to provoke the officer. Striker said if pulled over, he “wouldn’t feel 100 percent safe with what’s been going on.”
That fear is not uncommon — a 2014 Gallup poll showed 37 percent of African-Americans nationally have confidence in police, compared with 59 percent of white citizens surveyed.
“I’ve been pulled over by police,” a black Conference USA player said. “The officer accused me of smoking and tried to search my vehicle. His excuse was that nine times out of 10 he was right, when dealing with African-American males in this area.”
But many black players say they have had positive interactions with law enforcement. This summer, former Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone tweeted about an encounter with police when he got a flat tire along Interstate 5. Malone went from “terrified” to “really grateful” when police taught him to change the tire.
“I had a certain perception, especially right now in America, about how things were going with police officers,” Malone said. “It really changed my outlook and opened my eyes that all cops aren’t the same, just like all athletes aren’t the same, just [like] all people aren’t the same.”
Wisconsin running back Corey Clement recalled an episode this summer with a white university police officer at a traffic light in Madison. They both joked about giving the other an official escort to their destination. “I dressed as a regular person, had a regular conversation with him,” said Clement, who wasn’t sure whether the officer recognized him from football. “It was a cool connection to have with things normally — people are scared of because of the shootings.”
Aside from encountering police, some players are concerned about simply entering the communities that surround their campuses. Because of his upbringing in the racially charged city of Philadelphia, Mississippi — site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers that the movie “Mississippi Burning” was based on — Johnson doesn’t like large crowds. He can count on both hands how often he has ventured out in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I know what’s out there, and I know what people are capable of and what people think,” Johnson said, “so I just stay away.”
University of Georgia professor Billy Hawkins, whose research centers on racial issues in the context of sports, has seen black athletes profiled and occasionally targeted in several college towns where he’s worked. “The assumption,” Hawkins said, “is black athletes have sort of this illegitimate access to the university. That causes a lot of confusion, and in some cases, it causes a lot of friction.”
Many black players said they understand the landscape when they venture out.
“If people want to approach us or don’t, it’s at their own discretion and it doesn’t bother me,” Northwestern defensive lineman Deonte Gibson said. “I’m not going to lose sleep because something insecure about you makes you not want to talk to me.”
Making sure the discussion continues
Athletes at every school described campus chasms they encounter: between people of different races, between athletes and nonathletes, between black athletes and black students, between athletes and fans. Who must construct these bridges?
“It’s not one person going the full 100 yards,” Wisconsin cornerback Darius Hillary said.
Striker is doing his part. After his Snapchat, he has taken a new approach to improving race relations on campus. Education, he said, is the solution.
When Striker met with Levi Pettit, an SAE member caught on video singing the racist chant, Striker learned that Pettit’s knowledge of lynching had been very limited, until he read a book on it after the bus incident. Pettit told Striker that if he had known lynching’s gruesome history, he wouldn’t have participated in the chanting.
Striker forgave Pettit and thinks others can learn from Pettit’s actions.
“That’s all it takes,” Striker said. “Regardless of your race or color, you should know that history, and that’s something that he lacked. He did not know. At the end of the day, what’s wrong with learning about different cultures? You just gained knowledge.”
Striker’s response to the SAE video sparked reaction around the country, but also on OU’s campus. He heard from many Oklahoma athletes, thanking him for voicing how they had felt for years. His schedule began filling with meetings, as he huddled with Greek organizations, black student organizations, other athletes and university administrators, including president David Boren.
One meeting took place with SAE leaders, who apologized to Striker and several other Oklahoma players.
“Eric’s the first one to jump out of his chair and hug them all and told them he forgives them,” coach Bob Stoops said. “Hugged every one of them.”
Freshman athletes are now required to participate in Camp Crimson, a three-day orientation during which they meet nonathlete students and learn about each other. Although the video brought negative attention to OU, the school has used the opportunity not just to initiate but also to continue a dialogue on race.
“The expression was really helpful to know how people thought,” said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione. “Fair or unfair, right or wrong, they never had a forum to ask it. It was illuminated. It could be something as simple as, ‘Well, I had thought that. Now I feel better that I asked, and the answer, I understand and agree with. Now we move on.’
“That’s the most important thing, the follow-up to the event itself.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason is calling for similar forums at campuses around the country to discuss racial tolerance and issues affecting student-athletes. Stanford coach David Shaw said it’s the responsibility of universities to be proactive and ensure everyone is accepted.
“It’s something you need to handle quickly,” Notre Dame defensive lineman Romeo Okwara said. “All these kids in this frat, they go to the football games. The majority of the football players are African-American. These are the same people you’re cheering for.”
Hawkins said he thinks the NCAA should work more with university administrators to deal with episodes of racism better and ensure players have an outlet to express their frustration. The last thing the NCAA wants, he said, is black players to decide they won’t play football until changes are made.
“We are very clear on most college campuses about issues centered around alcohol,” Ross said. “We’re clear about individuals bringing firearms to campuses. On most campuses we’re very clear about plagiarism. The one area on our campuses across this country where we’re not very clear is when we have behavioral issues around racial, intolerable actions. What concerns me: Are we really committed to dealing with those kinds of behaviors?”
All groups must pitch in, but it starts with a dialogue, which, thanks to Striker, is underway.
“You got to get it out,” Vanderbilt defensive lineman Jay Woods said. “You have to have a voice and a say in this. If not, nobody’s going to know how you feel or the standpoint from African-American males. You got to speak up. Point-blank. Period.
“Eric Striker did the right thing.”
“Divide between black football players and black students a concern for both”
By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com
The cultural disconnect black football players often encounter at predominantly white universities exists not only across racial groups but also within them.
Several black players who spoke to ESPN.com about their experiences with race and racism on campus described gaps with the black student population. Despite shared challenges and common causes, the two groups often struggle to come together.
The tension at Northwestern built to a point that, in the spring of 2013, former Wildcats player Jarrell Williams orchestrated a meeting between black athletes (mostly football players) and black students. Williams called the meeting One Greater Community.
The black students, who showed up en masse for football games, felt little to no support from athletes for their initiatives. The football players countered that they simply didn’t have time.
“Athletes, we’re in one area of the school for most of our four years,” Williams said. “Rarely have we gone out to join a movement and feel involved. That’s probably why you’d get those results. Non-athletes spend more time on campus. Their exposure to racism is higher. We’re at the stadium a lot of the time.
“It was frustrating for both sides. As much as we wanted to be there for them, we couldn’t.”
Shaun Harper, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania who founded the school’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, said it’s a common issue among black student populations. Harper conducted a single-site study focused on student-athletes and found that black athletes “were not connected with other blacks and students of color on campus with larger racial justice issues because they didn’t have time.”
“The black students don’t really understand what the athlete is about, and there’s an impasse between them,” said Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California Berkeley. “They don’t understand why the athletes don’t join them in speaking out about a lack of black professors. They don’t understand why these athletes don’t stand up and say, ‘Hey, we’re with you.’”
Former Florida State safety Myron Rolle said he saw the same chasms develop on FSU’s campus. The Seminoles safety had a life consumed mostly by football and his teammates. He only branched out during his junior year, when he joined Kappa Alpha Psi, a black fraternity.
“I wanted to find other like-minded black men, who weren’t associated with my life as a football player,” said Rolle, who became a Rhodes Scholar at FSU. “Having people like that to bounce ideas off of and having people like that to challenge you really made me round out into a very holistic, strong-minded and ready-to-take-on-the-world person when I graduated from FSU. It was big for me to meet other guys and other girls of color around campus.”
Vanderbilt defensive tackle Jay Woods felt a similar distance with the black student population, so last year he joined a panel with the school’s NAACP chapter to better discuss the black experience on campus. Other black players said they would try to at least greet other black students when they saw them on campus.
Experts say perceived privilege is a primary cause of the tension between black students and black athletes. Dr. Charles K. Ross, an associate history professor at Ole Miss and director of the school’s African-American studies program, said the dramatically different living, academic and social resources football players have enabled the divide.
It causes some black students to feel as though athletes’ on-campus experiences don’t necessarily compare to theirs.
“That is extremely problematic,” Ross said. “Just because you’re on scholarship, that doesn’t take away your opinion and, more importantly, it doesn’t mean that you’re no longer an African-American in this society.”
While there are major social differences, these groups are culturally bound and Ross said it’s important that they unify. Ross thinks that relations between the two are mostly cordial, but understands that interactions can be awkward without constant, productive communication, like what Williams initiated at Northwestern.
“It was open to anybody, and we sat in these circles and hashed it out,” Northwestern defensive lineman C.J. Robbins said. “It went back and forth. Did it work? I don’t know. But the people that were there now say hi to me a lot more. It’s a lot more friendly than just walking past us on the street like we’re not there.”
“13 voices, 13 perspectives Eric Striker, race and college football”
By Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg, ESPN.com
This spring, Eric Striker’s viral reaction to a racist frat video set off a national conversation about race on college campuses across the country. The Oklahoma linebacker’s initial SnapChat made headlines inside and outside the college football world, and inspired a public show of anti-racism involving the entire Sooners team and coaching staff soon after. In dozens of interviews with players and coaches from across the country, ESPN.com found Striker’s comments have sparked an open dialogue in many places. Here are 12 quotes gathered during that reporting, on a broad range of topics around race on college campuses and its interaction with the sport.
Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione
“People understood [Striker’s] initial reaction. It came within a couple hours, an hour, and it did go viral. Social media being what it is, there are times people express their immediate thoughts unvarnished. After some of the emotions settled down, [Striker] went and chose to express himself differently, but one should not lose the deeper meaning of his concern because that was what he felt. That’s what he needed to say.”
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops
“A regular student has the right to demonstrate or express their feelings. Why wouldn’t an athlete? This is America. It’s what it’s all about.”
Wisconsin cornerback Darius Hillary
“I was sitting on the fourth floor, doing my homework with one of the guys on the team [Leon Jacobs] and he was like, ‘Did you hear about Oklahoma?’ He showed me the video and the first thing that I thought was, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way from where we have been in the past, and then here’s something that lets me know we still have a long way to go.'”
Auburn linebacker Kris Frost
“It’s important for athletes to have a voice. A lot of people just see us out there as tackling dummies. We go out there and play, work out and practice every day, and on Saturdays, they just see a helmet, they don’t see a person under it.”
Notre Dame defensive lineman Romeo Okwara
“Race is such a huge topic in America especially, and voicing your opinions, especially at that point, is very important. All these kids in this frat, they go to the football games. The majority of the football players are African-American. These are the same people you’re cheering for. As a player, how can students who watch you play and cheer for you not know they have those feelings? It’s crazy to think about.”
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze
“When those issues occur we have to let them know again that there are people that behave poorly, that make bad choices, that are going to be on the wrong side of arguments at every university in America. And it’s wrong, in my opinion, those things at every university, but you’re not escaping this world. “We’re not going to stick our head in the sand and not battle against it and not be on the right side of things. We’ll continue to do that, but it won’t go away.”
Florida defensive end Jonathan Bullard
“Like Striker said, everybody loves you on game day. Everybody loves you after you win. … But behind closed doors, who are you, what are you?”
Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu “You’re stereotyped as a football player because you’re black. … That’s where the racism on this campus shows up. I’m a finance major, so when we’re put in groups and we have to put all these financial models together, I’m not necessarily the first one to be looked at. I’m not someone people will walk up to and say, ‘Hey, do you want to be in our group?’ I always end up in the athletes’ group. I use it somewhat as motivation. It’s like, ‘You don’t want me in the group?’ I’ll do better on the project.”
Wisconsin running back Corey Clement
“When I go out with my football guys and we all walk in at the same time, everybody knows you play a sport and they automatically think, ‘football.’ You’re big, you’re black and you’re athletic, so it’s either football or basketball on this campus. The way they would talk to us, it’s kind of indirect. ‘Oh, was that scooter given to you?’ If you go out to a bar, ‘Is that drink paid for you? I didn’t see you pay for that, so you must have the good life.’ If they understood the way we carry ourselves the way we do, it’s because we work for it.”
Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones
“You’re wary of people’s intentions. If I wasn’t playing football, would they still want to hang around me? That always crosses your mind. You have to deal with that. This is still America, and racism isn’t that far away.”
Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson
“It sickens me when I see [a Confederate flag] on people’s cars on campus. If you have the Confederate flag on your vehicle, you have a problem. And I don’t care if it’s socially what you believe in or it’s morally what you believe in or you’re just doing it for s—s and giggles. It’s just the fact of what it stands for. It’s almost like you might as well put a tag on the front of your car that says ‘n—–.’ That’s really what it boils down to. You might as well just put a big tag on the front of your car or hang a big flag on the back of your car and just say the N-word.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason
“When you’re talking about African-American athletes, there have been guys who have never stepped outside of talking to black people — period. And that’s the only way they’ve made it through.”
Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker
“Let’s be honest here, when we see the regular student body we might see them as just faces in the stands and then they just see us as jersey numbers. If we stay in our corner and they stay in their corner, then it’s both of us who should build [the bridge].”
College: University of Florida
Background: Edward grew up in lovely Oxford, Mississippi, with two educators and cooks as parents. His father, the late Peter Aschoff, taught an array of different classes at the University of Mississippi and cooked unbelievable Asian delicacies. His mother, the late Patricia Aschoff, was the director of the Domestic Violence Center in Northeast Mississippi, before becoming a well-respected special education teacher in the Oxford School District. Her fried chicken and mac & cheese were second to none. Edward mostly grew up reading about dinosaurs and stalked around the house imitating his idol — Godzilla. He played soccer and baseball and decided he wanted to become a sports writer after being captivated by the late, great Stuart Scott in middle school. Edward attended the University of Florida from 2004 to 2008. He started covering Florida football, recruiting and UF’s Olympic sports for The Gainesville Sun in 2007. He was hired by ESPN in 2011 to cover SEC football. You can find his work both online and on television, as he continues to step out of his southern comfort zone to approach college football from a national perspective. He chooses to wear suits to every sporting event he covers, even in 95-degree southern heat. He lives in Atlanta, and while he doesn’t currently have any children, he thinks his ability to raise an over-stimulated cat for the last seven years has given him all the preparation he needs to eventually welcome a human child into his life. This is the first writing award he’s received since winning second place in the Yoknapatawpha Writing Contest for a short horror story in elementary school.
College: Northwestern University
Background: This honor comes as a surprise, as Adam long accepted he wouldn’t win anything beyond a signed New Kids On The Block picture claimed at an elementary school raffle in 1987. Working with Edward Aschoff on a project about such an important topic — race in college football — was among the most meaningful experiences of his career. He has covered college football for ESPN.com since 2008, focusing on the Big Ten Conference from 2008 to 2013 before moving into a national role. Adam also contributes to ESPN Insider, ESPN Radio and ESPN television and is a co-host of ESPN’s Championship Drive podcast. After graduating from Northwestern in 2003, he covered college football and college basketball for the Arlington Heights Daily Herald until joining ESPN.com. Adam has been an adjunct lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication since 2014. He and his wife, Christina, live in Chicago with their sons Roman, 3, and Gabriel, three months. They think sleep is overrated.
Comment by the judge, Michael Weinreb: A well-crafted and comprehensive piece that directly confronts the concussion crisis through the telling of one family’s personal story.
By Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com
GERMANTOWN, Md. — Three blown-up photos of Ken and Kristen Sheely’s deceased son sit on the dining room table. There’s Derek as a little boy with his cute, wide smile. There’s an older Derek dressed in a tuxedo looking dapper for a school photo. There’s Derek celebrating a football championship with his high school teammates, playing the sport he loved so much that he helped pay his own way to transfer from Penn State to Division III Frostburg State so he could extend his football career.
The pictures occupy a permanent place on the table in the Sheelys’ suburban Maryland home, where the blinds are drawn. There is no new normal for two parents as they approach the fourth anniversary of their son’s death from traumatic head injuries sustained at a Frostburg State practice — injuries that Ken and Kristen believe in their gut could have been prevented.
Kristen often lives at the family’s house near Penn State; it’s better to avoid normal conversations with parents who knew Derek and casually talk as if nothing happened. Ken, who works for the U.S. Department of Energy, permanently stays in Maryland but does grocery shopping on Sundays at 6:30 a.m. to avoid running into people he knows.
“What kind of conversation am I supposed to have with people?” Ken asks. “There are times when you can be looking to other people like normal, but we think of Derek 24/7. We think about what he would be doing now.”
Kristen softly sobs deeply in the background and wipes away tears. “Time is pretty much before and after Derek so the distance between when we last had him is exponential,” she says. “There’s no moving on for us — and we don’t want to, either. We often think what kind of parents would we be if we were ‘healed’ and had ‘peace’? I want my son back and that’s that.”
Most likely, you don’t know the name Derek Sheely. Like so many indistinguishable Division III players, Sheely played college football because he loved the game, and for the bond with his teammates.
If you do recognize Sheely’s name, it’s probably because Ken and Kristen remain in a lawsuit against the NCAA, Frostburg State coach Tom Rogish, running backs coach Jamie Schumacher and trainer Michael Sweitzer Jr., and helmet manufacturer Schutt Sports. The parents claim the Frostburg State employees missed multiple opportunities to treat Derek’s head injury, and the NCAA failed to implement concussion rules or investigate why their son’s brain was so traumatically injured that he collapsed Aug. 22, 2011, on a practice field and died six days later.
For a while, Ken and Kristen believed Derek’s death was a freak accident given the information they say they received from coaches. That changed on March 22, 2012, when an anonymous Frostburg State player emailed details of what he claims he witnessed — claims that other teammates later corroborated.
Ken and Kristen say they learned Derek went to the trainer four times over three days complaining of symptoms, including blood coming from his forehead, yet he was never given a concussion test. According to the anonymous email that was filed as part of the lawsuit, Derek complained of a headache after a dangerous drill, causing Shumacher to respond as Rogish stood next to him, “Stop your bitching and moaning and quit acting like a p***y and get back out there Sheely!” When Derek later collapsed and players yelled for help, Rogish and Schumacher initially hollered for Derek to get up, according to the email. The coaches and trainer have denied wrongdoing.
“This is a boy they knew, too, which is something we have a difficult time with,” Kristen says. “They knew what kind of young man they had on that team who led others.”
Derek was the kid who intentionally wore a Steve Young jersey every day in Pee Wee practice in York, Pa., so coaches would remember him out of 100 children.
He was the child who came home from practice and immediately did sit-ups and push-ups before asking his dad to set up five chairs so he could practice running through the proper hole.
He was the diehard Penn State fan who signed a “contract” with his parents to take school seriously upon transferring from his dream university to play football at Frostburg State, because Ken and Kristen thought Derek was foolishly trying to relive his high school football days.
He was the Frostburg State senior co-captain with dreams of working for the CIA; who postponed his graduation date because he had one year of football eligibility left; who bussed tables to pay for school; who, as Ken and Kristen learned after his death, helped his best friend pay bills.
So no, you may not know Derek Sheely. But you probably know someone like him. And that should concern college football leaders. If football loses suburban families like the Sheelys, what does the sport’s future look like?
Will NCAA create enforceable rules for concussion care?
Ken wants to be clear: He and his wife don’t want to kill football — “Derek would be the first one horrified if we fundamentally changed football” — but they want to make it safer. Ken compares the football industry today to where the automotive industry used to be when rolling out new safety features.
“They put in seat belts and air bags in cars and anti-lock brakes, and people didn’t want them and said it would kill car sales,” Ken says. “We have more cars in this country now than ever and people want these safety features. What’s going to drive people away from football is mothers and parents that don’t trust the coaches and the NCAA to look after the interests of the kids. That’s what’s going to ruin football.”
No topic gets Ken angrier than discussing the NCAA and its inability, or unwillingness, to investigate a player’s death, or to set rules for contact in practice and concussion protocols but then not adhere to them — guidelines without teeth. The trauma to Derek’s brain was so devastating that doctors asked Ken and Kristen if he was in a car accident. Upon learning, no, the injury happened playing football, the doctors asked why Derek wasn’t wearing a helmet. He was. Ken and Kristen have tried unsuccessfully to reclaim his helmet from Frostburg State. The parents want it to remember him by, though they also allege Schutt Sports misrepresented that its DNA Pro Plus helmet worn by Derek can prevent head injuries.
“Derek had no contact all summer [before he died],” Ken says. “I dropped him off at school and basically a week later he had sustained so much head trauma, in one week, that he died from it. It’s not even believable that that could happen. Even in the macho environment of football where it’s, ‘Suck it up, just keep doing it,’ it was so excruciatingly bad that Derek sought out help and he was turned away, and the NCAA doesn’t want to come in and investigate.”
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which represents the Frostburg State coaches and trainer, has denied the coaches and trainer did anything wrong. Even if the allegations are true, lawyers for the Frostburg State employees wrote that the accusations don’t meet the legal standards for liability.
In court documents, the NCAA said that though it sympathizes with the Sheely family, the NCAA has no legal duty to protect college athletes because organizers of sporting events are not liable for injuries to voluntary participants who know the risk of injury. The NCAA’s own website has said the association was founded in 1906 “to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitive athletics practices of the time,” a reference, in part, to recurring deaths on the football field that caused Teddy Roosevelt to take action.
At a 2014 Senate hearing on college sports, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) opened by asking how the NCAA could justify it has no legal duty to protect athletes. “At the very least, that was a terrible choice of words created by legal counsel to make a legal argument,” NCAA president Mark Emmert replied.
In reality, that’s exactly the NCAA’s legal argument: The NCAA surely wants to protect players and tries to do so, but it has no legal obligation. It’s a similar argument the NCAA uses as a defendant in a lawsuit over the academic scandal at North Carolina, arguing the NCAA has no legal duty to ensure the academic integrity of courses universities offer.
“What are they there for then?” Kristen asks. “I thought they were created for health and safety.”
The NCAA wrote that the alleged conduct at Frostburg State “would be in violation of NCAA guidelines and rules, best practices from medical experts, and even common sense.” But the NCAA said because it was not at the practices, the association doesn’t know if the allegations are true.
“See if a player signs an autograph and gets paid, and all of a sudden the NCAA will have 20 people investigating that thing,” Ken says, his voice rising in anger. “But player well-being? Then it’s only guidelines.”
One nagging question Ken and Kristen often wonder: Would the NCAA have investigated if this happened at a high-profile Division I school? Would the public outcry have been so much that the NCAA’s hands would have been forced to examine Derek’s death?
Ken worries about what he calls an “awkward middle” in football, meaning many lower-profile players lack protection and don’t matter as much. They’re the bodies who make up rosters — not the stars who NFL owners, college coaches and even high schools want to protect because of their value. In reality, these are the players that compose the majority of NCAA rosters. Even at the Division I level, there are very few true stars.
Still, even critics of the NCAA will acknowledge that concussions in college sports are being handled better than they were a couple years ago. But NCAA improvements often happen incrementally — even slower in some instances than NFL and youth football — and without an enforceable standard for everybody in college sports.
NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline has been pushing for concussion safety rules, but has said he runs into the NCAA’s bureaucracy. Instead of rules across all divisions, there are guidelines — there’s that word again — and some individual conferences even apply their own policies. This year, certified athletic trainers or neurologists will be upstairs at football games for Power Five conferences looking for concussion symptoms. Yet how much control the medical officials have in stopping games, and whether they are independent, varies by conference.
Also new this year, the Power Five conferences have a concussion safety protocol committee that approves a school’s concussion plans by sport before a team can participate. Yet the committee can’t penalize schools if procedures later get violated. Why not?
“Because some people aren’t doing it correctly,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby bluntly said last winter. “They want to have local control and their coaches [are] saying, ‘I don’t want to be told what to do on the sideline.'”
Robert Stern, a prominent Boston University neurologist, said the NCAA’s relationship with conferences and schools is so complex that he’s not sure how the structure can produce consistent change for all athletes.
“The NCAA as the overarching organization has made tremendous changes over the last few years to improve the management of concussions,” Stern said. “The big issue, though, is much more common repetitive hits to the head that may not be detected or diagnosed as a concussion. Some leagues do it, but college football is not consistently reducing full-contact practices. The more that can be the focus, the happier I’ll be.”
A recent study by University of Virginia researchers documented this concern by analyzing the Cavaliers’ practices, which equated to about two full-pad sessions per week. The NFL has one such practice a week. The study found, for example, that two Virginia defensive tackles each had about 11 more head impacts during full-pad workouts than in shell workouts. The average difference for a player was 4.1.
None of this will bring Derek back, of course. Ken and Kristen say they were misled by coaches that Derek died from an unpreventable, freak accident, and not due to repetitive and dangerous actions. On Sept. 6, 2011, Frostburg State athletic director Troy Dell was asked by d3football.com if Derek’s death was a freak accident. “I’m going to pass on that one,” Dell responded. Dell, who has been deposed in the case, declined to comment through the university’s general counsel due to the lawsuit.
Rogish, the Frostburg State head coach, retired in 2013 three months after the lawsuit was filed. He finished with a 14-45 record. In an interview with d3football.com shortly after Derek died, Rogish said Derek had one of the team’s five highest grade point averages and had a passion for football while never missing summer workouts. “He was just a very committed athlete,” Rogish said.
Schumacher, the assistant who allegedly berated Derek to keep practicing while hurt, also left Frostburg State. Sweitzer Jr. remained employed at Frostburg State until leaving on Aug. 7, 2015, according to the university.
“Although FSU understands that the allegations asserted in the lawsuit have been and will continue to be strongly disputed, our deepest sympathies remain extended to the Sheely family,” Frostburg State general counsel Karen Treber said in a statement. “Derek Sheely was an outstanding member of the FSU community and his loss continues to be profoundly felt here. … FSU awards a scholarship in Mr. Sheely’s name each year to an outstanding student in a continuing tribute. We will continue to do so.”
Ken and Kristen created the Derek Sheely Foundation to bring awareness to their story and help others. But they find it’s hard to promote the foundation given how often they feel rejected by the NCAA.
“Practice limits cost the NCAA no money, yet they can’t get schools to do it,” Ken says. “They claim to have no power. They’re a powerless organization. … The irony of this whole thing from our standpoint is if the NCAA had responded to us, ‘Yes, we want to find out what really happened to Derek,’ they would have been the hero. We never wanted to sue anybody and we still don’t. We want to fix this thing. As far as I’m concerned, the offer is still on the table.”
‘We’re kind of stuck back then’
The Sheely lawsuit is now two years old. The trial date was recently delayed again, this time from September until June 2016, so additional discovery and depositions can occur. The Frostburg State player who anonymously tipped off the family has been found — his name is Brandon Henderson — and he’s willing to testify.
All parties have lined up some heavy hitters as expert witnesses. The Frostburg State coaches and trainer secured prominent neurologist Julian Bailes, who has been an NFL and college football team physician; concussion expert Kevin Guskiewicz, a certified athletic trainer at North Carolina; high-profile neurologist Jeffrey Kutcher, the team physician at Michigan; and former Alabama coach Gene Stallings and Division III national championship coach Bill Manlove to discuss coaching techniques. The NCAA has reserved the right to use those witnesses and others as well.
Among the experts for Ken and Kristen are prominent neurologist Robert Cantu, one of the nation’s leading concussion experts; and Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Haynes, who chairs the NFL Alumni’s Health and Wellness Committee.
Cantu believes Derek’s death was preventable, and that he sustained second impact syndrome — a condition that occurs when the brain swells rapidly after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier one have subsided. Bailes, a witness for the coaches and trainer, said there’s no evidence Derek experienced second impact syndrome, and that his death was caused by an acute suburdal hematoma that happens several times a year across the United States due to football collisions.
Because Derek was cremated, his brain was never studied by researchers. If Ken and Kristen had known the alleged circumstances around Derek’s death, they would have donated his brain to be analyzed.
“It’s never been about the money, so [the NCAA] can’t do anything from a monetary standpoint to not necessarily take this to trial,” Ken says. “They know what it is we’re looking for.”
Ken starts describing what they want — a list Ken and Kristen say they suggested to NCAA lawyers during an eight-hour mediation a year ago. Ken says he has “kooky” ideas that new NCAA concussion rules will be called the Derek Sheely Safety Rules, and that a Derek Sheely Safety Award will be established that will recognize players who speak up for teammates who won’t sit down with concussion symptoms.
What if a player safety award one day meant as much to the public as the Heisman Trophy? That’s highly unlikely. But these are the things that run through a dad’s mind so his son didn’t die without some purpose.
Ken and Kristen want standardized hitting limits at practices for all sports in all NCAA divisions. They want to ban certain drills, such as the one Frostburg State players called “the drill” that Derek, a fullback, was participating in when he collapsed.
Henderson, the anonymous emailer, described the drill run by Schumacher as “way more dangerous” than it should have been. The email said fullbacks repeatedly plowed over linebackers, who were told by Schumacher they could not defend themselves. Fullbacks not in the offensive rotation would play linebacker as Schumacher encouraged hard hits. When defensive players tried to make contact to defend themselves, Schumacher was furious, Henderson wrote. Basically, if what Henderson says is accurate, defensive players like Sheely had to stand still and get repeatedly run over. The lawsuit claims two other Frostburg State players sustained concussions in “the drill” just days before Sheely’s incident, and some players quit the team because of the drill.
Perhaps more than anything else, Ken and Kristen want the NCAA to investigate player safety issues. They want the NCAA to have the ability to suspend coaches whose actions are irresponsible. They understand many injuries can’t be investigated. But what Ken and Kristen can’t wrap their head around is how a college athlete dies playing an NCAA-sanctioned sport and an association created for player safety won’t demand answers.
Ken stresses he’s not saying every school is corrupt and every coach can’t be trusted. Still, he’s skeptical. He watched Michigan quarterback Shane Morris stumble around on the field last season after a hit to the head, stay in the game, and then later return for one play despite the university later acknowledging he suffered a concussion.
If it’s happening at Michigan, Ken wonders, why wouldn’t this be happening when the cameras aren’t on at practices or at lower-level schools? If colleges can’t afford to have neurologists at practices and games, Ken says, maybe the NCAA or College Football Playoff needs to foot that bill.
After the Michigan incident last fall, Hainline — the NCAA chief medical officer — said he could envision an NCAA enforcement system for concussions that could cover the entire association, but holes would still exist. “I don’t see a way of monitoring every possible thing,” Hainline said. “You have to be fair and say we’re not just looking at the televised games. You have to look at the 97 percent of other games going on, too. Those kids are at as much risk or not more.”
Ken still watches football. Kristen won’t watch anymore, but she doesn’t want to blame the sport as a whole — largely because of Derek’s love for the game — for what happened to her son. “Because Derek loved football, I’m more comfortable blaming the people who killed our child.”
Football allows Ken to still feel connected to Derek. Before Derek died, the family had just bought two Penn State season tickets. They anticipated a fight with Derek over who got to use them.
But yes, it’s impossible not to watch a football game differently after your son died from football injuries. “When you see somebody get injured and you hear an announcer say head injuries will really change when somebody dies playing football, that’s hard to hear,” Ken says. “People have died playing football, not just Derek.”
Ken believes the culture of football will change once a coach pulls an injured star player on the winning drive of the national championship game, demonstrating that doing the right thing trumps winning.
“It’s going to take courageous coaches, courageous parents, a courageous leader of the NCAA,” Ken says. “The thing that’s cowardly to do is to do the wrong thing and you know it’s wrong. The opposite of that is to do something you know is right but everybody else — society — doesn’t want to hear that. That’s what it’s going to take. This is a sad state, but if the only thing we do in this whole thing is for the next football coach whose player comes to them saying, ‘I’m not feeling well,’ and the first thing in the coach’s head is, ‘I might get my butt sued off if I don’t take care of this kid first,’ that is at least a change in the thought process instead of, ‘Bleepity, bleep, get back in there.'”
Derek physically lives on. He was a registered organ donor and some of his organs have helped other people’s lives. Two people now see because of Derek. Some stranger has kidneys because of Derek. Since Derek was on so much medication between the week he was hospitalized and died, some of his organs couldn’t be donated.
“We’re proud he did that, but it doesn’t help us,” Kristen says. She briefly considered trying to learn about the people who received Derek’s organs, “but I don’t think I can know.”
At the end of an interview with a reporter, Ken pulls out a photo album of Derek as a kid. Kristen moves onto the sofa to look since it has been too long since she saw them. “Aww,” she says, rubbing her eyes.
There’s Derek riding on a sled. There’s Derek and his sister Keyton at Disney World. There’s Derek pretending to be surprised when he got a cell phone as a present.
Ken tells the story of a young Derek standing up to a bully shortly after the family moved to Maryland. Two kids told Derek he was in their seat. Derek stood up, looked at the seat, and sarcastically replied, “I don’t see your name,” and sat down. The bullies beat him up. But they got booted off the bus a day later, causing other kids to thank Derek because they had previously been harassed.
“He might not have won the battle, but he won the war,” Ken says.
Ken and Kristen feel a responsibility to fight their own battles and win some sort of war for Derek. It’s not a war against football. Maybe it’s a war for common sense. Maybe it’s a war for doing the right thing.
Winning the lawsuit — what does winning even mean when your son is gone? — won’t fill the hole. There’s no new normal for Ken and Kristen. Ken shows the tattoos he got on his arm to remember Derek. Kristen looks at the blown-up pictures of Derek on the dining room table and can’t bear to come too close to them.
“To some degree,” Ken says, “we’re kind of stuck back then.”
Jon has won his fourth first-place award in the FWAA Best Writing Contest and been recognized a total of 11 times. He won in 2011 at The Birmingham News for a feature on the complicated life of Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain; in 2011 at The Birmingham News for a game story on Mississippi State’s first game since defensive end Nick Bell’s death; and in 2004 at The Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail for a column on James “Radio” Kennedy’s impact on the Anderson community. Jon has covered national college football at CBSSports.com since 2014. He previously covered Clemson for The Anderson Independent-Mail (1999-2003) and The State (2003-05), and wrote columns, enterprise and investigative stories for The Birmingham News (2005-2014). Jon’s wife, Mandy, and their two sons, Daniel and Josh, are the joys of his life and somehow put up with Jon’s crazy work schedule. Jon and his family live in Maryland, where they are big Orioles fans despite their feast-or-famine offense and shaky starting pitching.
DALLAS — Glenn Guilbeau of the Lafayette Advertiser/Gannett Louisiana Newspapers topped all entrants with three awards in the 24th Annual FWAA Best Writing Contest. Five other FWAA writers claimed two awards each for stories written between Feb. 1, 2015, and Jan. 31, 2016.
Guilbeau won a first place in Game Story for LSU’s 2015 victory over Texas A&M, snapping a three-game losing streak and helping quiet Coach Les Miles’ critics at the time. He also picked up a second-place award in Column and an honorable mention in Features.
The five double-placers were: Sports Illustrated’s Lindsay Schnell, ESPN.com’s Mark Schlabach, ESPN.com’s Matt Fortuna, CBSSports.com’s Jon Solomon and Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel.
Schnell won first-place in the Column Category for her stand on Oklahoma’s controversial handling of running back Joe Mixon’s off-the-field problems and Orange Bowl press conference. She also collected a third-place in Enterprise.
Schlabach collected a second-place in Enterprise with the help of three other ESPN.com writers and an honorable mention in Game Story. Fortuna placed third in Column and picked up an honorable mention in Game Story.
Solomon garnered a first place in Features and an honorable mention in Column. The Feature story was on Derek Sheely and one family’s confrontation with the concussion crisis. Thamel collected a third in Game Story and an honorable mention in Enterprise.
Edward Aschoff and Adam Rittenberg won a first place in Enterprise, collaborating on an “eye-opening, surprisingly frank and timely examination of how college football is affected by issues of race and identity,” according to the judge.
First-place winners will receive certificates, footballs and cash prizes. Second and third-place finishers will receive certificates and cash prizes. Honorable Mentions will receive certificates. All will be recognized at the FWAA’s Annual Awards Breakfast on Jan. 9, 2017, in Tampa, Florida at the College Football Playoff Media Hotel.
The following is a complete list of the results of the contest. Click on any of the first-place winners to read their stories.
Second Place — Andrea Adelson, ESPN.com
Third Place — Pete Thamel, SI.com
Honorable Mention — Mark Schlabach, ESPN.com; Matt Fortuna, ESPN.com
First Place — Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com
Second Place — David Ubben, FoxSportsSouthwest.com
Third Place — Brian Hamilton, Sports Illustrated (Campus Rush)
Honorable Mention — Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Advertiser/Gannett Louisiana Newspapers; Luke DeCock, Raleigh News & Observer; Ted Miller, ESPN.com; Joey Kaufman, Orange County Register
First Place — Lindsay Schnell, Sports Illustrated (Campus Rush)
Second Place (Tie)— Dave Matter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Advertiser/Gannett Louisiana Newspapers
Third Place (Tie)— Ryan McGee, ESPN.com, and Matt Fortuna, ESPN.com
Honorable Mention — Matt Brown, Sports on Earth; Jon Solomon, CBSSports.com; Matt L. Stephens, Fort Collins Coloradoan
Second Place — Mark Schlabach and Paula Lavigne, ESPN.com
Third Place — Lindsay Schnell, Sports Illustrated (Campus Rush)
Honorable Mention — Jesse Temple, FOXSportsWisconsin.com; Pete Thamel, Sports Illustrated (Campus Rush); Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com
Milt Tenopir, who coached some of college football’s most dominant offensive lines with Nebraska in the 1980s and ’90s, has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 76.
Tenopir won the first annual Tom Osborne Legacy Award in January 2015. The Award is presented at the Outland Trophy Presentation Banquet in Omaha to a person who has made great contribution to line play.
Former Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne recalled Tenopir as a great teacher who cared deeply about his players. CLICK HERE to read the entire story on Omaha.com.
The FWAA’s president in 2003, Wally Hall of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, recently gave his readers some reasons to pay attention to the relatively young Super 16 Poll, produced by the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.