Wednesday, December 9, 2009

New Article in "Louisiana Progress"

Please take a look and consider joining/supporting the "Louisiana Progress Initiative." My article "Game Theory" is featured in Issue 2.

For more information about the LPI, please see:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Profiles in Advocacy: Linda Bensel-Myers, Jon Ericson, and Thomas Foster

from the 12/10/09 edition of "The Real Views"

If one accepts the premise that many black male student-athletes in the revenue generating sports of football and basketball matriculate and leave institutions of higher education with feelings of being exploited, then a desperate need exists to identify the counter-narratives of advocacy where student-athletes at least have the potential to have vastly different undergraduate experiences. For one, the very continued existence and integrity of organized amateur athletics depends upon it, and too, the NCAA should be invested in identifying these stories as crucial moments in shaping its history rather than as unfortunate marginalia. Finally, these stories should be recognized as instructive rather than destructive, and as important moments in higher education that occurred, for the most part, outside of the classroom.

One of the most powerful examples of such a narrative is the case of Linda Bensel-Meyers vs. the University of Tennessee. In 1995, Linda Bensel-Meyers was fired by the University of Tennessee because she blew the whistle on the improprieties she observed (including papers being written for student-athletes) while she was an English department faculty member and Director of Composition. In “Breaking Faith with the College Athlete,” Bensel-Meyers assails the quality of education offered to high-profile athletes, labeling it as “tantamount to institutionalized slavery” and claiming that NCAA institutions do not “provide an education nor reward the athletes for their lucrative service to the university.” In addition, reflecting on her own experiences at Tennessee, she brings attention to the exploitation of the college athlete done in the name of the so-called “student-athlete[1]” and the “institutionally-sanctioned fraud” and “institutional coddling” that under gird the assumption that elite athletes neither have time nor interest in academic pursuits, so they must be allowed to take “shortcuts” – in this case, plagiarized essays, but in others, tracking into majors, and independent studies. Rather than being hailed as a heroine advocate for student success, Bensel-Meyers encountered threats and hate mail, and ultimately, her termination, and was vilified at home and forced into exile. And she is convinced that the NCAA, as well as the University of Tennessee, is to blame for her exile, noting: "I don't think the NCAA investigators were interested in seeing the evidence I had[2]." She remains, however, a committed advocate, serving as director of the National Institute for Sports Reform and past Executive Director of the Drake Group.

Jon Ericson shares with Linda Bensel-Meyers a fierce commitment to student-athlete advocacy and even founded the advocacy group “The Drake Group” after he developed misgivings about American college athletics during his tenure at Drake University. In the mid 1990’s, Ericson, a provost and emeritus professor at Drake University, was asked to participate in NCAA “Self-Study,” or a mandated evaluation of departmental services instituted to ensure that member institutions meet the standards defined by the NCAA to continue their membership. The standards include everything from facilities, to Title IX compliance, to overall dedication to the academic, social, and athletic development of student-athletes. When Ericson discovered pervasive negativity regarding the faculty’s perceptions of student-athletes, athletes’ academic integrity, and the exploitation of student-athlete labor, and that many faculty were “sickened, shocked, and angry” to discover a lack of academic accountability for student-athletes, he provided this feedback in his study to the NCAA. Recommendations for reform were ignored by both NCAA and Drake Self-Study Group, and Drake maintained NCAA status. He later founded The Drake Group, an organization committed to exposing widespread corruption in the NCAA and calling for revolution of athletic administration, and an outfit that still calls for “integrity in the face of commercialized sport” to this day. The Drake Group remains a quietly influential force rallying faculty across the nation in their support of athletic reforms and meets annually to strategize and provide resources to its growing membership.

Unlike Ericson and Bensel-Meyers, many of the staunchest advocates of student-athletes are not high-powered faculty or cabinet members, but people who spend time every day in close contact with them, supporting them in their daily efforts as opposed to philosophical grounds or purely theoretical suppositions. Examples include parents of student-athletes who work closely with them to help them choose an institution that values not only their athletic production but their potential as citizens, and community members who provide support for students who struggle to acclimate to new environs while balancing all the stresses of athletic competition. Particularly for student-athletes whose focus on athletics supersedes their interest in academic pursuits when they arrive on campus, such advocates play a critical role in helping them identify resources, value satisfactory progress, and navigate successfully through college in ways often unseen by outsiders and insiders alike.

Individuals like Thomas Foster, the “Clubhouse Man” at Northwestern State University, have played this role without public or even internal recognition for decades. Though, on the surface, Foster appears only to clean the Field House, move tables and chairs across and vacuum the building’s floors, he has also served as confidant to coaches and student-athletes, has stepped in and represented the desires of student-athletes to coaches and administrators, and has helped many football student-athletes graduate from college and pursue professional football careers from a small Division I college in rural, North Central Louisiana. In the fast-paced world of college athletics where coaches and administrators turn over positions with regularity, he has been a constant at Northwestern State, offering advice, guidance, and at times, fiercely defending student-athlete interests with his own reputation and comfort level on the line. Even at an institution like Northwestern State which has largely avoided major NCAA infractions over the past decades, individuals like Foster play a critical role in interpreting the desires – athletic and cultural – of student-athletes while also encouraging student-athletes to develop into well-rounded members of the community and institution. Unlike the previous profiles in advocacy, not all instances of student-athlete advocacy end in exile and loss of livelihood – Foster was inducted into Northwestern State’s graduate letterwinner’s Hall of Fame in 2008, the highest honor given to a Northwestern State athletic staff member.

In the 1990’s, non-profit organizations used social movement strategies to call for widespread reform measures to be enacted by the NCAA in order to curb abuses, reign in irresponsible spending, and ensure the quality of education offered to student-athletes measured up to the education offered to all students. However, these organizations and this movement began with the experiences of brave individuals who pursued an agenda that I have defined as “student-athlete advocacy,” or, any means by which an individual or group of individuals engages in traditional social movement rhetoric/agitation to air grievances on behalf of student-athletes that ensure their intellectual and social as well as their athletic development.

[1] A term, she claims, which was coined strictly for the purposes of preserving the myth of amateurism among revenue generating athletes and preserving the NCAA’s tax-exempt status during Walter Byers three decades-long reign as NCAA President.
[2] “Tennessee prof takes on football team.” 8 May 2000.

Monday, November 23, 2009

“An Open Letter to Black Coaches and Administrators”

Dan Rooney, namesake of the "NFL's Rooney Rule," after which the BCA Hiring Report Card styles itself.

n.b. The Black Coaches and Administrators (formerly known as “The Black Coaches Association”) is a 501 (c) (3) tax exempt non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to foster the growth and development of ethnic minorities at all levels of sports both nationally and internationally. The BCA is committed to creating a positive enlightened environment where issues can be examined closely, debated sincerely and resolved honestly. The BCA's focus involves the concerns of its colleagues in professional sports, NCAA (Division I, II, and III), NAIA (Division I and II), junior college and high school levels. The 2009 Report can be found here.

In 2006-2007, I spent a year doing research for the BCA’s Hiring Report Card, compiling information on every Division I institution that conducted a hiring search for a head football coach during the course of the year. In that year, I learned much about the information that the BCA considered and the methodology by which it evaluated these coaching searches, and in doing so, became the means by which universities’ commitment to diversity and ethical hiring practices was measured.

Though the categories evaluated do not always paint a clear picture of the efforts expended, it definitely gave university administrators an opportunity to review their processes and introduced a public sanction for those who did not. As it stands, a university cannot receive the highest score, an “A”, unless a minority candidate is invited to interview in person, which begs obvious questions – what happens if universities that are otherwise committed to diversity fail to identify minority candidates? What happens if universities that are not committed simply invite token candidates? Though I believed (and continue to believe) these questions need to be addressed and the methodology revised, I have no doubt that the BCA’s existence is a positive force in college athletics.

I want to thank Floyd Keith, the Executive Director, and Dr. Keith Harrison, the principal researcher, for the work they do with the BCA – it is crucial, was long overdue, and they are probably underappreciated for engaging in it. I know from the year that I worked with them how much goes into collecting all of the information that is used to calculate the findings.

However, as a university administrator who just participated in the BCA’s evaluations, I would be remiss if I didn’t make my objections known, for the benefit not only of Northwestern State University, but for university administrators nationwide who have been unwittingly maligned by the Hiring Report Card rubric, lest they become detractors (rather than advocates) of ethnic diversity in college athletics.

Dear BCA Administrators:

I am writing to protest the “C” grade that Northwestern State University received in the 2009 BCA Hiring Report Card.

When I submitted paperwork to the BCA for the Northwestern State University HFBC search in January 2009, I included with it a two-page letter detailing mitigating factors in our search which limited the potential for us to bring in qualified minority candidates to interview for the position. In it, I outlined that the conversation we had with Mr. Keith, the executive director, did not provide us with any information that could be followed up on. The two suggestions he made, Al Lavan at Delaware State and Rod Broadway at Grambling[1], were far out of our price range ($106K) and therefore, would not even consider applying for the position here. We also noted in that conversation the extreme difficulty we would have identifying even qualified Assistant Coach applicants from bigger conference (FBS) schools at this price range.

In our own research, we scoured SEC, Conference USA, and WAC websites trying to identify qualified minority assistant coaches and coordinators, and we actually discovered a couple of individuals who ultimately did not apply, but we felt should be on the BCA’s radar (and who were not even included in the NCAA’s ‘Resume Book’). I supplied the BCA with this information.

Alas, we did not identify a qualified minority candidate, but we noted that it was not only not for lack of trying, but that we did more than what would ever be expected of a department to identify a candidate, including providing the BCA with information that could assist other institutions even though it did not help us. Alas we received a grade – “F” – that belies the A+ effort we put in.

By receiving A’s in 3 categories (diversity in the interview committee, length of search, and affirmative action policy) and a B in a fourth (number of communications with BCA), we not only showed our commitment to diversity, but showed an exemplary commitment. The F in the 5th category – and I understand, the criteria is what it is – seems unmerited in the context of the letter I supplied in January, explaining that factors such as the salary we offered would not entice qualified minority candidates from larger, FBS conferences, or from out of region.

The overall “C” grade we received feels unmerited, if fair – again, the criteria is what it is. I don’t think, however, that we gave “C” effort or represent a mediocre effort as an institution or a department for our commitment, and that is the picture that has been painted by the Report Card. We had as many A’s as thirteen institutions that received A or B grades overall.

The letter of explanation supplied that detailed the extra work we put in to ensure the process was dutifully executed with regard to promoting ethnic diversity in the search should have mitigated the “F” grade that we received in that category. With this simple explanation, it is clear even to people who do not perform research for a living that the grade was unmerited.

Sorry for my long-windedness – it is nothing else but more evidence of our commitment, and is meant in a collaborative rather than an accusatory spirit. Hopefully, other administrators will stand up for their own institutions as they see fit, and, as Attorney General Eric Holder called on us, not be “a nation of cowards” on the issue of race, fairness in hiring, and ethnic diversity in college coaching.

Respectfully, William Broussard.

[1] Average salary for MEAC and SWAC coaches, 2008, was $133,587.22, and Rod Broadway was paid $156K + bonuses.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Let me be Blount

the guy on the left fell on his own accord ...
from "The Real Views" magazine, 11/13/09
Hundreds of thousands of people watched the game live. Millions more have since watched the video. During the opening week of the college football season, LeGarrette Blount, Heisman Trophy darkhorse and University of Oregon tailback became a household name – for all of the wrong reasons. The buildup took all 21 years of his life, the destruction only took seconds.

Everything had built up to this moment. Blount had shown flashes of greatness in the 2008 season, rushing for over 1,000 yards. He’d impressed NFL scouts, and his Oregon Ducks were slated as fierce competitors to unseat USC from atop the Pac-10. But Blount, who reported to camp overweight and out of shape, was not a factor in the game, rushing for -5 yards on 8 carries. In the high stakes environment that is college football, particularly for NFL prospects who feel immense pressure to impress scouts at each turn, this was a disastrous outcome.

Then things took a turn for the even worse.

As 16th ranked Oregon lost 19-8 to 14th ranked Boise State and the teams cleared the field, Blount put up the kind of fight fans had waited for all night long. Unfortunately, though he had failed to penetrate Boise State’s defense all evening, he found his odds much better going one on one with a Boise State player.

After the game, while players shook hands, wished each other well, and began looking forward to the next game, everything came crashing down around LeGarrette Blount and the pressure proved too much to bear for his bearish shoulders. Byron Hout, a Boise State defensive end and the victim of Blount’s post-game battery, never saw it coming. From the looks of it, didn’t see it afterwards either. One could easily imagine Blount’s life flashing before his eyes at the exact same moment.

The fight was one-sided (though Hout was shown jawing only moments earlier and even being chastised by Boise State Head coach Chris Petersen for doing so), the opponent was unsuspecting, and this cheap shot would not only fail to erase Blount’s poor performance or Oregon’s loss, but it would, at the time, signal the end of his playing career.

The ultimate counterpunch to Blount? According to several sources, including NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper, Jr., in those five seconds, he would render himself, in the eyes of many NFL general managers, undraftable. He’d been suspended the previous season for violating team rules, and had shown discipline issues by not reporting to fall camp in shape in 2009. This was the straw that broke Blount’s back (well, the extended footage of him being dragged off the field by security while becoming increasingly belligerent didn’t help).

Predictably, within days, Oregon Head Football Coach Chip Kelly announced that Blount would be disciplined severely for this transgression. His punishment was a suspension for the duration of the football season, ultimately ending his collegiate career, and perhaps, any chance of redemption among fans, university alumni, and potential future employers in the world of professional football.

As usual, the hypocrisy of sports media and sport enthusiasts all over was in full effect, from local journalists all the way to the “Worldwide Leader.” The meme spread like wildfire all across the country – “the Blount Punch” became a favorite search on as quickly as Blount became a villain in the blogosphere, on ESPN, and on Oregon Football message boards. I’m always amazed by how something so ‘vile,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘unruly,’ and ‘reprehensible,’ can attract so many “views” (the video has over 160,000). Oregonian columnist John Canzano wrote off Blount’s post-game apology as “clumsy and self-serving.” bloggers Todd McShay and Kevin Weidl wrote off Blount as not skilled enough to warrant investment of NFL teams in him, given his behavior (they think that Michael Vick, though, is freakishly talented enough to warrant such investment, however, even though he is a convicted felon). Overnight, Blount became the “this is what’s wrong with sports these days” athlete du jour. Sure, fans and analysts hate this kind of behavior, yet celebrate it by rehashing it ad nauseum and contemplating the consequences of a young man’s life as though he were pawn, not person.

In fact, analysts all over, even outside of sports journalism lined up to offer what pop psychologist’s proof they had that they’d seen this coming all along, what anecdotes they had about this being no surprise given Blount’s past behavior, and what sundry issuances of good riddance they could muster.

Here’s where I get on the wagon, but only briefly. Blount’s actions were hyperbolic, hyperemotional, and unjustifiable (I mean, I get the frustration … he’s out of shape, just had a big opportunity to impress future employers on national television and blew it … this wasn’t a “c’est la vie” moment, but still). In fact they were indefensible even if they could be rationalized, and many believed the moment revealed something more deeply-seated than an “Aw, shucks I didn’t play well tonight” attitude, but more of a “Football is all I have and if I can’t do well at this, I am going to destroy everything around me and myself in the process” attitude. It’s bad enough when stress breaks a young person down to the point that they act out violently – it’s made infinitely worse when this all happens on national television.

I know from my past employment as a judicial affairs officer on a university campus that if a student exhibited such behavior, sanctions, education, and anger management classes would be issued. However, in the all too damning world of athletics, the verdict was much stricter – Blount’s career should be ended and unrelenting punishment, rather than education and reflection, and perhaps atonement, should be the sanction of choice.

Chip Kelly’s brave decision to keep LeGarrette Blount on the team and allow him to continue practicing (he faced staunch criticism for not cutting ties with Blount completely), and his recent decision to reinstate him for the team’s final three games, after paying a “significant and appropriate price,” is the best educational sanction that Blount could have received. That’s the difference between our “chew them up, spit them out” consumer culture and sports media and the true spirit of the NCAA and intercollegiate athletics – while the sports media and fans fired up the band and told Blount to hit the showers, Coach Chip Kelly put the ball back in Blount’s hands.

Sure, it’s a long shot (like 3rd and 21, inside sprint draw against a dialed up blitz, long shot) that Blount will move the chains and extend his playing career beyond Oregon, but putting the ball back in his hands at this point should figure in considerably in how he plays the game of life from this point forward.

Welcome back LeGarrette. Drive your legs, lower your pad level, and don’t put the ball on the ground.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Micheal Vick and Poor Sports

My take on Mike Vick's "Return" ... from the 8/7 edition of The Real Views

Though many convicted felons endure the stereotypes associated with being ex-cons long after they have served their time and paid their debt to society, I’d wager that most Americans agree that if someone “does the crime and does the time,” then in most cases past sins can be forgiven.

Roger Goodell, of course, isn’t an average American. Nor does he appear to be one who has much faith in the humanity of people who make up the NFL.

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell has made waves in recent weeks by openly discussing sanctions of Michael Vick, including a suspension of as many as four to six games for the 2009-10 football seasons. This after Michael Vick completed a sentence of 23 months for federal dogfighting (conspiracy to organize dogfighting and animal torture) and stood poised to make his return to professional football this summer. Many teams, looking for a capable backup quarterback, or perhaps the next “Slash[1]” were weighing the possibilities of signing Vick to a contract, were discouraged when Goodell was quoted as saying that he would consider suspending the quarterback for as much as a quarter of the season.

Consider the salary that Vick would command as a multi-year veteran. And now consider that any team who would consider signing him would do so because they needed his services immediately, this sanction would make him undesirable to virtually any professional football team. Combine this fact with the likelihood that whichever team enlists Vick’s services will have to be incredibly proactive in their public relations efforts, and one begins to wonder if any team will give Vick a chance.

Frankly, if 32 NFL teams looked at Vick and decided that his downside (he only completes 53% of his passes, has struggled running pro-style offenses, throws nearly as many interceptions as touchdowns) outweighed his upside (and you are supposed to tackle this guy how?), then fine, that would be the end of it. Even if teams truly believed, in their front offices, that the potential negative impact of giving Vick a chance would pose too great a risk to their images, they could attribute their decisions to many football-related reasons. Besides, can you imagine the vicious headlines Vick would not have to endure if in fact he did not sign:

First time Vick plays Cleveland and wins: “Vick Kills the Dawgs”
If Vick were signed by the Bengals: “Vick Wears Stripes”
If Vick were re-signed by the Falcons and went to a UGA game

You get the picture.

But Vick, who appears for all intents and purposes appears to be contrite, if not reformed, and ready to move forward with his life is being denied this opportunity, in full, by Roger Goodell. The question is why.

Vick has made no shortage of mistakes, to be sure, from being involved with unsavory characters whose actions have reflected poorly on him, to unfortunate on the field behavior, as well.

But is his crime, as powerful political lobbies like PETA and the ASPCA would have us believe, unforgivable?

Is Goodell merely doing his job and protecting the brand of the NFL, or does he truly believe that Vick is incapable of being reformed, that somehow his sanction will be more impactful than a 23 month prison sentence and the loss of all freedoms associated with the superstardom Vick once enjoyed?

I get Goodell’s message, I really do. There is a difference between sanctions that a person faces criminally (23 months for federal dogfighting) and socially (likely, a lifetime of cajoling fans, boycotts, and general disdain) and professionally. Violate the strict terms of the CBA (the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement) and there are sanctions. And given Goodell’s self-imposed charge to rehabilitate the damaged brand of the NFL, those sanctions have been much more severe under Goodell than under past commissioners.

But is Goodell rehabilitating the brand one sanction at a time? Does he truly believe that he has more power to rehabilitate Vick with a four game suspension than the federal government possessed when it issued the 23 month conviction?

Does he not trust the owners’ of individual teams ability to successfully market and brand their own teams? If a team decides (this is the pro “let the marketplace determine value” argument) that they want to employ Vick and risk potential losses to ticket sales … or, cash in on the controversy by guaranteeing one of the biggest pre-season stories in the history of the NFL unfolds at their front door, then why should Goodell pervert that process?

Does Goodell think that he will be viewed as soft in the eyes of many fans if he does not impose an additional sanction on Vick?

Whatever the case, Goodell does not appear to have faith that Vick has been rehabilitated, nor does he trust the intentions of any team who would be interested in employing him, and this sanction may end Vick’s playing career. Some people think that’s justified, others argue that playing in the NFL isn’t Vick’s right, but a privilege that can be lost as easily as it is attained. Those people have legs to stand on in their arguments.

Vick’s legs, however, have been cut from under him by Goodell. A leg for a leg, perhaps.

If Goodell truly thinks that reinstating Vick threatens the NFL brand, or that his actions deserve sanctions more severe than the de facto two season suspension he has already faced, then so be it. He is the commissioner, he needs to rule accordingly and he could make arguments to justify those actions.

But if he is acting because he feels politically pressured by unforgiving fans and the political lobbies of animal rights activist groups, then he merely makes a feeble political placation at Vick’s expense, piling on rather than acting independently and ruling definitively as a commissioner should.

Simply piling on Michael Vick is an ironically cowardly move as a response to his cowardly crime.

[1] Nickname associated with Kordell Stewart, formerly of Pittsburgh Steeler fame, who was called “Slash” because he was a Quarterback-slash-Receiver-slash-Running Back.

New Journal -- Article on Legislative Session and College Athletics

View and download here:

AUGUST 4, 2009: Today the first edition of the Louisiana Progress Journal was released by the Louisiana Progress Initiative(LPI). The public policy publication includes five articles that share original thoughts, proposals, and analysis on current policy debates and challenges in Louisiana. The journal is the result of a volunteer effort by a group of Louisiana-based thinkers, writers, and practitioners with the goal of injecting fresh ideas into the public debate through carefully-reasoned reports, articles, and essays.

“The Louisiana Progress Initiative is a volunteer effort that we hope will gain steam with this and future reports and eventually lead to a new progressive policy organization here in our state,” said journal editors Greg Granger, PhD, and Matt Bailey, JD. “We believe that progress can best be achieved through innovation – new ideas that break from the status quo, challenge our long-held beliefs, and lead to effective solutions to the obstacles we face.”

The journal is free and the public is invited to share and distribute copies of it freely.

LPI is a new, statewide endeavor which seeks to advance progressive policies in Louisiana through careful research and analysis. The organization’s mission is to foster a robust marketplace of progressive ideas through the dissemination of periodic reports directly to policymakers, community organizations, and concerned citizens. LPI is non-profit, non-partisan, volunteer-led, and not affiliated with any other group.

To submit a piece, e-mail

Monday, July 13, 2009

Student-Athlete Advocacy: A Review of the Literature

"One Foot In", cont.

Research on student-athlete advocacy in college athletics is informed by scholarship on educational inequality, particularly as it impacts black students in public school systems and predominantly white institutions, cultural criticism and historical analyses of college athletics, and social movement rhetoric literature and theory.

Educational Inequality
Philosophers and researchers have considered the pernicious effects of racism on the social and educational experiences of black Americans extensively. These effects extend to many areas within American society, from forms of racism both overt and covert (such as “institutionalized racism,” coined by Ture in Black Power) and forms of oppression both direct and indirect (Young, 2000). From the considerations of educational sociologists and historians (DuBois’ Souls of Black Folk, Woodson’s Miseducation of the Negro and E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United States seem especially relevant) to cultural and social critics (Baraka’s Blues People and the incendiary yet often astute rhetoric of Malcolm X, the Black Liberation Movement, and the Black Panthers) to contemporary “cultural-ecological” theorists such as Johnathan Kozol (Savage Inequalities), John Ogbu (“Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education,” and “Minority Education in Comparative Perspective”), Angela Valenzuela (Subtractive Schooling) and Jabari Mahiri (Shooting for Excellence), the literature suggests that a collision of environmental, historical, and economic forces have led to a general underperformance among black public school students compared to their white (Caucasian) peers in formal, public educational settings. The lack of college preparation opportunities and resources available to inner-city youth in urban areas, under-resourced, and disproportionately poor rural public education systems, and the pernicious experiences that youth of color face in many of well-resourced schools indeed converge to deny many persons of color the chance to gain entry into the academy and obtain a degree.

Scholarship (Atkinson, Jennings, and Lionson, L. 1990, Hraba, Radloff, & Gray-Ray 1999, Laird, et al. 2004, Sparrow and Chretien 1993) also suggests that black students who beat the odds and successfully matriculate to college face further obstacles to their success in obtaining college degrees because of feelings of alienation, the vestiges of racism, and a lack of services to help them counteract the multiple stressors of being minorities at predominantly white institutions. These stressors also include being first-generation college students and having a general lack of black faculty and staff role models. It’s likely that a confluence of these experiences contributes to the disproportionately lower success rates among African-American student-athletes, according to NCAA statistics, much of which occurs before they arrive on college campuses to begin with. Research in the areas pertaining to educational inequality suggest that though black male student-athletes at Division I-A schools share some degree of privilege in that they are college students, for the most part many of them suffer through various forms of discrimination as they alternately (or concurrently) are assumed to be academic underperformers either because of their ethnic or athletic affiliations (Lumas 1997; Mangold, Bean, and Douglas 2003). The intersections between the institutional racism that under girds the educational inequalities in the public school system and the level of educational quality for college student-athletes precipitates the need for a more robust advocacy than is provided in many institutions.
Research regarding the travails of African-American students in institutions of higher education indicates that these students are often unduly hampered in their endeavors to be successful students, matriculate, graduate, and transition into their chosen careers and professions. Researchers have identified myriad reasons for the sub-par academic performance among Students of Color, including among others: (a) feelings of isolation and alienation on college campuses, (b) the vestiges of racism and racial discrimination, (c) the sense that public education divests Students of Color from meaningful cultural capital, and (d) cultural differences between learning environments and home/familial environments (Smith and Moore, 2000; Laird, 2004; Valenzuela, 1999; Ogbu, 1990). These struggles have, historically, led to high attrition rates and lower levels of student satisfaction with their college experiences, particularly at Predominantly Caucasian Institutions of higher learning.

Research on issues in areas as varied as graduation rates, job opportunities, and feelings of acceptance and belongingness among minority student-athletes, coaches, and administrators suggest that the hardships that these individuals routinely face jeopardize the prospect of their success as college students. A study released by the NCAA in 2003[1] proclaims that student-athletes are more likely to graduate over a six year period than non-student-athletes, but notes that black student-athletes are not only less likely to graduate than their white peers, but that there are “fewer black athletes” competing as student-athletes than in past data sets (“NCAA Graduation Success Rate – 1996-2002 Cohort” 2). This translates into a lower proportion of student-athletes having the opportunity to compete at the college level, likely because Proposition 16, a stringent eligibility standard mandated in 1996 “affects access to higher education for minorities” because the sliding scale used to determine eligibility is 50 percent based on standardized test scores (“NCAA Graduation Success Rate – 1996-2002 Cohort” 2). Recent updates to the Satisfactory Progress model (the “40-60-80[2]” model) also restrict access further for junior-college transfers, which in football and basketball tend to include significant populations of black and minority student-athletes.

Though graduation rates for black student-athletes are slowly rising, black student-athletes are still much less likely to graduate than their white peers. In the 2003 study, black male athletes in football and basketball graduated at rates substantially lower than their white counterparts (52 percent vs. 41 percent in basketball, and 61 percent vs. 49 percent in football) (“NCAA Graduation Success Rate – 1996-2002 Cohort” 3). These numbers, Lapchick claims (Lapchick 2), reinforce already-existent stereotypes about the intellectual capability and potential of black male student-athletes and substantiate them with data – even though many people are unwilling to examine the disparities of these numbers in order to determine why they exist. It can easily be contended, because of these disparities, that the most significant interventions that the NCAA and its member institutions have introduced on the past three decades have improved graduation success rates for black male student-athletes in revenue sports, but for the majority of those students, more significant interventions must take place to ensure their success.

[1] NCAA Graduation Success Rate – 1996-2002 Cohort.
[2] Requirement that student athletes complete 40% of their major requirements by the end of their second year of eligibility, 60% by the end of their third year of eligibility, and 80% before the beginning of their final year of eligibility to remain eligible to complete.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Games We (May No Longer) Play

Across the state (excepting the state’s flagship institution) the face of college athletics is changing rapidly and drastically. Unfortunately, in the “Sportsman’s Paradise,” it’s changing for the worst.

At the University of New Orleans, students voted down a referendum to establish a student fee to underwrite the costs of operating their Division I athletic program. As a result, their program is in limbo, as university-wide budget cuts will likely finish the job Hurricane Katrina started and eliminate Privateer athletics indefinitely (and perhaps permanently).

While Centenary (Shreveport) is not considering eliminating their Division I program, their current conversations are tantamount to elimination in the eyes of the program’s supporters. To reduce costs associated with travel and paying for athletic scholarships, Centenary’s Board of Trustees has proposed that Centenary move down to non-scholarship Division III, which has more regional competitive options than does Division I (Centenary’s current conference membership requires them to travel to the Dakotas, Indiana, Missouri, and Michigan). The move down from Division I to Division II is considered a move towards a less prestigious division, and one that would negatively impact recruitment for a university whose student body is composed of nearly 30% student-athletes.

At Southeastern Louisiana (Hammond), they have eliminated the men’s tennis program, impacting ten student-athletes on scholarship. Their tennis program won the Southland Conference championship as recently as 2006.

Southland Conference competitors Nicholls State (Thibodaux) and McNeese State (Lake Charles) will face substantial NCAA penalties due to poor performances in the APR (Academic Progress Rate) reviews, and because of widespread budget cuts, their departments will struggle more than ever to expand their academic services and support for student-athletes. On the plus side, the reduction of scholarships associated with APR penalties (Nicholls will lose scholarships in 6 sports, McNeese in 8 sports) will help their budgets, but their coaches and administrators would much rather not have the problem.

At the University of Louisiana-Monroe, President Jim Cofer has been rumored to cut the student fee allotment to athletics, and University of Louisiana-Lafayette President Joe Savoie has cut their budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well.

In a state whose institutions operate among the lowest budgets in Division I athletics in the country, these budget cuts are not “trimming fat.” They aren’t even trimming meat. We’re talking about trimming bone from bone, and perhaps even extracting marrow.

Truth be told, I am the first to admit that athletics is not the most crucial concern in higher education. Frankly, the University of Louisiana System’s decision to raise the funding of its member institutions in 2008 to 5%+ of the Southern average was a much more important decision than any coach or athlete has ever made. And the work that student-athletes perform in their classrooms and communities outweigh the importance of the decisions they make on the field and on the court many times over. However, as Hall of Fame basketball coach Dean Smith famously quipped, athletics is often considered “the front porch of the Academy,” and if higher education in the state is to be judged by the state of its collegiate athletic programs (save for the state’s flagship, largely immune to budgetary problems) then Louisiana Higher Education’s front porch will need much more than a good sweeping around before it resembles a gateway to a stately mansion.

Gov. Jindal’s posturing (and rumored preparation for a presidential run in 2012) about refusing federal stimulus funding, and GOP house legislators’ decision to vote along party lines (all House Republicans voted against SB 335), which would have nearly halved the proposed $200 million cuts to higher education in the state have placed the state’s institutions in a perilous predicament. We aren’t talking about less than immaculate front porches as gateways to mansions, but dilapidated front porches which lead to shotgun houses. Whereas in most parts of the country, state legislators pride themselves in their funding of higher education, in Louisiana, adequately funding higher education is considered wasteful spending.

I know better. And so do the people of Natchitoches and Northwestern State University. Among my most treasured memories in my time as a student-athlete at Northwestern is the fall of 1998, when the entire City of Natchitoches rallied around the success of the university’s football team. The citizens and students packed the stadium on the weekends, and it seemed that the entire city was awash with purple and white (and not gold, for a change). Furthermore, the three extra Saturdays of home football games were a boon to the local and regional economy (anyone needing evidence of this should read a recently released regional economic report which states that Northwestern State’s impact on the 10-parish area it serves is $352 million annually). The next year, enrollment applications at the university increased substantially, as they did in 2006 when Northwestern State beat Iowa in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. And given that athletics offers Northwestern State and the City of Natchitoches so much to be proud of, provides so much service to the local community (NSU student-athletes provide more than 2,000 hours of community service hours every year), one thing is certain.

Budget cuts to Northwestern State University and to Demon Athletics hurt Natchitoches.

So while Demon Athletics makes no plans to cut scholarships to deserving student-athletes, cut teams, switch divisions, or make any other drastic changes to its plans to accommodate the impending budget cuts, it also means that Demon Athletics will struggle to grow. And so will its plans to better and more comprehensively serve and represent NSU, the City of Natchitoches, and north central Louisiana.

As an alumnus, former student-athlete, faculty member, and athletic administrator, I’m proud to say that our one saving grace in the midst of this global economic recession is that pride in Northwestern State University and Demon Athletics has not receded. And though the decisions made in Baton Rouge may discourage, dishearten, and frustrate us mightily they have not defeated us.

After all, by our own words, “Victory is on Our Side!”

On the ‘Air’: RIP Steve McNair 1973-2009

RealView Sports by William Broussard 7/9/09

Before Sahel Kazemi’s name becomes household. Before the love-gone-wrong murder-suicide plot is explicated on MSNBC and BET ad nauseum. Before the stats are debated, the ink on the encomia dries, and a week-long discussion about whether or not a career was Hall of Fame worthy or not.

For one morning, I want to remember the man who put black college and the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-AA) on the map for a whole new generation. I also want to remember a man who did as much for the idea of the black quarterback as had Don McPherson, Warren Moon, and Doug Williams. And how …

In 1994, Steve “Air” McNair registered one of the greatest season-long performances in the history of NCAA Football. His senior year at Alcorn State, near Lorman, MS (a town of only 500) as quarterback of a program that had won only 4 Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championships in the previous four decades, and playing in James Spinks Stadium (Michigan’s Big House could hold 4 ½ of them), McNair fascinated everyone in the entire country.

He was a record breaker – his 6,000 yards of total offense and 53 passing touchdowns were among over a dozen NCAA records he set. He was big – the 6’2” 230 lb’er had legs like a tight end and the shoulders of a fullback and seemed virtually un-sackable. He played the game’s finesse position like a linebacker, crushing opposing defenders who tried to take him down, and alternately, sitting in the pocket and throwing tight spirals 50 yards down the field. He broke the stereotype of the black college option-style quarterback who only threw on 3rd and long. McNair could really throw the ball. And the whole country – even NFL general managers – took notice.

McNair won the Walter Payton Award that year as the top player in Division I-AA football and finished third in the Heisman voting – still a record for a historically black college football player. Most importantly, his success shone a bright light on black college football, which had long been out of the national spotlight (save for Thanksgiving Day in New Orleans for the Bayou Classic) and McNair’s NCAA success translated into NFL success, a barrier that many talented black college quarterbacks failed to traverse.

McNair’s NFL accomplishments are impressive by any measure, but particularly so for a quarterback who so many doubted could make the transition from Division I-AA SWAC football to the NFL. In his 13 year career (he was drafted third overall in 1995 by the Houston Oilers, who later became the Tennessee Titans, and finished his career with the Baltimore Ravens) he threw for more than 30,000 yards (just outside the top 20 all-time) and 174 touchdowns.

But McNair meant so much to young black men like myself, who’d watched many black quarterbacks in the early and mid-1990’s rise to superstardom and lead their college teams to great successes on Saturday, only to be spurned by the NFL or otherwise be denied an opportunity to play on Sundays. When he led the Titans to the Super Bowl in 2000 (and came only one yard short of forcing an overtime period in one of the most famous plays in SB history), it felt as if he’d carried a fan base he’d earned several years before all the way with him – people who’d never met him, never lived in Nashville, never attended Alcorn State or any other HBCU for that matter.

And I cant help but thinking that Kordell Stewart, Tommie Frazier, and Charlie Ward felt as if they were right there along with him, as they’d fallen a yard short somehow in their careers, too.

Stewart had completed a record setting collegiate career at the University of Colorado the same year as McNair, and was a second-team All-American, leading his team to an 11-1 record, Fiesta Bowl victory, and a #3 finish in the national polls. His “Miracle at Michigan” 64 yard Hail Mary touchdown pass is remembered as one of the greatest plays in college football history. Though labeled as a running quarterback by many who did not think he could be a successful NFL quarterback, he was Colorado’s most prolific passer at the time of his graduation, leading them in career passes, attempts, passing yards, total offense, and passing touchdowns. Though he led the Steelers to the AFC Championship game twice in his career, he was replaced by NFL also-rans time and time again and forced to play kick returner, flanker, and other positions to retain his contract.

That was further, of course, than Frazier and Ward ever made it. Ward would lead the Florida State Seminoles to a national championship and win the Heisman Trophy as quarterback in 1993, only to be overlooked in the NFL draft and instead be drafted by the New York Knicks. When Ward, who threw for 27 touchdowns his senior year and was named Amateur Athlete of the Year in the United States (his predecessor and successor were Olympic Gold Medalists) he was passed up in the first round of the NFL Draft, and instead went to the NBA (he had also been previously drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers of MLB).

Frazier, who electrified crowds and won a national championship at Nebraska, was possibly the best athlete to never win the Heisman (he finished a close second to Eddie George in 1995). Frazier never played in the NFL because of blood clots discovered in his leg in advance of the 1995 draft (later discovered to be Crohn’s disease) but discussion had already centered around what position he’d play in the NFL if he were drafted.

McNair’s success in the NFL, after he’d garnered so many fans during his collegiate career, was particularly sweet after a decade of watching hyper-successful black quarterbacks gain national prominence in the NCAA year after year only to fail to convert it into success in the NFL. From an upbringing in a small town in the South and a playing career at Division I-AA Alcorn State, to national recognition as a Heisman candidate and the world’s greatest stage – the Super Bowl – he manifested dreams deferred not only by generations of black athletes long out of their prime, but even for his peers.

A fantastic athlete that carried the hopes and dreams of so many people on his just-broad-enough shoulders, and moreover, a young man who will be missed terribly by former teammates, coaches, family and friends alike. RIP “Air” McNair. You made touchdowns, great plays, and believers out of so many. I hope that we all remember these contributions after the 24-hour news cycle does its worst with your untimely and unfortunate demise.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A bittersweet morning with my Top Ten MJ Tunes ...

My Top Ten MJ songs, in a particular order:

Human Nature -- insistent chorus, powerful message, MJ is instructive, but not pedantic here ... preternatural vocal range, as well.

PYT -- the R&B equivalent of the assumptive close -- where ya come from? wontcha take me there?

In the Closet -- seductive and terrifying, beautiful and haunting. like an Obsession commercial, but actually cool.

Rock With You -- best dance song ever recorded.. (the 1st period at the end of the sentence is "Period")

Give Into Me -- Slash and Micheal both kill this song. Again, insistent, anxious, pleading even.

The Girl is Mine -- perhaps MJ's sweetest song. "The gosh darn girl is mine." If only Tupac and Biggie resolved their spat over Faith Evans in such a manner ...

Smooth Criminal -- best riff in an R&B song, perhaps best video ever made, lb for lb better dancing than Thriller.

Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough -- this video makes me nostalgiac for a time that i didnt live in or through.

Dirty Diana -- MJ's sexiest song in the way that "In the Closet" was his sexiest video.

Tie: Remember the Time, Billie Jean, You Rock My World, about 35-40 others.

One Foot In -- A Work in Progress

Linda Bensel Meyers, Tennessee Football's greatest foe (other than Florida)

An excerpt from my work in progress, a working paper in the University of Washington's Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics Journal. In essence, this is an "autoethnobiohistoriography" of College Athletics, or, a story, often told through first person reflection of one's own experiences, as they relate to the experiences of others who that person may or may not have come into contact with, to rewrite the expereinces of said person in a narrative that can perhaps be generalized, though, defined in the contexts which follow, perhaps should not be.

Or, its a story about college athletics. I'm the Virgil to your Dante. See you in hell.

One Foot In:
Student-Athlete Advocacy in the Margins of American College Athletics

This is a story about underdogs who come out on top and heroes who hide in plain sight. This is a story about winning, winning big, and winning the right way. This is a story that I have written both with my words, my actions, and from the unique perspective of someone who has seen the world of college athletics from many related and yet seemingly disparate angles – as Division I NCAA student-athlete, honors college graduate and doctorate-earner, Division I NCAA athletic administrator, faculty member, sport culture critic, and student-rights advocate. This is a story about people who are staunch believers in what American college student-athletics might be, and who realize what it is, and what it is not. This is a story about civil rights, righteous indignation, living right, and dreams realized only after considerable pain.

When asked to list the greatest heroes in the history of college athletics, the names that I will speak about in the coming pages are not ones that will be commonly listed, perhaps even in their own backyards. And I use the word “hero” loosely and not without irony, as one is as likely to hear words like saboteur, traitor, and ne’er-do-well associated with these folks as they are hero/heroine. Alas, these individuals have engaged in what I will define as student-athlete advocacy in ways that have changed college athletics, and particularly the lives of so many college athletes more significantly than any coach, player, or game ever has or will.

This story of promises kept is a promise kept, itself. My own father, a standout basketball player, became an even better educator and advocate for educational equality later in life. Chief among the lessons he and my mother imparted to me were these: 1) Athletics is a part of your life, and though you may define yourself through participation in them – the outcome of that participation should never define you; and 2) Those who would help another achieve his goals are not always obvious – seek them out – and those who would stand in the way do not always do so conspicuously. In short, they encouraged me to live a life that was enriched by, but not dependent upon athletic excellence, and to humble myself to accept the support of anyone who would underwrite my development as a young man, as an intellectual, and as an athlete. This story, in which I identify true heroes in college athletics, subverts the importance of college athletics-related glory to the importance of the often invisible people who support college athletes, and elevates their importance over the more easily observable coaches and teammates often credited for the success of great athletes and teams in college athletics.

This is a story of higher education -- and I wish more stories about college athletics were stories about higher education. The story of Linda Bensel Meyers and Jan Kemp, writing instructors at Southeastern Conference universities (University of Tennessee and University of Georgia) who led local initiatives to examine injustices perpetrated upon black male student-athletes at their institutions. The story of Jon Ericson, emeritus professor at Drake University, who led a nationwide movement to examine the role of athletics in the liberal arts higher education mission. The story of Thomas Foster, a state employee and self-described “Field House Man” of the Northwestern State University Field House, who has played the role of mentor, father, coach, scout, and confidant to hundreds of young male football players whose care was delegated to him because they lacked black role models and leadership.

More than anything else, this is a story of wins and losses, big catches, last-second shots, Hail Marys, and unforgettable performances.

It’s also a story about sports.

Defining a Rhetoric of Student-Athlete Advocacy

The risks associated with college student life is an oft-discussed topic in the media and oft-depicted theme in popular culture, with much of the commentary centering on the all-too-often deleterious behaviors college students engage in and the efforts of higher education researchers and student life administrators to curb them. An emerging trend on many campuses across the country is a focus on both curricular and extracurricular support of students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a need nearly universally recognized, though, much more difficult to provide resources for particularly in budget cut environments. While underage alcohol use and binge drinking plague many college campuses, and a lack of resources for students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds challenge other campuses, scandals surrounding college student-athletes, particularly at “big-time” NCAA Division I programs have touched almost all campuses. A key difference between the reaction to athletics-focused crises is that while the associated challenges of alcohol/drug abuse, and racial and cultural harmony and diversity are causes that university administrations and alumni rally behind, scandals in college athletics are typically occasions in which university administrators and alumni vilify and condemn college students for their actions.

As a result of this peculiar tendency, in the past two decades, a number of higher education cultural theorists have begun to consider, specifically, the ways in which black, male, scholarship athletes in revenue-generating sports (primarily basketball and football) at NCAA Division I institutions are further hindered in their ability to successfully matriculate because of the myriad stresses that elite-level athletic competition places on them, and how the pressures of the limelight negatively impact them. Their collective claim is that the culture of elite athletics often fails to promote academic excellence, and that media-related distractions, time spent traveling, practicing, working out, and preparing for competitions, and the physical and mental stress athletes often incur serve to prevent many of them from focusing on schoolwork and graduating (See Zimbalist, 2001; Thelin, 1996; Sperber, 2001; and Lapchick, 2005). Their claims have been borne out by NCAA-calculated statistics over the past 20 years that suggest that black male student-athletes in the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball graduate at rates substantially lower than their white male counterparts (Lapchick 2005, NCAA Graduation Rate Data 1990-2005). This evidence suggests that the interventions and traditional forms of advocacy available to many black male student-athletes have not sufficed. In the instances I will highlight in this essay, I will profile the dramatic lengths that educators have gone to and in doing so, attempt to define a rhetoric of student-athlete advocacy that successfully intercedes on behalf of black male student-athletes.

(to be continued)


[1] This is not to suggest, of course, that most college athletic departments fail to provide resources for student-athletes that would minimize their participation in risky behaviors and provide support to ensure their successful matriculation. Quite the contrary; from mandates adopted by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) down to the provision of CHAMPS/Life Skills programs and academic support units on each campus, student-athletes are uniquely assisted in their efforts.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gatorade Commercials: What's G?

And no, the "G" doesn't stand for ghoulish ...

A pulsating, two note piano riff laced atop two minor chords fades in, creating dramatic tension across a black backdrop. Slowly, black and white faces are paced across the screen one at a time, moving at a moderate speed from right to left, all at once revealing them in stark contrast of the black background, though, not all of the faces are instantly recognizable. An older black gentleman, with a dazzling smile, salt and pepper hair, natty jacket, open collar shirt. Two young, stern, attractive Caucasian women follow, their shoulders and overall build revealing their athleticism, though, not the exact nature of it. A middle-aged man, whom even the most casual sports fan identifies as Muhammad Ali, comes next, his hands set to jab at the screen. Next follows a youthful, possibly pre-pubescent Hispanic youth, hat cocked to the side, smile beaming as if he is thrilled to be next to Ali, and who can blame him? The whole time, the voice over is provided by a young Black man, with an accent that is as definitively urban New Orleanian as any you will hear, and he narrates the segment, alternately offering encomia and intermittent African-American vernacular slang between each passing participant. The closing shot is preceded by men dressed in all black save for their white masks, dancing like mechanized ghouls emerging from a Tim Burton film.

The commercial ends. A white “G” emerges on the screen. Fin.

The refrain in the commercial? “What’s G?”

A bit of backstory is appropriate. In late 2008, Gatorade fired its Director of Marketing and Sales, largely because the brand found itself losing precious market share in the energy drink segment. A decade ago, Gatorade was virtually without competitor, garnering contract after contract from professional and collegiate teams and paying gigantic sums of money to its pitchpersons (which have included Jordan, McGwire, and Manning among many, many others). Now, the energy drink umbrella is much more vast, and products such as Red Bull, Vault, Monster, SoBe, and Vitamin Water have carved considerable niches for themselves. Increasingly, Gatorade became the drink of choice only for those who considered themselves “athletes,” and college students, truck drivers, graveyard-shifters, and everyone else in between who needed to pull long, late hours but had an aversion to java went to a different aisle in the grocery store.

Additionally, due to the advent of the Atkins Diet and the ensuing affinity for “low-carb” fare, many consumers faced a quandary – why consume 200 calories and 50 grams of sugar in a 32 oz. Gatorade when they could get “energy” from other energy drinks which have no sugar? Gatorade countered with “G2,” which slashed sugar and caloric content by 50%, but an unimpressive campaign, featuring a street-clothes-clad Derek Jeter walking down main-street, failed to lead to successful sales. Gatorade, even G2, was still the drink of the competitive athlete engaging in organized sports played in a rigorous fashion. And in a society that increasingly struggles with obesity and a youth culture more and more prone to electronically-induced sloth (choosing WoW, PS3s, and IPhones over Hide-n-go-Seek, Hopscotch, and RumbleFumble) this simply means fewer and fewer people will purchase Gatorade products.

Unless. Unless Gatorade redefines itself. As a drink of youth. As a drink of casual, weekend athletes. As a drink that identifies with urban and hip hop culture. As a drink for anyone who engages in any kind of activity that causes you to sweat – be it golf, skateboarding, ciphering/freestyling, tagging, flag football, bocce ball or company softball.

Unless, that became G.

Back to the afore-described commercial, which features professional athletes and icons of all stripes, identifiable to all age groups, in all shapes, sizes, and physical condition. On Gatorade’s new website, we learn that their spokespersons include the aged (Muhammad Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s, is featured in the present day rather than by showing footage of him in his prime) and the youthful (Candice Parker is an excellent choice, as she tremendously athletic, strikingly beautiful, and very young). The universally loved (I mean, how can someone, other than Fuzzy Zoeller, not like Tiger?) and the near-universally controversial (Tommie Smith is featured, and he is still holding his single black-gloved fist in the air, reminiscent of the 1968 Olympics). And the voice over is supplied by none other than the comically ubiquitous Lil’ Wayne, who somehow squeezed in the commercial between a guest appearance on ESPN Ocho, a guest spot on 10 new singles coming out next week (including a surprising duet with Toby Keith), a semifinal appearance on CBS’ Survivor and a shocking defeat of Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. Lil’ Wayne gives “G” precious ethos, or, credibility. He is universally loved in much the same way Gatorade hopes to be – by “urban youth” and white suburbanites, young and slightly less young, men and women alike.

If the re-branding is successful, Gatorade will redefine itself as a drink for the masses (think, just a few years ago, Gatorade made commercials about laboratory research and elite athletes, men chiseled like Adonai and Osiruses and women like Athenae, hooked up to machines and traversing like gazelles on treadmills while lab-coat donning scientists wrote in their notebooks). Their viral marketing campaign, which included the quasi-surreptitious re-branded “G” (I mean, you could see that same “G” on the product in your local grocery store) the new website, and new commercials, generated much controversy and chatter in the blogosphere, and I, for one await their quarterly sales reports to see what, if any, impact the campaign has generated.

Whatever the case, the television commercial is an intriguing concept. I would have cast the commercial differently, but then again, I’m no director of marketing and sales for a major beverage brand. But if I were charged with inciting a revolution …

What’s Really G?

Lineup: Etan Thomas (holding his new book of poetry), Kurt Warner holding a picture of Pat Tillman (a Christian soldier holding a picture of a dearly departed soldier), Queen Noor, Naomi Klein, Steve Nash (waving mini Canadian and American flags), Stephon Marbury (holding a pair of “Starbury” shoes), Michelle Obama (going sleeveless, of course), and Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith high-fiving each other. Voiced over by Supernatural, or, if this is too commercial for him, Michael Franti.

Now, that’s G.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Driving While Black, and Life in Post-Racial (sic) America

W'sup Sabine County Sheriff? My bad for scootin' through there and bein' black at the same time. Didnt mean to bother you and the Forest Services (or Alpo, the kindly drug mutt)! Next time, I won't not speed or pass the paper bag test ...

The March 17, 2009 incident involving the Dallas Police and Ryan Moats is a counterpunch to the suggestion – tantalizing, while also mind-numbingly inane – that we are now in a “Post-Racial America.”

Watching the incident unfold (video-documented here and analyzed well in a number of blogs and newspapers, including Dave Zirin on his 3/30 missive) has incited within me a bilious mixture of disgust, regret, and extreme disappointment.

Many people who know me well know that I have lost both of my parents. What they do not know was that I was not at either one of their bedsides when they passed away. Both times, I was in transit, rushing cautiously but speedily to be at their sides, all for naught. When my father passed away, I received word that he was dying, and I made the three and a half hour drive from Shreveport to Lafayette only to arrive 30 minutes too late. When my mother passed away, the drive was across Biloxi to get to her, again, arriving minutes late. I don’t recall the content of those drives, whether I braked appropriately, signaled each time, came to complete stops, though I am reasonably sure I did, as I am a careful driver. And furthermore, were I to have been pulled over, I hope that I would have been as patient and as tolerable as Moats appeared to be. Truly, his demeanor throughout the entire horrifying incident is what makes this case as disgusting a case of police misbehavior on record (the many, many incidents of police brutality and murder on record, notwithstanding). I truly feel for Mr. Moats and his family, and wish to express my regrets for their loss.

For all the talk about America entering a new era – a post-racial era – given the election of Barack Obama as president, incidents like this remind us all too starkly that while a Black leader is now calling the shots, many Black people in this country face a paralyzing fear of getting shot at by police officers who abuse their authority and harbor hatred for Black people. Ryan Moats, and the unseen individuals who every day are haunted by the specter of institutionalized racism, are reminded time and time again that their race – not the content of their character – determines their place in the social order of America. Though I am a career-long educator and committed advocate of social justice, hopeful that America will live up to the words of the Declaration of Independence, episodes like this jar my sensibility to the point that I am certain that the only unalienable right I have is to remain silent.

Mr. Moats had every reason to be angry, to plead his case at a much higher decibel level, and finally, to challenge the officer – a little man with a big syndrome and a bone to be picked at Mr. Moats’ expense. And yet we all know, were that to have occurred, I might be writing today about two deaths rather than one, and in six to twelve months, riots would have ensued after this officer – after a paid suspension, of course – was exonerated and walked scot-free. I don’t care that the officer has apologized – it was contrived, expedient for his pending civil case and disciplinary hearings, and would not have happened if Moats didn’t tote the ball for the Texans.
Compounding the frustration I feel is the fact that the officer’s harassment of Mr. Moats discourages not only the public’s trust in officers of the law, but has to be discouraging, too, for other competent police officers across the country who risk their lives, day in and day out, to protect and to serve. While the case of Ryan Moats is being publicly debated, consider also that just a few weekends ago, four police officers were killed after a routine traffic stop involving an individual (a young black man, who was also killed after the incident) with an extensive criminal history (AP report). These men gave their lives protecting the people of Oakland and were met with a fate that is tragic and undeserved. I am truly saddened for their family’s losses, as well, as none of them were able to be at the sides of these men as they passed away.

One ill, in this case, feeds an alternating illness. Police officers in Oakland were already maligned after public outcry over the New Year’s Day shooting of Oscar Grant on a BART/S train platform -- a case which has drawn murder charges for a police officer currently on suspension. Now we have learned that about 20 onlookers at the scene of the shooting where the four police officers were slain actually lingered and taunted the police officers (AP report). It’s a Moebius Strip, which has neither a beginning nor an end – incompetent, racist police officers harass black citizens, causing black citizens to lose trust in and become fearful of all police forces. Black citizens become increasingly distrusting, leading to, at best, the “No Snitching” campaign, and at worst, to police becoming targets of violence. Whatever the case, there is nothing “post-racial” about this dynamic.

To close, I have long been a critic of the dominant sports media in America, and days after the Moats incident, there is little analysis or investigation into the incident on the major providers of content (,, Yahoo!Sports, and the like). They’ve, of course, provided video of Moats accepting the officer’s apology – as if to say, “don’t worry, everyone, it’s all okay now. No need to get racial.” The dominant sports media is also curiously giving as much coverage to an earlier incident involving this officer of the law, noting that the same officer had pulled over Zach Thomas’ (another NFL player) wife and arrested her after a routine traffic stop – as if to say, “See, everyone? He doesn’t just pick on black people.” As usual, the blogosphere is leading the way, and within hours of the incident, bloggers had posted videos of the incident and culled information from his page in which allegedly wishes to assault a young woman he’d pulled over, but recoils because her 7-year old daughter was watching. Clearly, whether his motives were racist or not, this is someone who has long exhibited the signs of incompetence and emotional instability that should have had him removed from the beat a long time ago.

But perception is everything. Whether or not the officer’s intentions were to display a deep-seated urge to dominate a black man, borne of his frustration and angst over a seemingly well-to-do black man standing up to him, or not, that is how many will perceive it. And his actions not only destroyed trust, but he has endangered the lives and made the work of his fellow officers more difficult. And he has disheartened virtually everyone else in the process, including me.

And maybe the silver lining is that he has, for once and for all, destroyed this whole “Post-Racial America” fallacy for good, and we can get back to broaching a discussion about racial inequality in America that will ultimately benefit us all.

Code Inspector or Architect?: The Role of the Social Critic

Scoop Jackson -- he plays the role of a social critic and he rolls like a social critic.
Stephen A. is only a jackass that plays a social critic on television.

“Se dice bisonte, no bufalo (It’s called bison, not buffalo).” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Recently, a friend of mine and regular reader posed a question to me that I found intriguing because a) it’s a good question, one I often am asked, and its proof that readers are engaging my compositions critically, and b) it is proof that someone out there is reading!!!

The question, and I’ll paraphrase, went as such:

In your writing, you often explore racial themes in sports, but I don’t always see these situations as racially motivated or racist in nature. Why do you always write about racial problems?

Human beings, both through instinct and learned behavior, inherently search for meaning in their lives and in their surroundings. For some, this is a task that is attached, inextricably and directly, to one’s material existence, and is a simple function of making it from one day to the next. For a decreasing number of people in contemporary American society (due largely to the shrinking middle class, the lack of focus on critical thinking in public education, and a seismic shift to the bad in civic engagement) this also involves posing difficult questions about one’s environs, with intent to solve those problems. This group is composed, for example, of medical practitioners who not only treat disease, but inquire and research how those diseases originate and how to prevent them. It includes educators who not only teach children, but research more effective ways to inspire children and take their lives and experiences out of the classroom and integrate them into the learning experience. It also includes philosophers who not only record and examine, like the historian and the anthropologist, but deliberate about the best way forward.

Social critics do just that. They examine tangible societal elements (otherwise known as “culture”) and attempt to make sense of them. What do these elements tell us about ourselves? What do they reveal about our ways of seeing the world? In what ways might we make improvements and make our communities better places to live and our experiences generally more satisfying? Undeniably, social critics are arbiters of taste, often instructing the masses to enjoy or not enjoy something (think movie and food critics, book reviewers, theologians, and the like). The social critic, generally, is someone who is trained and credentialed in the area they offer criticism, and should offer that criticism for the express purpose of societal advancement. Otherwise, it is charlatanry or public relations.

By the above definition, I aspire to provide social criticism, particularly about the intersections between race, culture, and sport in contemporary society. I am uniquely, if not peculiarly, qualified to be a critic on this subject, namely because of a number of experiences and credentials that I have worked hard and am incredibly fortunate to have earned. I am a former college athlete with a Ph.D. in discourse studies, I’ve worked in higher ed for 10 years in athletics departments and as a faculty member, and I’ve researched issues in contemporary American sport extensively, publishing essays in several journals. My hope is that after reading one of my articles that the reader is provoked to consider a perspective that she or he may never have considered before. If the reader doesn’t agree with me, that’s okay. I write primarily to inform and to engage; persuasion is a secondary and often unintentional aim.

I also engage in social criticism which focuses on race and culture because those are the tools I have. If you’ve ever read good sportswriting, then you’ll know that sportswriters all have different tools. John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is an essay about Ted Williams’ last game, and in it, there is as much description of the fans and the environs as there is about Williams. Updike’s lyrical prose, wrought with evocative language and descriptors is a far cry from the straight-ahead investigatory sports writing of Peter King or the tongue-in-cheek, mock-seriousness of Rick Reilly, who often uses sport criticism to reveal absurdity and foible in contemporary American life.

Me? I refuse to see sport as the great panacea it is often cast as for commercial reasons. Sport is not, as the advertisements on NBC and ESPN would have us believe, a world devoid of racism, cultural clashes, sexism, and segregation. Unlike Howard Cosell’s erroneous claim that "Rule Number One of the 'Jockocracy' is that (athletics) and politics should never mix," I believe that it is not we who mix them, but that they are mixed in and of themselves. Sports in America happen on American soil, into which is embedded and inscribed a history of complex, debilitating, and pernicious racial segregation. Therefore, when I analyze an issue of racial or cultural disparity or inequality in contemporary sport, I am not making the issue racial, I’m simply attempting to interpret why – historically, socially, and otherwise – those racial or cultural inequalities exist.

Michael Jordan (even though he wasn’t named an executive after helping re-brand the Wizards), Tiger Woods (even though he was called a chicken eatin’ Sambo by Fuzzy Zoeller), and LeBron James (even though he was cast as King Kong on the cover of Vogue) might choose to avoid using their platform to more thought-provokingly address discussions about race, and that is certainly their prerogative. I choose to act as if sport is not immune to racism, and I cite extensive examples to ground my claims.

Alas, readers may not see it my way, and as I noted earlier, that’s okay. I much less often focus on gender discrimination or issues of sexuality in sport, as these are not tools in my toolkit. Nor am I a rabid fire-breathing sort who can tell you why only three of the six potential first-round draft picks that my favorite team is considering will help them win a championship in the next three years. I’m interested in race and culture, and see the world through those frames, including sport.

In the end, I am not the architect whose design makes or does not make racism and cultural inequality a part of American sport. I am a code inspector who is able, with the tools of my training, to analyze the structure of the building, if it is or is not properly maintained, diagnose which parts of it are adequately fortified and which need repair, and hopefully make the home a better place to live.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Green and White Color Lines: Sport as a Metaphor for Race Relations

As a young man growing up in Crowley, Louisiana, I’d watched the high school football team - The Fighting Gentlemen - through the leanest and meanest of years. The lean years occurred while my father was an assistant principal and my sister the head cheerleader, and included a winless season in the mid 80’s where I watched every single heartbreaking loss. The meanest of years included a run wherein the Gents won the 3A state championship in 1989 and when they returned to “The Dome” in 1991. In my four years at CHS from 1992-1995, we’d won a district championship, made it to the state playoffs each year, and continued building a tradition of hard-nosed, blue-collar, smash mouth high-school football played every week at Gardiner Memorial. And yet, in my lifetime, ground which I’d never seen broken by the Gents was about to be broken, and I was about to be a part of it - The Gents were going to take on the Pioneers of Notre Dame.

“The Pios” were the cross-town rivals for reasons that had very little to do with sport. While the students who attended CHS were primarily working to middle-class, comprising an ethnically and culturally diverse student body, Notre Dame was a parochial school, its student body primarily white, primarily middle to upper-middle class. We perceived them to be the “rich white boys” and we were what was left. In retrospect, we were full of erroneous misconceptions about each other. Nonetheless, we reveled in each other’s failures, despised one another’s successes, and dreamed about the day when we could test our mettle against one another on the field of play once and for all. Players at Notre Dame claimed their technical proficiency and discipline would prevail. We, of course, were convinced that our skill and work ethic would triumph. We were about to find out, as all summer long our coaches talked up our contest against them to open my senior season in a two, twelve-minute quarter jamboree and I hoped we could topple the cross-town rivals for good.

The game, unfortunately, never happened. Life went on, and we were certainly disappointed, but what was more telling than any outcome of a game that was never to happen for us, was the players’ reactions to the cancellation.

My black teammates were convinced that Notre Dame pulled out because “them white boys didn’t wanna be embarrassed by a bunch of brothers,” or because “them boys were scared of us!” For many of my black teammates, this was more than a gridiron matchup. It was a gladiatorial opportunity to address, and perhaps conquer the deleterious and pernicious impact that racism, segregation, and denied opportunity had had on them and their families by finally defeating whom they perceived to be the beneficiaries of unearned and undeserved financial and cultural privilege. White friends of mine who attended Notre Dame, who were often alarmingly honest with their feelings about black people with me, wanted to finally show us “who was boss,” and put us “back in our place” - disturbing metaphors, to be sure, considering the history of black/white race relations in the South. When the game was called off, part of me was relieved because frankly, there was no outcome that I could envision that wouldn’t end in increased strife and conflict between racial groups in advance of and after the game took place.

I am troubled all the more in reflection, because to me, football was but one of many activities and aspects of my upbringing that have determined who I am as a human being. Moreover, I know that the work of promoting harmony among diverse constituencies has taken place on territory much more treacherous than a 120 yd X 54 yd square of grass with white lines painted on it. Its just football, isn’t it?

Though I have participated in organized athletics since I can remember, and enjoyed success as an athlete and now as one who researches sport culture, I have never quite properly estimated or understood the level of significance with which many individuals regard athletic competition. I especially do not claim to understand the consideration of sport as a means to promote racial healing (or division). Surely Pios and Gents fans alike understood that no matter the outcome of the game, that twenty-four minutes of organized football could not redress past wrongs, revise social order, or represent any more than a blip on the radar of racial progress in South Louisiana history. Right?

And yet, sporting events and organizational exploits continue to carry disproportionate influence in the daily lives of many Louisianians. The New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets have been (incredulously) attributed with helping heal New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Years of below-the-surface racial division and enmity in North Louisiana were said to have melted away instantly when The University of Louisiana-Monroe finally invited historically black college Grambling State last year after years of insisting the matchup would never happen (the record crowd and ticket sales probably didn’t hurt). I personally know many individuals who count as a sign of considerable progress that a black quarterback (Jamarcus Russell) could lead the Bayou Bengals to a national championship. Regardless of these athletic successes, however, the material existence of the same people who cheer alongside them continues to stagnate, and the institution of racism continues to rear its ugly head and cast a pall over the American topography regardless of the irrationality and rabidity of black sports fans across the nation. So is this fervor for organized sport simply wasted energy and investment in empty metaphors?

So long as racial progress and harmony in sport, as a part of the tableau of American cultural expression (including the arts, political movements, music, dance, etc.) serves as inspiration for social change, then the oft irrational and rabid investment in sport often observed in many Americans can be quite useful. Imagine that the next generation of black leaders will, in their young lives, witnessed Tiger, witnessed Tony Dungy, witnessed so many prominent and successful black athletes and coaches and derived significant inspiration from them. If successes in sport by teams and individuals spark revelation in the minds of progressive thinkers that much can be achieved by people, regardless of their ethnicity, then I hope that face-painting, tailgating, and hoarse throats in the morning continue to proliferate exponentially. Especially if the face painting is green and gold (CHS’ colors) and the Pios go down in flames!

nota bene: Only a decade after that game never happened, Crowley High School and Notre Dame High School are now in the same district and compete against one another every year. Every report I have heard about the matches has been positive, and the contests have been for the most part competitive, without significant conflict, and have rallied the entire city around the event. Perhaps this is evidence that the city and its citizens have come very far in the decade since I left - a positive development, indeed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blame A-Rod, Spoil the Child

100 Smiles and Runnin' ...
Where have all the George Bells gone?

As a pre-teen, I loved the Toronto Blue Jays. This was an irrational love affair, given that I’d never been to Canada (I’d later discover that Toronto was one of the most beautiful cities on Earth) or even met a Canadian at this point in my life (I’d later discover that a Canadian was one of the most beautiful people on Earth, and convince her to marry me). I didn’t love ‘The Jays’ because of their location. I certainly didn’t beg my parents to take us to Arlington, Texas every summer to watch the Rangers play (but they did play the Jays every summer!), and I didn’t love The Jays because of their jerseys (two-tone blue, ultramarine over powder). No, I loved them because of George Bell. In fact, one summer, less than a week before Nolan Ryan would strike out his 5,000th batter, I would meet him and ask him if he knew George Bell (as if to say I bet you won’t strike him out tonight!). You might not remember George Bell … just imagine Ice Cube six inches taller with wider shoulders and a better build … more his 100 Miles and Runnin’ days than his Are We There Yet? days. I loved everything about his style of play – his ability to hit the ball, his athleticism in the field, and his leadership in the clubhouse. It was because of him that I followed the Jays so closely, celebrated their wins and dreaded their losses, and recoiled when the Canadian flag was flown upside down at the World Series (even though Bell is Dominican). My brother and I would play baseball in the backyard, he with his St. Louis Cardinals cap on, and me with my Jays hat, swingin’ for the fences every time like Bell, but hustlin’ toward second if I happened to punch one through the infield, which for our purposes, was a fig tree in the middle of the yard.

That was some time ago. Today, I come by the story of Alex Rodriguez admitting his use of anabolic steroids from 2001-2003 as someone who has not considered himself more than a casual Major League Baseball fan for more than a decade. I haven’t watched a game from opening pitch to final at bat in many, many years. I know the difference between Dwight Howard and Ryan Howard, for example, but couldn’t pick either one out of a lineup without considerable assistance (or unless one of them was wearing a Phillies cap). I am neither a casualty of the short lived Yankees dynasty of the late 1990’s (I hate the Yanks), or more recently, of Barry Bonds* eclipsing of Hank Aaron’s home run record (there’s no footnote, btw, I’m just assuming that the asterisk will heretofore be part of his name). In fact, generally speaking, whether I follow a sport closely or not, I have a tendency, like most folks, to become a fan when any athlete is about to break a long-held record (in fact, if I hear that someone is on 7:45 pace in the 3000m steeplechase, I’ll tear away from this computer so fast …).

No, I stopped following baseball the summer of 1994. For 232 days, players and owners walked away from the fans over what essentially was a dispute over the worsening financial situation of MLB, and fans across the country were outraged. In a nightmare envisioned by Durkheim nearly a century earlier, the socialization of religion had come to roost, and for many, the altars at which they worshipped six months out of every year had been destroyed, and hope for nirvana (you know, their team reaching the post-season, or favorite player being named an All-Star) had been stripped away from them. For many fans, this was tantamount to theft – they were being robbed of the opportunity to see their favorite teams and players teeter and totter, get hot and go cold, and of the catharsis of reaching the ultimate goal – winning a pennant. Fans packed away their team-themed knick-knacks, cancelled their cross-country commutes, folded and tucked away their jerseys, and simultaneously swore they’d never again – never again – root for a bunch of overpaid crybabies and their ne’er do well bosses. Though I never wore the jerseys or followed my favorite team to the point of obsession, I shared this sentiment. I thought it was just about greedy players, and blamed them for taking baseball away from me. If only I’d understood every labor dispute has at least two sides.

For a brief moment in 1998, however, I considered the love affair all over again, thanks to Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. As both men chased down one of the most coveted records in professional sports (Maris’ 61 home runs in a season) I grew interested again and found myself not only watching Cubs games with interest, but Cardinals games too (remember me and my brother used to play Jays vs. Cards all the time? I hated the Cards). In what was a wire-to-wire contest between the two men, the whole world tuned in as the aloof McGwire and the ever-affable Sosa banged out dinger after dinger all summer long. Being the baseball card collector that I was, I hunted down their rookie cards to make sure that they were in mint condition and safely stored away. Of course each of them was noticeably more muscular now. And of course two men in their 30’s shouldn’t be hitting the ball like men ten years their junior, but no one cared. No one cared! The doldrums of ’94 were gone, and America’s pastime was back to stay.

Until we discovered they were all using performance enhancing drugs. It was ’94 all over again.

I imagine that, across the country, many 14-year olds are watching baseball with the same critical and judgmental eye that I once did. They’re giving up on baseball. When A-Rod, one of the most consistent, well-liked, and powerful hitters in the game (he is on pace to absolutely demolish Bonds*’s record) is discovered to be under the influence of performance enhancers, and many more likely to come as long as the players union keeps leaking names, the cynicism is understandable.

And while I do not claim that A-Rod should be spared public scrutiny (he certainly will have many opportunities to face the music), I do hope that a responsible sports media, rather than sensationalizing the latest story, chooses instead to investigate the system that has produced one A-Rod after another after another. They should investigate the owners who either knowingly sanction the use of performance enhancers to ensure the marketability of MLB’s product or unwittingly fail to acknowledge the use when it occurs (unless, the owners think it’s natural to put on 30 lbs of lean muscle in a single off-season and play 10 consecutive 162 game seasons without injury). It also includes owners and league officials who have shrunk the strike zone to the size of a wasabi-flavored pea and “juiced” the ball, creating the environment in which more runs were scored and more home runs hit. It also includes scrutiny of the fans themselves, whose tastes have become altered to expect their favorite players to hit more and more souvenirs out of the park, and the media who glorify the big hitters. Though A-Rod will shoulder the bulk of the most recent wave of blame from fans and media alike, there are many more to blame, or at the very least, who are complicit in baseball’s demise in American popular culture.

It’s probably too late for me. But for the sake of that 14 year-old who excitedly dons that A-Rod jersey every opening day, I hope this instance finally opens up a more insightful and critical discussion (more than, say, a few late night sports programs giving drug-addled provocateur Jose Canseco 5 minutes on the mic).

Unfortunately, for our dominant sports media, all too prone to sensationalize stories rather than investigate closely, I’d sooner expect to see George Bell in the Jays’ starting line-up again before that happened.