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.