Razorbacks’ 2015 Schedule Portends Death of Little Rock Tradition

Sign of the End Times

Sign of the End Times

“This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

 

Yesterday, Arkansas released its 2015 schedule. Also released: Any enduring hope among Razorback fans that Little Rock and its no-longer-grand-enough War Memorial Stadium will remain a second home.

The process of ushering the doddering old man out the door has been ongoing for about 15 years now, ever since Fayetteville’s Reynolds Razorback Stadium expanded to 72,000 from 51,000 seats – meaning Hogs leave significant money on the table every time it plays a home game away from its home campus at the 55,000-seat War Memorial Stadium instead.

Games at War Memorial have dropped from three or four a year, to two a year – and starting this season through 2018 – one a year. This Saturday’s game in Little Rock against No. 10 Georgia, the SEC East frontrunner, is a marquee matchup with enough significance to somewhat soften the blow for some War Memorial traditionalists. It should be a sellout.

Not so with next year’s Little Rock game against the University of Toledo, a Mid-American Conference program that has lost all three games it has ever played against SEC competition. This game, which marks the first time since 1947 (vs. North Texas) Arkansas hasn’t played a conference home game in Little Rock, is the latest sign Razorback leaders are phasing out the home-away-from-home tradition altogether.  Given the opponent isn’t even in a Power 5 conference, “how many people will pony up $55 or more per person just to see Arkansas vs Toledo?,” Arkansas Fight’s Doc Harper asked.  “I can envision more people than usual staying on the golf course.”

Some fans may feel remorse Little Rock’s once central place in the Razorbacks’ schedule has been knocked down so many rungs, but they shouldn’t forget the main motives behind this demotion – “brand building” and revenue generation – are the same reasons Little Rock was used as a second home in the first place. In the early 1930s, Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its entire state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.

Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium.

Across the U.S., examples of home away from home traditions are legion.

This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in the New York Times last  November: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.’”

Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on to contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, War Memorialists, it’s true: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program still hanging on to this practice.

But is that something to be proud of?

It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But clinging to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed in much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.

In the 1930s and 40s, the smartest rural programs traveled 30, 50, 100, 150 miles to the in-state stadia that would give their teams the most bang for their buck in terms of exposure and revenue. In today’s world, where cable television and the Internet make distance far less of an obstacle for fans to follow their teams, the smartest programs realize that “neutral site” games in the obscenely talent-rich metro areas of Texas often provide the best return.

This is an update of an earlier Sports Seer post. Read the original here

Other Schools with Multiple Home Stadia

Oregon
Home Campus: Eugene
Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1924, then every year through 1966.
Last Game: 1970
Distance Between Homes: 105 miles

Big Win: 21-0 over a UCLA team that would finish 8-2 on Oct. 5, 1957.
Sample Decade: 1952-62: Record of 11-11*

*Includes rivalry games w/ Oregon State


Oregon State
Home Campus: Corvallis

Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1941, then every year through 1973. (w/ exception of two WWII years in which team wasn’t fielded)
Last Game: 1986
Distance Between Homes: 74 miles

Big Win: Oct. 16, 1971- 24-18 over an Arizona State team which would finish 11-1.
Sample Decade: 1963-73: Record of 11-4


Washington State
Home Campus: Pullman

#1 Home Away From Home: Spokane*
Years Played There: 1950-1983
Last Game: 1983
Distance Between Homes: 66 miles

*In 1970, WSU’s home stadium burned due to suspected arson (possibly involving a perpetrator from the rival University of Idaho only eight miles away). As a result, WSU played all its home games in Spokane in 1970 and 1971.

Big Win: Sept. 23, 1978 – 51-26 over an Arizona State team which would finish 51-26.
Sample Decade: 1973-83: Record of 8-12

#2 Home Away From Home: Seattle (the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium, Centurylink Field)
Years Played non-UW opponents there: 2002 through 2008; 2011; 2012-14*
Last Game: Ongoing
Distance Between Homes: 252

Big Win: August 31, 2002 – 31-7 over Nevada to set the tone for a 10-3 season that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Record since 2002 at what’s now Centurylink Field: 6-4

*N.B. the campus of this program’s rival – the University of Washington – is in Seattle. So WSU often plays WU there. Washington State had also played three home games in Seattle against out-of-state powerhouses (USC, Ohio State) in the 1970s. It lost them all.


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Bret Bielema: Darkhorse Candidate for Michigan’s Opening?

hokepointbielema

In the last seven years, the University of Arkansas has had arguably the most turbulent stretch of head coaching changes in all pro or college football. Razorback fans will certainly accede to this. The following word associations shall forevermore rub salt into their psychic wounds: Nutt, text gate, Malzahn, Mustain; Petrino, Dorrell, motorcycle, neck brace, red face (not from shame); John L. Smith, awkward, national, laughing, stock.

From a public outrage standpoint, though, none of the above fallouts would match what would happen if Bret Bielema left Fayetteville after this season. The idea that Arkansas’ most recent coach would pursue greener pastures after only two years seems far-fetched. But not far-fetched enough for one long-time Ohio State football writer to spend a full column on.

TheOzone.net’s Tony Gerdeman recently laid out a case for why Michigan should hire Bret Bielema to replace its current embattled coach Brady Hoke. Hoke, in case you haven’t heard, makes Will Muschamp’s tenure at Florida look more secure than a Chuck Norris handshake. This year (Hoke’s fourth) Michigan has lost four of six games including a 31-0 drubbing to Notre Dame – the first time the program’s been shut in 30 years.

Gerdeman argues since Bielema has already found success in the Big Ten (he had a 39-19 conference record as Wisconsin’s coach), he could do even better with a far richer program like Michigan. Other potential candidates have also been successful, but they don’t represent a return to the glory days of the Wolverines patriarch Bo Schembechler like Bielema could.

“He is the perfect fit for a program that wants to play football the way their ancestors played — between the tackles and on the ground. Few coaches have the track record that Bielema has when it comes to playing the type of football that Michigan thought they were getting with Brady Hoke. If they were to land Bielema, then they would finally be on the right track toward establishing the identity that they so badly want to portray.”

Finally, and most importantly, Bielema “is smug, arrogant and he hates Ohio State. If that’s not a Michigan Man, then I don’t know what is,” Gerdeman writes.

No doubt, Bielema hates himself some Buckeye. Any time, any place:

At Wisconsin, he beat Ohio State only once in six tries but Hayes Almighty what a loss! The Badgers’ 2010 win ruined Ohio State’s national title shot. Fourth-quarter issues plagued Wisconsin in many of those losses, as they have so far in the Hogs’ two SEC losses against Auburn and Texas A&M. If a fourth quarter meltdown proves the difference in Arkansas’ Saturday showdown against No. 7 Alabama, Bielema will start facing the same kind of local scrutiny he felt from Wisconsin fans and media during his last months in Madison.

Gerdeman then considers whether Bielema would actually want to leave Arkansas even if Michigan showed interest. He starts talking money, and this is where his argument breaks down.

He points out the Wolverines’ assistant Doug Nussmeier makes $200,000 more at Michigan than he did at Alabama, and insinuates the Wolverines have deep enough pockets to lure practically anybody they want to Ann Arbor.

This is Big Ten-centric thinking. Yes, Ohio State and Michigan make much more money off football than most SEC schools, but that doesn’t mean they are investing the same percentage of their “profit” (revenue-expenditures) into football as schools in the middle of the SEC pack like Arkansas. Additionally, the numbers below show that Arkansas is on par – and in some cases superior to – Michigan when it comes to investing in its football program:

Arkansas

Michigan

$99,770,840 Athletic Dept Total Revenue* $143,514,125
$92,131,933 Athletic Dept Total Expenditures $131,018,311
$3.2 million avg. per yr / 6 yrs** Head FB coach contract $3.25 million avg. per yr / 6 yrs
$3.2 million Head FB coach salary 2014 $2.3 million***
$3,205,000 circa Feb. 2014 FB Staff Salary 2014 $3,072,000 circa Dec. 2013
Jim Cheney, OC, $550,000Robb Smith, DC, $500,000

Sam Pittman, OC, $500,000

Highest Paid FB Assistants Greg Mattison, DC, $835,000Doug Nussmeier, OC, $830,000

Yes, Michigan has shown it’s willing to pay its very top assistants more money than most other schools. And yes, with $25.3 million coming into its football program as donations from an enormous alumni base, it would be willing to pay off any buyout clause necessary to get the coach it wants – including Bielema’s $2.5 million price tag.

But those aren’t nearly strong enough reasons for Bielema to uproot after a mere two years getting acclimated to the SEC. His primary reason for coming to Arkansas was to get a shot at the big boys. The burning competitor in Bielema wants to know how he measures up as a head coach against the very best.

If he, his staff and his recruits try their best, and after five or six years they don’t measure up, then he can one day retire knowing he at least didn’t shy away from his sport’s greatest challenge. Gerdeman wrote Michigan’s imminent opening would give Bielema “an opportunity to get the hell out of the SEC, specifically the SEC West. Coaching in the SEC is too hard because every school is always trying to win.”

Sorry, but no.

The fact every SEC school is “always trying to win” is the main draw to coaching there in the first place.


*The most recent data reported as of summer 2014.

** Both coaches’ contracts are loaded with a mind-numbing array of opportunities to earn more.

*** Last year, Hoke banked well over $4 million dollars but that was because of a $1.5 million “stay bonus” paid following the season and a $1.05 million payout for “deferred compensation,” according to mlive.com.


NFL Pro Bowler Lorenzo Neal to be Auctioned Alongside 50 Units of Botox

Life's not quite a breeze for Lorenzo, but it's close.

Life’s not quite a breeze for Lorenzo, but it’s close.

Few professional athletes have had as much success jumping from one franchise to the next as four-time Pro Bowler Lorenzo Neal. For 11 consecutive years, playing for the likes of Tennessee, San Diego, New York, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, he blocked for a 1,000-yard running back. He might have been the greatest journeyman in NFL history.

While Neal’s career accomplishments put him in rarefied air, the diversity and number of his activities since retiring after the 2008 season place him in a class all his own. On Saturday night, thanks to the Clovis North High School Bronco Foundation’s fundraiser, he takes the next step in a five-year journey that grows more fantastic by the day.

Neal, as well as the San Diego Chargers [12-1 favorites to win the 2015 Super Bowl], are item No. 7 on a list of live auction items that have been lassoed up by the foundation and donors for Clovis North’s annual Stampede:

“7 Priceless Football Weekend for 4 with Lorenzo Neal and the San Diego Chargers: watch Saturday’s pre-game practice, tour the locker room. and take pictures with your favorite Chargers. Receive executive parking pass for Sunday, attend the Chargers’ executive tailgate with Lorenzo Neal, and then go into the game -November 23 vs. the Rams.”

The list of potential prizes for supporters of this central Californian school doesn’t end with the chance to chill with Neal, the opportunity the feel the fire of fantasy football stud and MVP candidate Phillip Rivers from but feet away, get half a side of Organic beef butchered to one’s specifications or a beer Kegerator. Thanks to generous sponsors such as California Industrial Rubber Company, Inc. and Fresno dermatologist Kathleen Behr, silent auction items like botox are on the table too. Dr. Behr has provided 50 units of the cosmetic toxin for the evening’s festivities.

So, how exactly did Neal find himself here? Was it divine providence, or mere caprice, that led him from paving paths for Adrian Murrell, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George and Corey Dillon to being sold at the Panoche Creek River Ranch off North Highway 41?

The power to unravel this koan is beyond me.

I do know this: “Low Daddy” has become an entrepreneurial Krakatoa whose powers may just be unfathomable. He has spewed more revenue-generating and philanthropic lava, in more directions, than most minds can grasp.

Poppycock, you say?

The 43-year-old’s unofficial c.v. since retiring says otherwise. In it, we get some standard retired-player coaches’ clinic type stuff here, and a lot of NFL broadcast and radio color commentary there, but it gets pretty non-predictable in a hurry.

In the last five years, Lorenzo has also been:

- Hanging with comedian Adam Corolla, talking door hinges, flipping properties and why serving time sometimes isn’t all that bad.

- Taking care of his 1971 and ’72 Cutlass Supremes

- Headlining an apparently short-lived reality TV show project called “2nd Shot at Glory,” packaged as “American Idol” meets “The Biggest Loser” meets America’s most beloved pastime… football.” The show was to involve Neal and at least three other former NFL players supervising the efforts of pro football prospects.

2nd shot at Glory

“Participants can be from every position in the NFL. Can you imagine a kicker winning? – the outrage, the pandemonium!,” we read on the show’s Web site. “Finally, you can have your 2nd Shot at Glory by competing against other men from all across America for money, glory and most importantly, the opportunity for a spot on an NFL roster.”

“The winner receives $500,000 cash prize and a guaranteed contract with a professional agent to negotiate their first contract.”

- Overseeing another apparently short-lived project called Fan Foods Inc., a grocery store with a not-sizzling Facebook presence.

- Getting the word out on breast cancer

- Providing for his children, including a daughter who has suffered seizures and speech delay

- Helping Native and aboriginal youth stay active

- Running a non-profit called Worldwide Athletes, LLC. Purpose = All about getting kids access to higher education.

- Helping students at Fresno High School set and achieve goals through his “Changing a Generation Foundation.”

- Charging up to $2,000 per hour – with occasional half-off discounts – to speak to kids in a motivational manner.

- Hawking a workout device called The Body Stretcher

- Wearing  a CrossFit T-shirt at a CrossFit gym grand opening

- Endorsing the StreetStrider, said to be the world’s first indoor/outdoor elliptical cross trainer

loneal

- Being a professor at Football University

- Helping run an anti drunk-driving service called Safe Ride Solutions. “Basically, it’s like having a AAA card for partying,” Neal told Yahoo Sports. “You call an 800 number, and an off-duty police officer comes to you and drives you home in your own car, no questions asked. It’s totally confidential. When we pitched it to the NFL, they gave us their approval and told us it was OK to shop it to teams.”

- Crashing his truck into a pole after getting drunk on the Fourth of July. Nobody was hurt. “[He] just ran off the road, struck a pole,” officer Axel Reyes told KFSN-TV. “Nothing real major about it.”

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Arkansan Mike Dunaway, Whom Greg Norman Called World’s Longest Driver, Dies

Mike-Dunaway-Golf-Magazine-Covers

Dunaway was the first professional long driver to   grace the cover of Golf magazine

It was in 1985 that Conway native Mike Dunaway announced himself to the world as not only one its most powerful drivers, but possibly golf’s savviest self promoter. On the cover of Golf, the former UCA linebacker stood atop a mound of money and boasted that he would pay anyone who could drive a golf ball farther than he could, that person could take the entire $10,000 beneath his feet.

“One soul stepped up to the tee, was thrashed, and the magazine bested its previous single-issue sales record,” the  Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Bobby Ampezzan wrote in 2009. That exposure and success propelled Dunaway, who died Monday at age 59 in Rogers, into becoming a one-man marketing hurricane in the niche sport of long driving, in which the act of hitting as much hell out of a ball as is physically possible with a piece of graphite becomes something like science.

“Long driving back then, you kind of got your name out there from folklore,” Dunaway told Ampezzan. “I mean, I’d do exhibitions, and I would hit the ball farther than anybody. But then if I came back in five or six years, to hear people talk about the distance, it would take two shots to match it — with an air cannon! Folklore and bar talk. But that’s all fishing was until they started those $1 million bass tournaments.”

Over the decades, Dunaway penned numerous instructional articles and appeared in videos touting his technique. In the 1990s, he hosted the TV show “Golfing Arkansas” and appeared at events with 1991 PGA champion and fellow Arkansan John Daly. PGA Tour great Greg Norman said of Dunaway: “This is the longest driver in the world,” according to a 1991 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article.

For Dunaway, the notion “Drive for show, putt for dough” did not apply. For years, he used a pure technique honed at the feet of the sport’s Yoda and a powerful 5-11, 245-pound frame to make a living from whacking living daylight out of pebbled sphere. In the early 1990s, he won a $25,000 distance shootout in Texas and $40,000 from the world’s richest long-drive contest in Japan. His longest drive in competition was a 389-yarder in Utah.

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K.J. Hill Believes He Can Flip KeVaughn Allen From Gators to Razorbacks

 (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. )

Not going to be Billy Donovan’s best friend (Courtesy:              Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. )

Much has been made about the surge in the Razorbacks’ recruiting prowess under head football coach Bret Bielema. By early September, he’d been able to get commitments from more ESPN300 recruits than at any time since 2006. A large part of this success comes from the state of Florida, from where Bielema, assistant Randy Shannnon and others have been able to pull in major game-changing talents like running back Alex Collins and offensive lineman Denver Kirkland.

There could be another game-changing talent coming to Arkansas from Florida. Although this time, it would come in the form of an Arkansan – not a Floridian. KeVaughn Allen, a top 50 national recruit in basketball, is a North Little Rock High School senior who has announced he’s attending the University of Florida. K.J. Hill, Allen’s teammate and also an elite recruit in football, has other ideas.

Hill, who recently committed to Arkansas, told Sync’s Nate Olson he believes he can convince Allen to de-commit from Florida and become the latest high flyer to join Arkansas’ program. “When I go back to basketball I will talk to him even more,” Hill said. “It’s on my mind. I think I can get him to come [to Arkansas].”

The 6’1″ Hill, who said he received interest to play basketball for the likes of Wichita State, Baylor and Michigan State, is considering playing football and basketball for Arkansas next season. “Coach Anderson wants me to start talking to him about it,” Hill told Olson. “I think he wants me to play.”

Although his long-term athletic future is likely as a dynamic wide receiver, in SEC basketball, Hill projects to be a disruptive defensive force at guard. If he can get Allen to flip, though, likely his most impressive collegiate assist would arrive before he ever plays in an official game.

On the football front, it appears K.J. Hill is most interested in the rebuilding efforts going on at the biggest programs here and in the Buckeye State:

Q: You have said you are going to look around a little bit and visit other schools. But Razorbacks fans shouldn’t worry too much about you going elsewhere, right?

A: I just want to see different schools and just see how different schools are. I’d like to see Ohio State and Urban Meyer. I have never been up there. I want to see the facilities and the campus.

Q: Will Gragg, a Dumas 4-star tight end, is going to make a decision soon. Do you feel confident he will pick Arkansas? And do you think you can get La’Michael Pettway, a Nashville 3-star athlete, to commit, too? What are your strategies to get them to commit to Arkansas?

A: Even before I was committed, recruits from in-state and out of state were asking me where I was going to go. Coach Bielema told me that I don’t realize how much other players are looking at what I do. I wasn’t thinking about it like he was thinking about it, but then when I committed a lot of stuff started changing. Players started asking, “Do you think we can get it done?” and stuff like that. La’Michael Pettway was asking me and then de-comitted, and Will is 100 percent onboard. I think he is going to come. Everyone has been asking me for the longest where I was going to go, so when I decided, that made them think about it.

Read the entire interview at syncweekly.com


In other news, below is an interesting excerpt from an ESPN.com article published today. In the wake of Arkansas’ 49-29 win against Texas Tech, it delves into specific reasons why Bret Bielema’s increasingly counter-cultural football tactics are becoming so difficult to prepare for:

“The game has evolved so much while we have stayed consistent,” Bielema said, according to ESPN. “We have remained very, very firm in our beliefs and my philosophy of recruiting a certain player to play in this offense.

“Those programs that don’t recruit fullbacks and tight ends and linemen the way we do, it makes us really get a niche on those players. We really truly can go coast to coast and recruit the best linemen in the country. We did it when I was at Wisconsin and we’re doing it now.”

Arkansas may not play with pace, but it uses plenty of force, and it’s a wake-up call to the increasing number of teams that value speed over power. “Programs just don’t have anyone on their roster to emulate a 250-pound fullback,” Bielema said. “They don’t have a 280-pound tight end. They don’t have a roster of 330-pound linemen to simulate that.”


Tying Brandon Allen, Chris Weinke & Zack Greinke to the Big Funny

weinke 1weinke2

Click on 53:44 mark of below podcast now. Ask questions later.

 

On Saturday, Brandon Allen completed 18 of 31 attempts for 175 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. In helping  his unranked Hogs hang with No. 6 Auburn through the third quarter, the Arkansas quarterback played an even stronger game his numbers indicate. His receivers dropped a few easy ones, including a touchdown, and the interception came after his arm was hit as a  result of a breakdown in protection, not bad decision making.

Overall, despite the Razorbacks’ defensive breakdowns in the second half of a 45-21 road loss, Hog fans can be excited about the progress Allen has shown bouncing back from an injury-riddled stretch in the middle of last season. His confidence was at an all-time high, his footwork and accuracy demonstrably improved.

Some of the credit here can go to Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy award winner who tutored Allen over the course of a few days earlier this summer in Florida. “I had a lot of problems with my balance in the pocket,” Allen told Razorback Nation. “Making a lot of off balanced throws and things that were hurting my accuracy. So we did a lot of balance work. A lot of bag work. A lot of foot drills.”

Weinke should also receive some credit for his name’s part in the one of the funniest sports skits you will hear in the latter part of this summer. The aural glory starts below, at the 53:19 mark of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast. The skit’s premise exhibits solid humor fundamentals by matching the normally humdrum world of sports award show introductions with an unexpectedly Seussian-cum-Clockwork-Orange type twist.

The outcome: the most imaginative concatenations of the names “Mookie Wilson,” “Melky Cabrera,” ” “Zack Greinke, “Mark Lemke,” and “Pokey Reese” I’ve heard.

But the “key” to making the conceit really work was balance. It was too baseball-heavy, and needed a well-known name from America’s most popular sport injected into this particular Greinke/Mookie/Melky/Lemke/Pokey milieu to push it to the next level.

So, thank you, Chris Weinke. From lovers of Hog football and comedic consonance everywhere.

(You’re pretty cool, too, Dokie Williams)


Concussion Concerns & The End of Youth Football in Texas & Arkansas

heads up

Can this program save youth football?

Those seeking a glimpse into a possible future for youth football may not have to travel far. Just over an hour south of Texarkana, in the east Texas town of Marshall, a school board approved the cutting of seventh grade tackle football in February amid widespread and growing concern for the sport’s physical dangers — specifically, the potential for injuries from concussions.

“I’m surprised, in some ways, because you know how it is in a one-high-school town where football is everything,” Marc Smith, superintendent of the Marshall Independent School District, told The New York Times. “I anticipated a little more resistance and concern, but the safety factor really resonated with our parents.”

Certainly nobody in Arkansas is going to ban junior high tackle football any time soon. Don’t expect it to happen in east Texas, either, although flag football is a more popular alternative there. People in both areas are too passionate about the sport to seek such wholesale changes in the coming years.

Many Arkansans are also passionate parents, and they are every bit as concerned for their sons’ health as their Texan counterparts.

Enough damning evidence about brain injury has accumulated to begin rattling the most influential football-affiliated institutions and society at large. Concussions inevitably spring to the forefront of conversations involving player safety in sports. None other than President Obama himself convened a summit on youth concussions in late May, declaring: “We have got to change a society that says you suck it up.” In advance of the event, NCAA and NFL officials announced pledges totaling $55 million to go toward the study of youth sports and brain injury.

There has also been pushback from players. In 2011, Derek Owens, a former University of Central Arkansas player, was one of four student-athlete plaintiffs in a lawsuit claiming the NCAA had been negligent in addressing and treating its student-athletes’ brain injuries — the first such suit filed against the NCAA. Since then at least 61 ex-college athletes have sued the NCAA, encompassing nine other class-action concussion lawsuits, according to a February 2014 article in The Birmingham News. Owens’ suit w consolidated with others and in late July the NCAA reached a preliminary settlement that includes provisions for a $70 million medical monitoring fund and a new national protocol for players’ head injuries sustained during games and practices.

In addition, nearly 5,000 former pro players — including Dan Marino and Little Rock native Keith Jackson — have kept the issue a high profile one by joining (or withdrawing from the suit, as Marino did in early June) various concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL.

Former UofA Razorback Ronnie Hammers.

Photograph courtesy Arkansas Money & Politics

Former UofA Razorback Ronnie Hammers (70).

Former Razorback Ronnie Hammers, a Marshall native, was an all-conference football player for the University of Arkansas in the late 1960s. He isn’t suing anyone — he said he’s not experienced any neurological problems other than occasionally memory lapses, which may not be football related — but he said hardly anybody knew about the long-term dangers of concussions when he was a player.

“I played on the offensive line and back in my day, that’s all you did,  fire off and hit somebody,” said Hammers. “Your head was getting hit every snap of the play, not just when somebody got tackled.”

Hammers runs a remodeling and roofing company in Marshall, and regularly makes it up to Fayetteville to hobnob with other former Razorbacks at reunions. He rarely discusses the concussion issue in that crowd, but he and the others may good-naturedly joke about it if someone shows signs of forgetfulness. They note how much attitudes have changed when it comes to violent hits on the field.

“The big saying back then was, ‘Well, you just got your bell rung. You’ll be all right here in a minute.’”

Hammers said if given the chance to choose all over again, he’d still play football. But he’d hope his grandson plays a safer sport, like golf.

The Defense is an Offense

No Arkansas authorities contacted for this story had heard discussion about eliminating tackle football for younger players, as the Marshall Independent School District has done, but all pointed to less-drastic changes that have made the sport safer. This upcoming season will be the third year in which high school coaches are required to take concussion training. Last year, the state’s first concussion protocol law passed. The law, whose primary sponsor was state Sen. David Sanders, requires all players suspected of having a concussion to be taken out of the game, to return only with a licensed professional’s approval.

Bigger school districts, like Little Rock School District (LRSD), are investing more money into athletes’ safety. Last season, for the first time, each LRSD junior high and high school game had a MEMS unit present. Most of the time, an athletic trainer or medical intern was also present. As of early June, the district was working toward making a licensed medical professional’s presence mandatory for all games.

At the same time, the state’s governing body for high school athletics — the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) — is mulling changes include limiting the number and frequency of collisions players endure on a weekly basis, said Joey Walters, deputy executive director of the AAA. On Wednesday, August 6, the AAA’s governing body was considering a proposal to limit full contact to three times a week (including games) at its annual meeting.

Money from the NFL is starting to trickle into local football, too. The nation’s richest league has donated millions of dollars to an instructional program taught through USA Football, its youth league umbrella group. The core idea is to spread the gospel of proper tackling, hydration and proper equipment fitting through a combination of online curricula and full-day, in-person training sessions. Coaches return from the Heads Up program clinics to teach other coaches, who in turn teach players. So far, about 2,800 youth teams nationwide — including five in Arkansas — have signed up.

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