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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Pay You, Pay Me: Buy Out Clauses in Arkansan College Coaching Contracts

The below article originally published in the June issue of Arkansas Money & Politics 

When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Razorback athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than the ASU Red Wolves.

There is one place Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground: each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year — his first on the job — he would have owed the U of A $3 million. Three million is also what the Red Wolves’ new coach Blake Anderson would pay to leave ASU during his first year. This symmetry is all the more striking because Bielema’s and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year, Anderson makes $700,000.

Conversely, if they leave at the behest of the schools, the coaches can look to pocket some walking-away money.

It’s all a matter of strategy and context, a common game played by universities across the country. Still, fans can be certain of one thing: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary.

In the biggest conferences, a $3 million buyout provision isn’t all that large. In a conference as relatively small as ASU’s Sun Belt, though, this kind of number is almost certainly unprecedented — much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole.

“When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir said, “you learn a little bit.” 

Since 2010, ASU has hired four different coaches. The first — Hugh Freeze — had a first-year buyout of $225,000. For his successors, that figure jumped to $700,000, then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.

Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches typically signed one-year contracts, which would roll over to the next year if they did a good job. Things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. As multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” U of A athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”

In business terms, the institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset — the head football coach — that can either add or lose a great amount of revenue. Perversely, either one makes the coach more likely to leave. A chronically underwhelming coach is likely to be fired by the school, while star performers are lured away by institutions with more elite programs.

Buyout contracts therefore typically work in two ways. If a university fires the head coach “at its convenience,” legalese often translated to “too many games were lost,” the school usually gives the coach a ton of money to go away. Bielema, for instance, would be paid $12.8 million if he were fired in this context in his first three seasons. For Anderson, the number is $3 million if he’s let go in his first year. The University of Central Arkansas’ Steve Campbell would be paid $7,000 a month for the remainder of his contract ending Dec. 31, 2017, if he were fired; and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff’s Monte Coleman would get his annual base salary of $150,000 paid to him over 18 months.

In the 21st century, major college coaches’ salaries — and attendant buyouts — have grown hand-in-hand.

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New Financial Disclosures for Arkansas’ Division I Athletic Programs

USA Today just released the most up to date financial reports for all 230 Division I athletic programs in the nation. In terms of total revenue, the University of Arkansas sits 14 spots from the top. Ten spots from the bottom you’ll find the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (the nation’s largest intra-university system disparity). In between sit three other Arkansas schools.

I’ll break down these numbers later, but for now, let’s simply celebrate in the splattering of them on the wall.

Take what you will:

No. 14 nationally ($99.77 million revenue)

arkansas

No. 131 ($16.28 million revenue)

A State

 

No. 194 ($10.77 million revenue)

UCA

No. 206 ($9.4 million revenue)
UALR

 

No. 220 ($7.1 million)

UAPB

(PS – Notice how the total revenue plummeted from 2010 to 2011. That’s what an NCAA Tournament appearance and win will do for you.)

 

How about you, cherished reader? Any numbers jump out as significant or worth extra scrutiny?


Buy Out Clauses in State of Arkansas’ Division I Coaching Contracts

When it comes to big-time college sports, Arkansas State University and the University of Arkansas rarely operate on a level playing field. The Hogs attract more fans, play in a bigger conference, get more national exposure and make more money.  The UA’s athletic department pulls in nearly seven times more total revenue than Arkansas States’.

But there’s one place the state of Arkansas’ largest sports programs stand on equal ground. Each school’s head football coach has a contract demanding the same amount of money for cutting out early. If the Hogs’ Bret Bielema had decided to break his six-year contract last year – his first on the job – then he would have owed the UA $3 million. Three million is also the price the Red Wolves’ Blake Anderson would have to pay if he left ASU during his first year. This equality is all the more striking because Bielema and Anderson’s salaries aren’t even close to being in the same neighborhood: Bielema makes $3.2 million a year to Anderson’s $700,000.

How these schools got to this particular $3 million figure is part coincidence, part strategy, and all a matter of context. In the biggest conferences, a $3 million “buyout” provision isn’t all that high. Not with the likes of Louisville’s Bobby Petrino walking around with a $10 million buyout. In a conference as relatively small as the Sun Belt, though, a number like this is unprecedented – much like the situation in which ASU football finds itself on the whole. “When you’ve gone through what we’ve gone through the last few years,” ASU athletic director Terry Mohajir says,  “you learn a little bit.”

 

Since 2010, ASU has hired four separate head coaches. The first of those – Hugh Freeze – had a first-year buyout of $225, 000. For succeeding coaches, that figure jumped to $700,000 , then to $1.75 million, and now to $3 million. Where it ends, nobody knows.

Still, fans can be certain of one thing for sure: in the world of coaches’ contracts, terms for parting ways matter every bit as much as the salary figures themselves.

++++

 

Decades ago, things were simpler. Major college football coaches signed one-year contracts for amounts that didn’t always make them their state’s highest paid public employee. If they did a good job, the contract rolled over to the next year. But things started changing in the 1980s with the advent of bigger broadcast deals and the proliferation of cable sports programming. The best coaches started going to the richest schools which were also offering higher-paying, multi-year deals. But as multi-year contracts prevailed in the late 1980s and 1990s, “the institutions began looking for a commitment from the coach,” Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long said. At first, “it was really a one-way street and now it’s evolved into a two-way street on the contractual buyout terms.”

Look at it in business terms: The institution is looking for security after investing in a risky asset – the head coach – that can add or lose a great amount of revenue. Too much of one of the other – for all programs but the very top ones – make the coach more likely to leave. That departure not only means a loss in investments until that point, but likely a substantial cut future returns, too.

 

For more, read the rest of my article as it originally published in Arkansas Money & Politics Magazine.

It’s on Page 27 of this digital version


ASU and the UA Should Use the Natural State to their Recruiting Advantage

 

The great outdoors, design, football.

A decade ago, the typical college athletics administrator likely concerns himself only with the last of these.

Not anymore. These worlds are colliding with unprecedented frequency as self-marketing matters more and more in college football. Across the nation, programs are jazzing up their facilities and uniforms in an effort to attract recruits, media coverage and donations. Ambitious programs are realizing more variation – in color, shade, design – is better.

Two trends have emerged, one piggybacking on the other.

The first trend entailed marketing an array of different uniforms designs and colors that went beyond a program’s traditional road color and home white. Oregon football kicked this off in 2006 by unveiling a dizzying array of pant, jersey and helmet combinations. Merchandise sales soared as Oregon became one of the nation’s hottest programs.

Around 2011, an offshoot trend emerged where designs of jerseys and playing surfaces incorporate local, geophysical flavor. Here, heritage – natural or man-made – meets the all-important “buzz” factor.

Oregon basketball, one of the first to get into the act, superimposed onto its new court silhouette images of the state’s native fir tree. Other programs have made similar moves. Palm tree images now frame the courts of Long Beach and Florida International universities.

Wyoming football last year unveiled a new artificial turf with a depiction of the state’s Teton Range in both end zones. The lettering “7220 feet” is on both sidelines, marking the stadium’s record-setting elevation above sea level.

Even older, more established programs have gone down a similar, though more subtle, path.

Programs are also using man-made objects to promote their brands. Take Maryland, which in 2011 launched a “state pride” initiative that put the design of its distinctive state flag (the nation’s only one to feature British heraldic banners) on Terrapin football helmets and end zones.

 Indiana went the same flag-based route with one its new football helmet variants.

 So, should Arkansas join the movement?

 Without a doubt.

Our state has far too much iconic imagery to stand on the sidelines and not take advantage. Why, for instance, should the Hogs settle for white helmets and black jerseys when there are so many more interesting, Arkansas-specific designs that could be used?

 We’re the Natural State. It’s high time those playing our best football programs know it.

I’ve shared some ways already on Sporting Life Arkansas - including a diamond Razorback helmet – but below are some others that would work for any program in the state even thought I highlight Arkansas and Arkansas State.

1. According to a Washington, Ark. newspaper article in 1841, the Bowie knife was originally invented not by frontiersman extraordinaire Jim Bowie but by craftsman James Black. It became known as one of the most dangerous big knives in the region, just as Bielema’s Hogs aim to become of the most feared teams in the SEC.  Use a a small silhouette or outline of this knife somewhere on the uniform, perhaps down the side of the legs. Make the blade diamond-like for extra points.

2. Arkansas’ Buffalo River was the first National River to be designated in the United States and along with the Hogs is one of north Arkansas’ prime attractions. It’s time they join forces. Why not incorporate an image representing running water onto the perimeter of the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium?

3. The Red Wolves and now the Razorbacks have a thing going with mostly-black unis, we know. Tough guy and all that. But so many other programs do that, too. Why not separate yourself from the pack by incorporating colors from the most visually stunning bird native to the state? In the hands of a skilled designer, adding flecks of color from the scissor-tailed flycatcher onto the dark background would be a sure-thing eyecatcher.

The above is an update of an article that originally ran in Sync magazine in summer 2013.

 

 


A History of the N Word that isn’t Black and White

 

This pioneer's life deserves a closer look

This pioneer’s life deserves a closer look

Next week, we’ll learn whether the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s proposal to ban the N word in the NFL passed. The rule, which would cost teams 15 yards per violation, will be taken under further review by NFL owners at their annual meeting in Florida starting Monday.

The name “Fritz Pollard” has been leveraged by a non-profit organization to push for a change that Fritz Pollard himself might have not supported.But there’s some evidence Pollard, who in the 1920s became the first black NFL quarterback and coach (as well as the first black to play in the Rose Bowl), was O.K. with the word when it was used in non-hateful ways or in artistic endeavors. This runs counter to the beliefs of current leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who believe the word should be banned regardless where and how it’s used in the NFL work place. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,” chairman John Wooten told CBS Sports.  “Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”

Harry Carson, another Fritz Pollard Alliance leader, told SI.com that those who use the n-word as a sign of solidarity have “have no sense of history.” He added: “I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment.”

Carson isn’t altogether accurate here. That’s why a closer look at the world in which Fritz Pollard lived is merited.

Nearly a century ago, a black Yale student used the N word in way that evokes how it’s used among many blacks today. The student, William Ashby, attended a Brown game at Yale to watch the much hyped Fritz Pollard play for the visiting Brown team. As the game got underway, Pollard – as usual – was pelted with racist taunts by the home side’s white fans. N words rained down on him. Opponents tried to maim him. But also, like usual, Pollard started dominating – and then a curious thing happened during one of his punt returns, according to Pollard’s biography. While Pollard ran, Yale students yelled “Catch that nigger. Kill that nigger” while Ashby – who was sitting with other African-Americans on the Brown side –  jumped up and yelled “Run, nigger, run. Go, Fritz, go.”

This appears to be evidence – which I will bear out – that the word was not always used in a derogatory way at the beginning of the 20th century. It appears blacks sometimes used the word in a positive way among themselves, as happens now. I don’t have direct evidence of Pollard using the N word himself but have found a few facts that make it less likely he was troubled by blacks who used it. In 1933, he played a significant role in a movie as controversial in large segments of black culture then as Wooten’s proposal is now. The movie was “Emperor Jones,” a story about an ambitious Pullman porter based on a Eugene O’Neill play. It starred former NFL player Paul Robeson, a college friend of Pollard’s whom he served as a personal assistant and trainer. Pollard played a bit part on screen as a pianist.

The movie was controversial among many whites because it starred a black man. But it was divisive among many writers in black newspaper circles because it made extensive use of the N word, quoting verbatim from the O’Neill play. Black columnists encouraged readers to boycott the movie. If Pollard despised the casual use of the N word in entertainment, as Wooten does, I don’t think Pollard would have been involved with the project.


List of All Division I Football Players Born in Arkansas

There are so many Arkansans who play Division I football. You know this, on a gut level. What you don’t know – on any level – is the name of every single last one of those Arkansans. That ends now.

So come, brother, and let the waters below sate your parched mind:

Arkansas has produced two Harvard football players - including Andrew Flesher, two-time Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week.

Arkansas is home to two current Harvard football players – including Andrew Flesher, two-time Ivy League Special Teams Player of the Week.

The below stats are current as of fall 2013. I have listed the most recent 2014 signees at the bottom.

20140205_123716 20140205_123726 20140205_123733 20140205_123738 20140205_12374320140205_123754

All spreadsheets courtesy of Benn Stencil of Mode. Check here for a breakdown of which Arkansas counties produce the most talent per capita. 

2014 Signees

ARKANSASHereARKANSAS STATEHereCENTRAL ARKANSAS
Tyler Colquitt – LB 5-10 235 Pulaski Academy
Toney Hawkins – QB 6-1 185 Morrilton
Will Jones – OT 6-4 300 Parkers Chapel
Curtis Parker – OG 6-2 280 North Little Rock
Dalvin Simmons – DE 6-2 220 LR Central
Josiah Wymer – TE 6-4 262 Springdale

ALABAMA
PLAYER POS. HT. WT. SCHOOL
Josh Frazier – DT 6-3 330 Springdale Har-Ber

GRAMBLING STATE
Devohn Lindsey – WR 6-2 198 North Little Rock

LOUISIANA-MONROE
Tyrone Carter – WR 6-2 175 Rayville, La./Arkansas Baptist JC
Isaac Jackson – QB 6-2 210 FS Southside
Jake Snyder – OT 6-3 270 Wynne

LOUISIANA TECH
Ty Mullens# – DL 6-1 220 Smackover

MEMPHIS
Jarvis Cooper – DL/LB 6-2 245 West Memphis

MISSOURI STATE
Daryl Coburn – DT 6-1 325 LR Central
Deion Holliman – WR 5-9 165 Camden Fairview
Colby Isbell – DE 6-2 240 Rogers Heritage

PURDUE
Austin McGehee – PK/P 6-0 200 Pine Bluff

TULSA
Jabe Burgess* – QB 6-2 200 Greenwood
Jordan Dennis – ATH 6-1 175 Fayetteville
Isaac Johnson – OT 6-6 275 Springdale Har-Ber
Tim Quickel – LB 6-1 200 North Little Rock

WAKE FOREST
Zack Wary – LB 6-4 215 Rogers
#Walk on *Enrolled NOTE – Most players listed for Lyon are signees

UAPB

Kavin Alexander DB 5’10 190 North Little Rock HS (North Little Rock, AR)
Lawrence Berry WR 5’11 170 Parkview HS (Little Rock, AR)
Kyron Lawson DL 6’6 230 Mills HS (Little Rock, AR)
Patrick Rowland WR 5’10 165 Parkview HS (Little Rock, AR)


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