A radio-show host in Arkansas was reprimanded last spring after he harshly criticized a Razorbacks baseball player.
Michael Turner is a catcher. He transferred from Kansas State to the University of Arkansas. After a disappointing SEC loss, Turner told reporters that his teammates were keeping the circle tight, staying positive, and trying not to let the noise from a group of negative fans get in their heads.
Derek Ruscin, the broadcaster, heard it and roasted Turner. He called him a “loser” and a “disgrace” and a “stupid ass,” among other things.
“First of all, you’re not a Razorback,” Ruscin said in his rant, “you’re a rental player and you’ve sucked, so thanks for nothing.”
The host was suspended for 10 days by his station. When he returned to the air, Ruscin apologized and said: “I had an opinion and it went way over the line. I was wrong. I am sorry about that.”
The personal attack was unwarranted. The name calling was poor form. But I wonder if we might have a discussion today about whether the transfer portal and the ability for college players to earn like professionals changes the way media and fans view them.
My first job came at a small, community newspaper, where I was charged with covering high schools and small college games. We also took scores from Little League games.
“Get as many names in the paper as possible,” the executive editor said.
What we didn’t print were the names of Little League players who had committed errors or struck out three times at the plate. We didn’t single out the relief pitcher who blew a big lead, either. And we didn’t call for the volunteer manager of the “Bonino Farms” Giants to be fired.
These weren’t big leaguers, after all.
“The A’s scored the winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning on an error,” did the trick.
“The defensive woes continued for the Giants’ 11-year-old shortstop Joe McGee. He let another routine ground ball go through his legs and the A’s won,” did not.
Joe got a pass.
Also, he got a juice box after the game.
High school players were permitted a wide berth, too. Same went for small colleges. Reporters might mention that the community college quarterback threw three interceptions and struggled with accuracy. But they wouldn’t think about holding that QB to the same standard they had for then-NFL starters Steve Young and Tony Romo.
There was a sliding scale. The division between the amateurs and professionals was clear. No college athlete deserves to be called a “loser” or a “stupid ass.” But I wonder if the expectations of fans and fair criticism from media will change when it comes to college athletes. In fact, I wonder if it already has.
Washington State quarterback Cam Ward landed a $90,000 NIL deal from the Cougar Collective before last season. Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. will both undoubtedly earn more next season than the average college football fan. And USC’s Caleb Williams has an estimated NIL value of $3.2 million a year.
Are the gloves off? If so, just for the highly compensated? Or for everyone?
You tell me. Because I suspect the expectations will rise, particularly for recruits who end up with well-publicized seven-figure paydays. Boosters who contribute dollars to their respective university’s NIL collective, will expect a return.
Alex Molden is a former NFL defensive back. He’s been cheered and booed on the field. He’s been praised and criticized by media during his career. His son, Elijah, played at the University of Washington and is now in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans.
I asked the senior Molden whether he thought the transfer portal and NIL earnings would result in amplified criticism of college athletes. Would fans boo louder? Would media be harsher in their evaluations?
“Absolutely,” Molden said. “Money gives more access and accountability. That’s why I believe that the NIL money should be private.”
That — is an interesting discussion.
Some of the NIL collectives want the public to know they’re involved in helping retain talent. The details of those deals being reported helps with raising more funds and marketing the collective. Some of the other booster collectives aren’t at all interested in any of the details being public.
Oregon’s Division Street, Inc. maintains a low profile, for example. One person involved with the booster-driven enterprise told me the minimum buy-in was $500,000. Donors at that level get no say in how the money is spent, per the source. Several formal inquiries to Division Street, Inc. via phone call and email in the last six months weren’t returned.
Meanwhile Oregon State’s Damnation Collective reached out to me, unsolicited, to tell me they bought a billboard near rival Autzen Stadium, trumpeting their presence.
Again, we’re walking on fresh snow here. Everyone is trying to figure out where to step and how to navigate this new world of college athletics. Should media members continue to handle college players more delicately than they would pros? Should fans? And does the public deserve to know how much college athletes are earning?
The whole debate reminds me of a conversation I once had with former NBA player Zach Randolph. I was standing in the hallway outside the Trail Blazers’ locker room when Randolph emerged, saw me, and scowled.
He was ticked off that I’d called him out in print after he sucker punched teammate Ruben Patterson at practice. I’d been a long-time Randolph supporter, who publicly advocated for more playing time in his rookie season. He wanted to know why I’d turned on him.
I told Randolph I hadn’t betrayed him. That he was in control of the narrative. That if he scored 20 points a game, rebounded in double figures and was a great teammate, I’d write that. When he fractured Patterson’s eye socket with his fist, he didn’t leave me much choice.
“Make sense,” he said.
It was a brief conversation. I appreciated his willingness to hash things out. As we walked toward the court, we talked about the expectations of a pro athlete who earns millions in salary vs. a college player vs. a high school player. They are treated differently by fans and media.
Randolph said: “That’s common sense.”
I wonder how different that conversation might be today.
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I've been a fan literally since I was born...I watched my first game at Hayward field, of which my Father was a groundskeeper, in 1961 on my Mom's lap. As a boy I got to watch Bobby Moore and Dan Fouts play on the same offense together. I was there for the 1975 San Jose St. game when the President said he would rather have been "whipped in a public square than watch that game". All that to say I have been a loyal Duck fan for a long time, albeit a blue collar one whose season tickets were the old "family plan" that were less than $200 for season tickets for 2 Adults and 3 kids.
It's harder to invest into individual players. While Oregon has acquired better talent, it's come at a high cost. I don't have the same attachment since many aren't there for very long anymore. Our family doesn't have the money to contribute much, and so we seem to be an after thought to the team and the University. Honestly I really don't care if the NIL money is public or not...it's not just the NIL money anyway, it's the whole machine that College Football has become.
I suppose since I'm writing this I betray the fact that I still do care...but it's not nearly as much fun as it was once.
Bedford Falls no more. Welcome to Pottersville.