As with countless developments in the “modern age” of sports, a series of events magnified the differences between the terms “amateur” and “greatness” in college athletics. Yes…this is likely to feel like a “geezer rant,” about the “good old days.” But in this case, the two primary events were inescapable. One, the early departure of a “great football player,” who I think left for the wrong reasons. The other, the loss of a great man who played and coached football for all the right reasons.
The first was the unfortunate, if predictable choice by Oregon Duck “superstar” Kayvon Thibodeaux, to pass on his upcoming years of eligibility, as well as the Duck’s appearance in the Alamo Bowl, to prepare for entry into the NFL. I’m not going to go into my opinion about his talent, even though he had reduced opportunities to show it off this past “over-hyped” season, with injuries, and being completely flummoxed by Utah in both the regular and post season. What made KT’s exit predictable, is that he became the poster child and media darling of the new “NIL Era” of amateur sports. He was telegraphing his plans to “build his brand,” as his primary reason for playing, almost from the first day he stepped on campus.
Make no mistake about it, KT is a smart kid, who understands social media branding, taking advantage of every opportunity, and being willing to take his brand into new territory. All of which came with the tacet support and likely mentoring of Phil Knight’s newest venture, “Division Street,” which was involved in helping KT launch his cryptocurrency ($JREAM), as well as one of the first NFT deals in college sports.
Described by Division Street CEO, Rosemary St. Clair, a former Nike executive, “Our goal in this chaotic new world of NIL marketing is to elevate the athlete experience by bringing in leading expertise across brand, marketing, sponsorship, digital and creative to support all University of Oregon student-athletes, inclusive of every sport and across gender.” (see article here)
Yep. Sounds like a real elevated “amateur college athlete” experience to me.
If NIL (Name Image Likeness), and NFT (Non Fungible Token) deals are a mystery to you, then you most likely are from the same era as my good friend, and former teammate, Kevin Moen. It was Kevin’s recent passing, after more than a year of trying to overcome stage four cancer, that prompted me to compare not only the two eras of sports, but of the kind of person that comes from true amateur college athletics. (see Kevin’s Obit Here)
While Kayvon Thibodeaux may be “the greatest edge rusher in U of O history,” it is men like Kevin Moen and countless other truly great men with whom I shared my experiences on a small Oregon college gridiron, that redefine greatness for me.
Yes. It was a different time. We played at a time when college tuition, dorm room and food at OCE (Oregon College of Education, now Western Oregon University), was less than $2,000 a year. Scholarships were all but non-existent, and based on need, not athletic talent. In short, the young men who played sports at OCE, did so for the love of the game. During my time there, our team was peppered with small-college all Americans, almost all of whom came from small towns across the state of Oregon. I chose OCE, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that my father played under the same head coach as I did, Bill McArthur.
That is not a typo. McArthur, after his pro football career was cut short by a devastating leg injury that resulted in amputation, became the head coach of the Oregon College Wolves in 1947, and coached with only a couple of years off while he expanded his masters and doctorate degrees, through 1982. During his tenure, the team was rarely out of the top two teams in the conference, with two appearances at the in NAIA national bowl games. (see WIKI article here) But even more important, is the extensive list of teachers, coaches (high school, college, and NFL), that came out of this program.
And to the best of my knowledge, not a single player left early for the NFL, or had their own crypto-currency.
Instead, men like Kevin Moen went on to be teachers, coaches and mentors in the communities they served. Kevin Moen was a “veteran” when I arrived, playing alongside another OCE great, running back Doug Trice. There is a reason that men like Kevin Moen, Doug Trice, and countless other OCE athlete graduates were mourned by entire communities upon their passing. (See Trice Article Here)
There is a reason that men like these, and my own father (who played at OCE and then taught and coached from more than 30 years in the Parkrose school district), had countless dedications and memorials written about how they changed player’s and student’s lives. Outcomes of influence that were incalculable, in the way goodness can explode from a single point of light to brighten untold lives around them. These men touched lives, who in generations that followed, touched others, who will go on to touch others.
Their compensation for playing the game they loved? Satisfaction.
I realize that Kayvon has great plans for his future wealth. He’s talked about “giving back,” and that his college experience was “just a steppingstone” toward who he hopes to become. But, I question someone who played for himself, for the hype, for the brand, rather than for the team, and the school that gave him those opportunities.
Men like Kevin Moen, who mentored thousands of young men in several small town high school programs, or Doug Trice, the All American running back whose heart was ten times his diminutive 150 lb. size, who spent a lifetime leading and mentoring kids for “Special Olympics,” redefine what it means to be great through a lifetime of giving back.
Kevin was a consummate Oregon Duck fan. I regret that cancer took him away before I had a chance to talk to him about his impressions of the “new version of amateur athlete” that was created with the new NCAA rules. But, knowing Kevin, I’m sure he would have ben gracious about it.
I long for a time when coaches stick with a program (and a school sticks with a coach) for more than a losing season or two. Yes, college sports is “big time” now, with coaching salaries that rival entire school budgets from my era. Unfortunately, with it comes the huge disconnect between the actual academic goals as a university, and the need by boosters to attain a National Championship…morals and common sense, be damned.
I wish Kayvon the best in his endeavors. I understand that Phil Knight is a businessman with an eye toward the future, and the goal to help athletes “get their due.” But as we have already witnessed, in doing so, we have lost the original ideals of amateur college athletics. An era of men who played a game for a school, which gave them an opportunity to earn a college degree, along with important life lessons of team work, personal growth, and the ability to overcome hardship through hard work. These ideals have been cast aside for immediate “wealth.”
What we gain in fame, notoriety, and treasure, can’t begin to offset the loss in character and sense of community that was part of college athletics in the past.
So, yes…another series of coaching changes, along with a “team” composed by “renting the best sub-contract players and coaches” that the NIL/Open Transfer protocol will provide. Will anyone remember these kids by what they accomplish in their lives after their run at the NFL? I hope so. But, it’s doubtful.
While the exceptions exist (Justin Herbert being a true scholar athlete as an example), they will be the rarity in the new era. We are now rooting for a brand. A tribe who now worships at the alter of the “maybe this year,” while booing our players, and demanding a National Championship.
We’ll see where all of this goes. But, this former small college football player, turned Duck Fan by geographic proxy (I live in Eugene), recognizes the “lesser than” that comes with this new breed of “great player.” And, I wouldn’t trade all of the “$JREAM” in the world, for the experiences and friendships forged at a small college in Monmouth, Oregon…with great men like Kevin Moen and Doug Trice.