Two events occurred this week that left Pac-12 football teams in the news for reasons that could not have been predicted just a month ago — two events that are linked because of the fact that they exemplify the birth of hope and how that very hope often burns out far too quickly.
On Monday, it was revealed that three Oregon players had been hospitalized late last week following strength and conditioning offseason workouts.
Of course, once the outrage reached a certain level of discomfort Tuesday, an apology was released and the team’s strength and conditioning coach was suspended without pay for a month.
In reports of the events, it is detailed how players were required to finish workouts, which many sources claimed were “akin to military basic training.” The workouts were most likely also new to the student athletes as the hiring of new strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde was only formally announced Jan. 11, replacing Jim Radcliffe, who had been with the Ducks for 32 years.
While it is unclear how exactly the players were identified as ill, it doesn’t appear to be a mystery how they got there. After time off of school during which players were left to maintain their own exercises, it is entirely unacceptable, no matter what a program is facing, to ignore acclimating athletes to a new regiment. These are student athletes who are being asked to perform in front of their peers and new coaches whom they are trying to impress.
Some Oregon players didn’t defend their teammates or offer perhaps a glimpse into what happened. Instead, many tweeted out that everything was an over exaggeration and that the workouts were nothing unusual. Creating a culture where players are going to be continually inclined to push away injury concerns in order to be perceived as tough is something that happens far too often in all different sports.
I get it, I’ve been watching football for as long as I can remember. That sort of masculinity is a massive part of the game. But it doesn’t have to be that way and it shouldn’t. Instead of standing up for teammates and offering support, student athletes are being developed in a culture where asking for help appears to be discouraged. And that’s just disappointing. Health should not be something that is ever worth jeopardizing, especially for amateur athletes, most of whom will pursue a career outside of sports.
On the same Tuesday when Oregon was issuing an apology, Cal was holding a press conference with all the usual pomp and circumstance that NCAA Division I schools reserve for new head coaches The Bears welcomed back Justin Wilcox, wearing the necessary blue and gold striped tie, with open arms.
The press conference was surely without drama or anything out of the ordinary, but included Wilcox stating that his goals include “leaving (student athletes) with a fulfilling experience.”
If a program has a leader capable of running things smoothly, the type of events that occurred at Oregon shouldn’t be happening. This is not a lesson the University of California or Cal Athletics needs. In addition to the many flaws that we could talk about all day regarding Sonny Dykes’ reign, the negligence shown that led to the death of Ted Agu will forever be a stain in the school’s past. The fact that it occurred in the offseason following Dykes’ first season, in which the team finished 1-11, shouldn’t be ignored.
These are separate cases, however, and should be viewed as such entirely. But ignoring the similarities seems far more dangerous than allowing the past to remain muddled and undiscussed.
Let what has just happened in Oregon be an example of what not to do for Wilcox and his staff that is preparing to take over the wreckage that has been left in the wake of Dykes.
Dykes was flawed for too many reasons, but now that we have the opportunity to look back at what occurred, perhaps his biggest shortcoming was simply as a leader. As it has been alluded to by Cal Athletics in multiple ways following his release, it doesn’t really seem like Dykes ever wanted to be here. The main selling point for Wilcox is that he is “Committed to Cal.” It’s the banner on the Cal Athletics website. And that’s great, but did Athletic Director Mike Williams really allow someone who is the leader of Cal’s biggest sport to stick around for four years, despite having little to no commitment to the school itself?
A need for someone to step in and right this ship has never been more pressing — a need for change. Cal football players found out about the Dykes firing on Twitter. Players who committed their futures to a coach and a program found out the same way as the fans. The players then voiced their support for offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who had only been at Cal for a year — also on Twitter. Spavital had been hired for his offensive success and ability to recruit. Now he’s gone to West Virginia and someone new is in.
Maybe if the players had gotten the chance to sit down with Williams and the alumni who made this decision and had an actual conversation, the direction of leadership would feel more comfortable, more concrete.
This lack of communication and cohesiveness is coming from a program that is continuing to reminisce about the Jeff Tedford days (as seen in the decision to bring back his linebackers coach) and a wish for the days when Memorial Stadium was new and exciting, not just a headache.
Cal football isn’t making appearances in any Championships in the foreseeable future. It most likely won’t beat Stanford or USC anytime soon, and that defense will take time to rebuild.
But let’s hope a new era will be brought in and Wilcox just maybe can serve as a true leader for a program that needs it more than ever. Otherwise the endless cycle will continue. And in about four years’ time, a new white male will be trotted out with a slightly altered blue and gold striped tie than the those of the two who wore it before him, offering up more promises he simply can’t keep.
Like Oregon has shown, a new head coach does not necessarily equate with things quickly improving. To prevent this, every decision should be foremost directed to ensuring the safety and success of the student athletes.