Lieberman: Ramped-up recruiting process will have ripple effect on Oregon football

LaMichael James dutifully served Oregon football for three historic seasons. His accomplishments on the field are well documented: Doak Walker Award winner, two-time first-team All-American, the program’s all-time leading rusher. But what made him an essential part of the Ducks’ fabric had always extended beyond the gridiron. @@[email protected]@

Off the field, James was an infallible ambassador for the entire athletic department, displaying a modest and articulate personality that made him instantly likeable. This past November, when James conducted a postgame press conference after sustaining a gruesome dislocated elbow, it was as if he couldn’t suppress a smile. In terms of maturity, this guy was off the charts.

Part of the reason that James’ public image remained so unscathed — at least for the last two seasons — was because it was meticulously controlled. Outside of games, James’ availability to the media was scarce. He was open to interviews only one day per week for less than 20 minutes. Outside of that time, he was largely left out of the public eye.

In the past few weeks, that’s all begun to change. As James makes a strong push to be picked on the first day of the NFL draft in June, he’s begun to pull back the curtain. The first and most striking move was the creation of a Twitter account (@LaMichaelJames for those out of the know). Suddenly, the state’s most famous athlete was broadcasting personal thoughts and interacting with fans on an hourly basis.

Subsequently, James signed a contract with a marketing firm to further disseminate his brand. Suddenly, one of the most selfless athletes I’ve encountered was becoming a very public, very marketable force. @@[email protected]@

And you know what? I’m completely OK with that. In fact, that’s the way it should be done.

Why? Because James is on the verge of becoming a professional athlete. He’s looking to fully exploit his potential earning power, which is practical when you consider that the average running back lasts less than a handful of years in the pros before being sidelined due to injury or ineffectiveness.

As a future multimillionaire, it seems fair that James is required to sustain a long-term, intimate relationship with the clamor we call sports media. He is 22 years old — mature enough to understand the responsibilities required to maintain a manicured public persona.

When I compare James’ path to the media circus facing high school football stars in the current day, I see a stark and saddening difference. Big-time recruits are now available 24 hours a day via social media, interacting with fans and foes alike. On message boards and Twitter, anonymous 18-year-olds are constantly criticized by dissenting fans for their fleeting allegiances. While a five-star stud recruit may physically appear like a fully mature man, he’s not. Considering that these young men receive only a scholarship in return for their troubles, the burden placed upon them is simply unjustified.

Until recent times, the good news for Ducks fans was that their program had largely avoided the hoopla. Under Mike Bellotti and Chip Kelly, the program had largely overachieved with a series of recruiting classes that garnered middling ratings from pundits. Only a handful of those players were truly under the media spotlight.

Lache Seastrunk changed all that in 2010. From his mucky recruitment until the day he transferred, Seastrunk was a lightning bolt — mostly for the wrong reasons. For Oregon fans living in the dark, evidence alleging shady dealings between Kelly and Willie Lyles shattered a false sense of calm around the program.

In 2012, it’s official: Oregon is now running with the big dogs. After one high-profile recruit joined the Ducks last season (De’Anthony Thomas), Arik Armstead has pledged to come to Eugene next year. This year’s class appears to be headed for a top 25 ranking in most publications.

In the coming years, Ducks fans should continue to reap the awards of heavy recruiting by Chip Kelly and his assistants. But they should also be ready to accept the drawbacks that come along with it. The relationship between the athletic department and University at large will continue to fracture, and players and coaches will frequently find themselves in the public crosshairs more often.

After all, running with the big dogs can be an unpleasant experience. If you don’t closely monitor your next move, you might step into something that doesn’t quite smell right.

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