As you read this, try to imagine a growing throng of assorted media gathering outside the Moshofsky Center, bundled tightly against the rain and pacing slowly, waiting for Chip Kelly and Co. to emerge from the year’s first spring practice.
This is reality now, with spring practices now closed to the media and public. Time was that reporters and fans alike could linger on the sidelines or, weather permitting, in the bleachers next to the practice fields outside — watching and gathering what they could from the lather-rinse-repeat drills of football lore.
It’s easy to romanticize now, and quite honestly there was little of substance to gain from watching these drills. You could keep track of the ever-evolving depth chart, and chart the progress of early-enrollee freshmen, but from a journalistic standpoint it was more a chance to fill cyberspace with innocuous observations — coupled, as always, with ten syllable soundbites from Kelly.
More than anything else, the lack of spring access is just one more small barrier placed in front of us scribes. We’ll live. Ironically, it took a series of tweets from one LaMichael James to shed light on what’s really troubling about Kelly shutting his doors.
“Oregon fans should be allowed to watch Oregon spring practice,” James wrote. “I mean it’s not like they’re playing someone.”
And in a second burst: “It’s just good for the community for them to feel connected to the players especially little kids to meet some of the players.”
Predictably, James was re-tweeted over fifty times, further cementing that this is a sentiment shared by many in Eugene. That James — a firmly entrenched member of the program just months ago and presumably a devotee of all things Kelly — would be the one to voice this concern to 15,000-plus followers is particularly fascinating. Clearly, players like James understand how much they mean to certain members of the community, and that even so much as a handshake or autographed poster could be enough to make a kid’s day. To be denied this chance in the spring, when things are decidedly more relaxed and — as James noted — there are no opponents to ceaselessly prepare for, seems wholly unnecessary.
College athletics, to be clear, are no less cash driven or greed-enabling than professional sports. Any “purity” that they may have fostered once upon a time has been ruined by corrupt university presidents, leeching agents, widespread academic fraud and the stubborn refusal to pay players the royalties they deserve. Everywhere we turn, there’s another scandal brewing, one more axe driven into the NCAA’s toppling tree of credibility.
So let’s not pretend that Kelly is demolishing some grand tradition, that a part of Oregon football dies behind those closed doors at the Moshofsky Center. To really understand what makes this development truly unfortunate, you have to dig deep and remember what it was like to be a young fan.
The illusion fades with every passing year, but almost anyone can recall what it was like to be a starry-eyed 10-year-old at a baseball game, hoping their favorite player might throw them a ball, envying the ballboys at basketball games, lingering outside Autzen Stadium for the chance to stand toe-to-toe with an Oregon football player. You don’t stop to think about any of that troubling big-picture stuff — all you know is that these guys are the coolest people alive.
I used to see plenty of those looks at Oregon football practices, from little kids and adults alike. It was hard not to look at it with my increasingly cynical perspective, but the brief moments of interaction between players and fans post-practice was nonetheless heartening. No one ever denied an autograph or picture, and the wondrous smiles were plentiful.
That’s what Kelly is taking away here. You have to assume that fall camp will be exactly the same, and any real access to the team will be gone forever. It’s a relatively minor setback for journalists and older fans, but potentially devastating for a younger generation looking for heroes.
James articulated that perfectly, even if it’s too late for him or anyone else to change it.