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What Have You Done, A.J. Barker?


Legitimate gripes are nullified by their ill-advised reckoning.

@BreakTheHuddle

Sunday night, Minnesota sportswriters and media types settled in for a quiet evening. The Vikings were on a bye, the Timberwolves were in the middle of four days off, the Wild were locked out, and the Twins were not yet active in baseball’s hot stove.

Then, A.J. Barker happened.

A.J. Barker was the leading wide receiver for the Gophers’ football team, tallying 30 catches for 577 yards and 7 touchdowns in 8 games before getting injured against Purdue on October 27th. He accumulated those lofty statistics despite the fact that the disappointing Marqueis Gray and the mediocre Max Shortell were under center for 6 of his 8 contests. In other words, he was good.

He was good, past tense, because Sunday afternoon he quit the team.

He made the announcement via Twitter.

Which linked to something he wrote on Tumblr.

That “something” on Tumblr (think of it as a blog, all you un-tech-savvy folks) was a 4,000+ word… um, statement. It was titled “A Letter to Jerry Kill, Why I Quit.” I called it a “statement” because classifying it reveals a lot about what you think of Barker – some called it a “manifesto”, others a “diatribe”, still others a “scathing goodbye letter,” and finally, just “a letter.” You can read it for yourself here, if you care to do so.[i]

In summary: the statement alleges that Jerry Kill, the Gophers head coach, berated Barker in front of his teammates, made unflattering statements about Mr. Barker, questioned his commitment to the program, and followed public scorn and humiliation with an attempt at private reconciliation. In the statement, Barker calls Kill a variety of names, including “liar”, “manipulator”, and “intimidator.”

To his credit, Kill has handled the whole thing perfectly… though he probably deserves some blame for failing to know how to manage his most potent offensive weapon.

A few juicier details were also tossed in, but hardly elaborated upon: that one of the Minnesota assistant coaches called Barker a gay slur, that Jerry Kill had questioned Barker’s upbringing, and that the head coach used the fact that Barker was not a scholarship player as a stick rather than a carrot in his attempt to control the wide receiver. The disagreements stemmed, in large part, to the mis-diagnosis of a high ankle sprain and the differences of opinion between Barker, the training staff and coach Kill regarding how it should be treated.

So Barker quit. Once the shock of the news itself, and the brazen manner in which it was disseminated, wore off, instant analysis set in. It was an interesting evening to be on Twitter – general reaction was mixed, but a small majority seemed to agree that Barker’s handling of the whole situation was rather poor.

As for me, well, I’m not that smart. I don’t process things that quickly. I had no damn clue what to think. See, this story is about as nuanced as it gets in athletics –  scholarship/ financial concerns, health issues, new age sensitivities colliding with old school proclivities, social media…  there are a multitude of angles to consider in this case.

One thing I know for certain: it’s more complex than the simple certitudes of “A.J. Barker is a whiny crybaby” and “Jerry Kill is an outdated tyrant.” Those opposing viewpoints are easy to process, but belie the many facets at work. If you come down definitively on one side or the other – don’t sell yourself short. There’s a lot to learn by carefully examining all aspects of this episode.

To highlight a few:

 

Scholarships

“My father is proud to pay my tuition,” Barker writes approximately 3,000 words into his 4,147 (I checked) word statement. “I’m not looking for a hand out.” Some of the criticism of Barker centers on whether or not he deserved a scholarship. Superficially, it seems obvious – of course Barker deserved one. But since scholarships must be awarded no later than the first day of classes in a given semester, and as of that time, Barker had played in a grand total of 7 games (catching 4 passes) in two-plus seasons of eligibility, it’s understandable why he wasn’t.

1500 ESPN’s Phil Mackey was sharply critical of Barker, but his most biting critique was that Barker came across as “entitled” to a scholarship. It’s a fair enough point to make, but fails to take into account the strange world of collegiate athletics, and especially college football. Coaches at power conference schools such as Minnesota are millionaires, in charge of 115 players, 85 of whom are scholarship athletes. Among the 30 ‘walk-ons’ can be some valuable players to the program, who typically end up earning scholarships if they are productive enough.

Essentially, a millionaire can determine if a kid gets his tuition paid, or if he does not. And the millionaire is then able to use said power as a carrot, or a stick, in order to coax the best out of the player in question. Where else does a relationship as slanted as that one exist except for Division 1 college football?

Not that A.J. Barker was particularly sympathetic in this regard, either; his father paid his tuition. But perhaps the “scholarship” question was a matter of pride. If you were much better at your job than your peers, you would hope to be compensated equitably, no? And if you weren’t, you could exercise your right to leave and pursue other opportunities, yes? Barker was one of the best Gopher football players this season. College football is business – it’s the justification that’s used every time a coach weasels his way from one job to a slightly better one. Barker had a card to play – as a non-scholarship athlete, he can transfer and begin play next fall, without sitting out a year. He treated it like a business, too.

 

Evolving attitudes towards injuries

Jerry Kill attended Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas, playing football there from 1979-1982. He began his career as a head coach in 1994 at Saginaw Valley State, working his way up through the coaching ranks at Emporia State, Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois before being hired at the University of Minnesota in December, 2010.

Forged in the brand of football played in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Kill has undoubtedly had to modify the tactics used on him when he was still in pads and a helmet. It’s a reality just about every football coach has had to deal with. No longer are water breaks a reward for a practice running smoothly, and players don’t get sent back on to the field after they get their “bell rung.” Neurological specialists and top-rate training staffs are present at every practice and game.

Another big loser in all this? Brevity. Barker’s 4,000 words has prompted a 2,000 word response from me. Oy, vey…

This incident is hardly a watershed moment in the evolution of football players, coaches and injury concerns, but again calls into mind certain ethical dilemmas. But as a non-scholarship athlete, doesn’t Barker have the right to seek his own treatment for sports-related injuries, if he so chooses? Perhaps utilizing and implicitly trusting the training staff is a written (or obvious unwritten) rule of collegiate sports programs; if so, is that right? Barker assumes risk by playing football, of course, but since the University has nothing invested in him, why should he be made to trust their medical staff?

Personally, my impression of Barker regarding his injury was this: he’s neurotic. He spends a great deal of time outlining the circumstances around the ankle sprain and the ‘bungled’ handling of it – but it hardly seems like something to quit the program over. His issue with Jerry Kill, who (Barker alleges) was trying to hurry him back, and was critical of the player because he wasn’t healthy yet, is also noteworthy. Should coaches have the right to behave in such a manner? I’m not arguing one way or the other. It’s a thought exercise I’m not smart enough to do. I just like to ask questions.

 

Social media

I didn’t have a problem with Barker making the decision to take his gripes to the public domain – but every decision he’s made since has been a bad one, starting with how he chose to do so. Apparently, a 4,000+ word statement wasn’t enough to explain himself fully. A day later, Barker spent over an hour speaking with two different shows on 1500 ESPN (Darren Wolfson and Joe Schmidt at 10, Patrick Reusse and Phil Mackey at 12:15). He also did an interview for Kare 11 News.

Contrast this with the case of Marquess Wilson. Eight days before Barker quit the Gophers, Wilson quit the Washington State football team. His method? A 377 word statement, which he let stand on its own. In it, he accuses coach Mike Leach and the rest of his staff of “physical, emotional and verbal abuse.” A second team All Pac-12 receiver in 2011, Wilson’s departure was sudden, swift and surprising… and handled perfectly. He said his piece, and then faded into the background, not wanting 15 minutes of fame or the attention from local media members.

Barker claims it was necessary for him to be a visible figure in order to bring Kill’s transgressions to light, and to prove that he wasn’t “the problem.” It can be argued his approach did him more harm than good. Few people really buy into all of the accusations, and Barker’s been vilified as a “quitter” or a “crybaby” by many in the sports-loving public. He also indicated he didn’t want to harm his teammates, and yet he published a letter sure to be used as a negative recruiting tool for Coach Kill for the rest of his time in Minnesota, thereby inhibiting their ability to win.

Also a problem for the 18-21 year old me? Paintball guns.

I guess I shouldn’t really have expected him to handle it perfectly. Barker is 21 years old – I wouldn’t trust the 21 year old version of myself with so much as a slingshot, let alone the talent to be a Division 1 football star with the attention it attracts. Anyone blasting Barker without first taking into account their own youthful misdeeds is being a bit disingenuous.

At the same time, I can’t help but resent A.J. Barker a little bit. For many, he’s come to symbolize the latest generation of young adults, of which I (a 25 year old) am a member. We are viewed, I believe, as lazy, entitled, know it all brats, eager to document every second of our lives and throwaway thought on the internet. I’m sure his actions Sunday buffered that viewpoint among our detractors a great deal.

Social media is a great way to speak out about passions, creativity, and issues that affect you; but there’s a proper place for it. This matter should have been handled in private, in a meeting with Coach Kill and his superiors. Barker should’ve brought in his parents as back up, rather than citing his mom’s friend as a source in his Tumblr rant.

It is sometimes best to suffer slights and injustices in quiet dignity – not everything needs to be broadcast to the world. And a misdiagnosed ankle sprain (and a football player getting yelled at) are hardly injustices. It isn’t important what “people” think of A.J. Barker. “People” don’t need to know every detail. To let your life be an open book cheapens the experience, somehow. Barker’s disdain for Kill would’ve gone on record with the people who matter (Norwood Teague, and others in the athletic department) just as effectively if Barker had taken it to them first, and decided to quit anyway. The method he chose to take for venting his frustrations obfuscates the subtleties involved – which is sad, because there’s much more depth to this story than how it’s being treated.

Instead, what he’s got is a digital footprint of one of the most bizarre “I quit” notes ever written, notoriety in his hometown, and no place to play football next season (yet). I hope, for his sake, that this doesn’t define his life in any meaningful way. But I guess that’s the wages of being a Divison 1 athlete – due to our obsession with sports, and the availability of all forms of media, you never know what will end up sticking to you.

Here’s to hoping he moves on from this – and that we all learn a little something from it. But I am afraid people will always remember the means of how, and not the reasons why, Barker decided to quit.

 

BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!


[i] WARNING: SEVERE, PRECOCIOUS AND AWKWARD POST-TEEN ANGST TO FOLLOW: http://ajbarker82.tumblr.com/

 

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