Xavier player comments reopens debate on athlete free speech

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Because of Saturday’s Xavier-Cincinnati brawl, and the subsequent PR disaster that ensued when Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons took to the podium for the post-game press conference, there has been a renewal in the conversation over free speech and the college athlete.

Critics condemned Holloway and Lyons, and rightfully so, for their words, but the question ultimately comes back to the administration.

What the unfortunate post-game press conference shows is the lack of education, whether a last-minute briefing before the players took the microphone or an organized, concerted effort to teach media skills, or both, on Xavier’s part.

The result was a series of sound bites that, contextualized or not, associated “thug,” “gangster,” and “zip ‘em up” with the eighth-ranked team in the country.

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And though Mick Cronin and Cincinnati won the public relations game that day by restricting their players from comment, they are not above the blame.

An alarming trend is developing in this age of new, more accessible digital media and conventional wisdom is backwards and paradoxical. The restriction of freedoms supposedly translates into a development of maturity, when handling those freedoms in a public forum.

Cases have emerged where players have mishandled Twitter and other outlets, notably Josh Smith calling Loyola Marymount players “bums” and Mississippi State’s Ravern Johnson going off on head coach Rick Stansbury about his role on the team.

Both instances have drawn criticism, including the suggestion that schools ban athletes from Twitter all together, which Stansbury did, in the wake of the Johnson incident.

And that has been the prevailing sentiment.

If a player can’t use the outlet correctly, ban the whole team from it. Some schools have done it preemptively, in an attempt to stop problems before they happen.

Schools are within their right to do so, but the question remains: should they? And why has there not been some sort of dissenting opinion, in favor of the players?

Mick Cronin was correct in a press conference on Saturday, saying that few of his players, and few in the NCAA as a whole, “are ever going to make a dollar playing basketball.”

With that in mind, will any other profession coddle and protect these athletes in the real world? Will another boss spend his time making sure his employees are in line on social networks?

No. If you mess up, you get the boot, and that’s that. Rules are clearly outlined from the beginning and, if broken, have consequences.

And for those chosen few who will play professionally, mishandling of social media and public image immediately cuts away at marketability, when it comes to endorsements and sponsorships.

On the other hand, an athlete who can not only handle social media, but excel in exploiting its benefits, can become an even more marketable figure.

The operating principle of the First Amendment, dating back to its earliest form, was the idea that the government could not practice “prior restraint.” The government could not keep one from publishing something, but certain words are not immune to prosecution, once published.

In the late 18th century, words that were “false, scandalous, [or] malicious” toward the government were liable for punishment.

Why don’t schools operate on a similar principle with their players?

A concerted effort at education, rather than prohibition, would help to develop valuable skills for their athletes that, in the end, appear to be a better public relations move than sweeping restrictions.

There, programs should draw distinctions between proper and improper use of social media, teaching how to handle digital media criticism, and growing a personal brand, all part of an education that takes place outside of the traditional college classroom.

The NCAA says, as part of its core purpose, “to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”

“Higher education” is as much about what is learned in the classroom as what is learned through the experiences that only college can offer. Athletic programs often rally around the idea that they turn young men into grown adults, but how does limiting public, free speech move in that direction?

Coaches say they recruit players based on both character and skill. Those who don’t say it aloud wouldn’t dare publicly say they could care less about a player’s character.

But the irony is that limiting a player’s free speech through Twitter is ultimately showing a distrust in the player’s character, which was, supposedly, important in the recruitment of that young man.

And assuming that a small detail like freedom to use Twitter won’t shift a recruit’s view of a school in the future is to overlook the trends of the NCAA.

Athletes are already prohibited from profiting directly from their skill, cannot sign endorsement deals, and are subjected to schedules that, many times, cut into family time, especially around the holidays.

Now they’re asking to hand over free speech?

Opponents will point to the way in which many young people use Twitter, usually for chatter amongst friends, reporting of mundane daily activities, etc. Who cares if players can do that? Why don’t they just text?

But speech is speech.

The aim of protecting it is not necessarily so Player A can tell a friend his half-thought-out, 140-character review of the latest television show.

Instead, it is for players like North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall and Missouri’s Kim English, who have shown their personality through their tweets, building their personal brand and showing their maturity in handling such a platform.

I am 20-yearsold. I’m six days younger than Kendall Marshall. Take a look through my Twitter feed. Would any college coach throw me off a team for what I’ve said?

You cannot punish the many for actions of the few. Prohibition is the easy way out.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.