Beyond KU and perhaps WSU basketball, little about college sports in Kansas makes economic sense, but almost nothing in Kansas JUCO sports does. Scratch the “almost.” Two years ago, JUCO presidents in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference voted unanimously to eliminate out-of-state roster restrictions for their football teams.
For in-state students, the result has been drastic. A study by The Wichita Eagle shows an 80 percent decline in the total number of Kansas football players in the conference in just two years. In real numbers, 318 Kansans played JUCO football in 2016, and 64 played this season.
Those curious about seeing the real life effects of this change might tune in to the third season of the excellent documentary series “Last Chance U” on Netflix. The show shines its impressively dispassionate on the 2017 season of the football program of Independence Community College (ICC) in southeast Kansas.
Thanks to the elimination of the out-of-state quota, the ICC Pirates made a bold hire two years ago and brought Jason Brown to campus. Admittedly a better recruiter than coach, Brown, as he tells it, lured 32 serious football players to campus last year alone.
Brown, a “white dude” straight out Compton, literally, describes his players as “broken.” Many of them, some extremely talented, had been bounced from other colleges and community colleges before resigning themselves grumpily to Independence, their “last chance” at securing future admission to a Division I university and, ideally, the NFL beyond.
In the eight one-hour segments of this remarkably candid series, not a single player expressed the slightest interest in getting an education. Many griped that they were more or less expected to. Brown’s primary concern was not so much making the players smarter as keeping them eligible. Many, if not most, would be gone from Independence after a single season.
Arguably the best sports documentary series ever produced, “Last Chance U” refrains from commentary and allow its viewers to draw their own conclusions. Two questions a Kansas taxpayer might ask on watching this team in action are, ‘Who is paying for all this and why?’
As to the “why” the only real reason offered by Brown or school president Dan Barwick is that local residents, whom the producers treat with great respect, like sports for their entertainment value. A winning team, which Independence had not had for a generation, also fosters community spirit.
As to the “who pays” local taxes make up roughly 50 percent of the school’s revenue. If area residents paid the whole bill, one would not begrudge them their chosen entertainment. At Independence, however, the state provides roughly 20 percent of the college’s overhead. This is close to the norm statewide.
Independence is one of eight schools in the Jayhawk Conference. Thanks to the rule change, several of them were at least as competitive as Independence was in the 2017 season. In 2018, four of the conference teams finished with a national ranking, and three of them played in bowl games.
These schools spend a good deal of money on players, coaches, trainers, facilities, uniforms, insurance, transportation, academic assistance and the like. Although some of the larger schools may make up the cost in gate revenue, Independence clearly does not. With slightly more than a thousand students, the school is the smallest in the conference. There were plenty of empty seats even in the most crucial games.
Despite the fact that a great majority of the Independence players are black, the show is blessedly free of the media’s usual race obsession. The townspeople, virtually all white, at least one in an NRA hat, defy media stereotypes in their open embrace of the players.
The only jarring note in on the race front was the insinuation by President Barwick that the conference’s quota on out of state players was somehow racist. The quota had been a generous 20, more than the quota in many states right now.
Not surprisingly, Eagle reporter Taylor Eldridge pursues the race angle. He argues that the quota, which was instituted in 1962, “was actually rooted in discrimination against African-Americans.” That may have been so, but as even Barwick admitted, “That doesn’t mean that was why we were applying the roster limitations in 2010.” Still, said Barwick, in rationalizing the rule change, “I honestly don’t see how anyone could reasonably dispute the original motivation behind the roster limitations.”
On the ICC 2017 team, virtually all the players came from out of state. No player that the viewers got to know came from any place near Kansas. Hutchinson coach Rion Rhodes told the Eagle that 81 of his 84 players on his 2018 roster came from out-of-state.
The reason why is that Kansas is not a football state. The state’s high schools produced only four five-star recruits from 2010 to 2016 and not a single All-American during that time span. According to Bleacher Report, Kansas “is the lowest ranked among states with at least two qualifying players.”
If the state were awash in revenue, the open recruitment of out-of-state football mercenaries might justify itself for the entertainment value. If great sports programs attracted paying students, the program might justify itself on enrollment grounds. If a school like Independence actually fixed its broken players, administrators could pride themselves on their contribution to social justice. But none of the above apply.
“I definitely appreciate some things about the rule change, but overall I still don’t believe it’s the right thing for juco football in Kansas,” said Hutchinson coach Rhodes, who feels himself caught in the system.
“We’re Kansas community colleges. The four-year universities, those athletic departments are corporations. We’re funded by tax-payer money from our local counties. I just don’t think it’s right.”