For former Oregon student-athletes, a little recognition and respect is all they ask

Doing this weekly column for has been a great pleasure for me, not only being able to relive many great moments from Oregon sports past but also to interact directly with the student-athletes I idolized while growing up in Eugene, hearing their personal stories, all the great tales on the record and a few off the record as well.  For all that I have quoted in these stories, there have been many more I have interviewed about their days as Ducks.  They speak often of the family atmosphere, the great love the community had for the program, the terrific coaches they had, and the friendships they formed they will hold sacred for the rest of their lives.

But something else has come up, a common theme, a troubling one, and with the Rose Bowl pending one that seemed justified to write about.  For as much love and pride former players may have for the school, there is also a slight bitterness, a sense of disdain, a feeling of a lack of respect from the University of Oregon for their efforts when they donned the green & yellow.

As this can be a sensitive topic dealing with disagreements over University of Oregon policy, I do not wish to burn any bridges nor cause problems for any individuals for their candid and honest answers, therefore all quotes shall be anonymous, except where specifically noted.  But after speaking to so many former athletes, some still praised for their efforts and some long forgotten, please know that this is a very common theme in many conversations I have had with former Duck athletes, one that troubles me greatly and that I hope will change soon.

Oregon is innovative in every way, the prime example of a 21st century program.  Flashy uniforms, flashy play, state of the art facilities, next-gen marketing.  Everything about it is forward-thinking, but in that has emerged an underlying issue.  For all that is done to live in the present, to win the day while also focusing on the bright future at the University of Oregon, a large contingent of former student-athletes feel somewhat slighted and forgotten, that there is a willful disregard for the past that established the foundation the program now builds upon.

In conversations I have had with former student-athletes the same story would come up, a sense of feeling disrespected, slighted, ignored by the athletic program.  Former student-athletes bear all the physical scars of their time at Oregon for a lifetime, for many the aches and pains and surgeries resulting from the wreck-less nature of football will never go away.  Broken bones, torn ligaments; the medical staff at Oregon does a remarkable job of reassembling the human bodies that inevitably break down in this brutal sport, but the hurt lingers long after the crowds dissipate and their on-field glories fade into distant memory.

We may perceive modern collegiate athletes as being pampered, with state-of-the-art facilities and scholarships being more than enough payment for the sacrifice of themselves to the glory and entertainment of gridiron battle.  But what about after they take off the uniform for the last time, graduate, and move on with their lives?  A select few get a shot at continuing to play in the professional ranks, others pursue coaching opportunities, and for many it is the last time they ever participate in organized sports.  It is at this point that the crowds stop cheering for them, instead they transition into becoming just another face in the crowd that cheers on the next generation of Ducks.  But do they deserve more than simply to assimilate, to change from player to fan?  Should they be recognized and honored for their past efforts?

For their time spent fighting and bleeding as Ducks, they don’t ask for the world in return.  All they want is a little respect and recognition for their efforts, and a small token of appreciation.  They want to at least be afforded the opportunity to purchase tickets without having to make a massive donation to the Duck Athletic Fund first like the average fan, the opportunity to speak to the team before a game if deemed appropriate, to be able to stand on the sidelines during a game, to have their annual alumni gathering during a game that generates a sense of history and rivalry like Washington or the Civil War, not Portland State or Nevada or Utah State.

Of course not all are treated with the cold shoulder.  If your name is Joey Harrington or Akili Smith or Ahmad Rashad, expect to be treated like royalty.  So too are the elder alumnus now of retirement age or well past it, who are sitting on a large bank account capable of making big donations, they will receive the full red carpet treatment.  But what of those who played in the 80s, the 90s, or recent years?  Even some who went on to great memorable careers at the next level feel somewhat slighted upon their return to Eugene.

“After we’ve graduated and been away a few years we don’t want handouts, but we want at least a little recognition for our efforts that we played there and to be treated at least a little better than the regular person,” said a prominent former player.  “We want fair treatment of a program that has a history and honors it.  I don’t want tickets handed out for free, but I would like at least the chance to buy them without being forced to make a big donation to the DAF just to have the opportunity to do so.”

Kenny Wheaton was elected into the Oregon Hall of Fame this season during halftime of the WSU game

I was surprised when recently speaking to a former player who keeps in contact with a Duck legend, Kenny Wheaton, who was elected into the Oregon Hall of Fame at halftime of this year’s Washington State game back in October.  He told me that when Kenny came to Eugene they had a banquet the night before the game honoring all the inductees, and the ceremony on the field at halftime.  That was it.  Kenny wasn’t asked to meet with anyone, wasn’t asked to speak to the team, wasn’t afforded special privileges that would seem logically befitting of someone being honored with a hall of fame inauguration that day.  Kenny would never complain about such things as it is not his nature, but for the player I spoke with about the events they did find it rather odd that for somebody whose greatest play is permanently etched into Autzen Stadium lore and replayed before the start of every game, why the man so many deem responsible for the watershed moment in Duck history would receive less than stellar treatment.

*It should be noted that I did not speak with Kenny Wheaton directly for this article, and therefore cannot 100% confirm nor deny these claims.

“If I return to Eugene, I wait in line for a chance to buy a ticket like everybody else, I don’t get anything,” said one very prominent player from the 1990s, whose highlights are still celebrated by Oregon fans to this day.

The history of Oregon athletics is fascinating; in its many glories, its failures and unique stories, both overcoming adversity and achieving success, and woeful defeats.  It is an odd contrast to think that there was once a time when Oregon athletics, in particular football, was such an embarrassment that there were discussions about Oregon being kicked out of the Pacific-8 conference as it was apparent the program could not be competitive.

Look at it now, University of Oregon athletics are the mythical shining city on a hill, the gem of the Pac-12 conference and one of the premiere programs in the country with facilities and a passionate fan base and support structure that are the envy of the entire nation.  Facilities that once were falling apart and half-empty have now been replaced, improved, or otherwise swooshed-out and now enjoy stands packed with passionate fans, the luxuries of Oregon athletics broadcast across the nation to potential recruits eager to experience the lavish life of a Duck for themselves.

Student athletes today work hard for what they earn on the field, but also benefit from world-class facilities and support systems to help them succeed.  It was not that long ago though that Oregon’s dingy locker room underneath the Autzen Stadium stands had nothing but 3 hooks and a wood plank for each player, the practice rooms were the cold, windy tunnel under Autzen or basement storage closets in Mac Court.  There was a time that Hayward Field was falling apart, and you don’t even want to hear the stories from the staff that performed miracles to maintain Mac Court in working condition, keeping that grand old building in presentable shape until the completion of Matt Knight Arena.

The transformation of the Oregon program to what it is now didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t 100% the result of Nike money as much as outside fans and the media would like to think so.  There was a time before Oregon was contending in BCS games every year, before the two Lukes led the Ducks to the elite 8, before Galen Rupp and Ashton Eaton seemingly broke about every track & field record imaginable.  The revitalization of the campus wasn’t entirely the result of Nike donations, it was because of the efforts given by the student-athletes to overcome adversity that led to the restorations, the construction, the establishment of the modern UO as we know it.

In particular the 1994 football team can be looked upon as a watershed time in the school’s history, the unlikely success that team created in turn generated millions for the university, sparked interest in improving the athletics.  It was through athletic success that a trickle-down effect began improving the campus and putting the sleepy town of Eugene and state of Oregon on the map.  For that, they simply ask for a little recognition.

One player from the 1994 Oregon football team that did so much to change the University of Oregon and the city of Eugene told me this: “We felt like we set the tone, like we put Eugene on the map.  We were treated well by people, but we’d like a little recognition.  We feel that we should be taken care of for our efforts.  Why can’t we get on the sidelines?  If I travel to Eugene I feel like I should get a little recognition.  We helped put money into the program.  Let us get into the Mo at least, we should have some type of clout, something needs to be done to open up the sidelines for former players.  We see other universities do this, why doesn’t Oregon?”

The success the Ducks have now was built on the effort of past student-athletes.  Steve Prefontaine, Kenny Wheaton, Bill Musgrave, Terrell Brandon, Ronnie Lee, Dan Fouts.  The list goes on and on of greats who have performed at elite levels in an Oregon uniform and left Eugene better for their efforts.  And there were many teammates that helped to make their achievements feasible.  It is those alumni, the former student-athletes, who carry on the Oregon torch with immense pride in their post-college lives, but beneath the joy of seeing Oregon attain national headlines and post-season accolades, there is a slight bitterness with the way many former student-athletes feel that Oregon’s past is being ignored, that there is a lack of respect for those who paved the way.

Whether intentional or not, there seems to be a culture of ignorance at Oregon for the history of the program.  Always moving forward, looking towards the next season, the next uniform combination, the next facility to be added on.  Lacking in that conversation is an open embrace of the past, a recognition of the efforts of those whose past glories set the tone.  The former players I speak to are troubled that the current student-athletes are taught very little if anything about the program’s history, that many of the recognizable names and faces to fans are oblivious to the current athletes.

“The school these days works so hard to create a positive atmosphere for recruiting,” one former player told me.  “Sure the games are great, the coaches are awesome, Duck fans are the best.  But what happens if a recruit approaches me, everybody’s online these days, and asks me how would Oregon treat them once their playing days are over?  What do I tell them?  I love Oregon, but I don’t think they’d like to hear what I have to say, and if a recruit is smart and speaks to multiple alumni and hears the same thing maybe they’ll think twice about coming to Oregon.”

Another issue is the annual alumni gathering.  The Casanova Center has a department dedicated towards catering to alumnus, headed by Jeff Eberhart and former Oregon athlete and longtime coach Joe Schaffeld.  Both do a magnificent job of keeping in contact with former student-athletes, and every year spend countless hours completing the many steps necessary to coordinate a large football reunion at one game held at Autzen Stadium.

The annual football alumni gathering held before this year's Nevada game

I was privileged and honored to be invited to attend this year’s reunion, which took place at the Nevada game, a blowout on a scorching hot day.  These events are great, a chance to meet up with old teammates and share stories, and be on the field when the team storms out of the tunnel.  But every year it seems to be held on the worst game of the season, the filler out-of-conference game when tickets are being handed out at rock-bottom prices; Portland State, or Utah State, or Nevada, or some other patsy.  In speaking with former athletes this bothers them as well.  Sure it’s great to go to a game, but to do so for one where the outcome is very predictable to be somewhere around a 40-50 point assured victory, to the former athletes it seems a waste of their presence.  They could help spark a little more emotion in a meaningful game, one against a difficult opponent or help bring an added sense of tradition, history, and rivalry to a bitter battle against the Huskies or Beavers.  But those tickets are highly sought-after, so instead they are invited to attend a game where finding a ticket will be easy.

There are of course logistical issues to accommodating this common-sense gesture.  Can a potential increase in ticket demand be feasibly possible?  Oregon tickets are on average the most expensive single ticket to purchase in the whole country.  Why?  Simple supply vs. demand.  The stadium seats 54,000 fans, they manage to shoe-horn in nearly 60,000 for every contest, and of those there are another 20,000+ who would attend if only they thought it possible to actually get a ticket.  The demand and scarcity of tickets available inflates costs, and hence Oregon fans have become accustomed to paying hundreds of dollars to attend single games.  What might happen to ticket costs if several hundred more tickets went off the market and offered up to former players first?

Temporary towers erected on the north rim of Autzen Stadium

Efforts have been made to increase the overall capacity, temporary towers were erected along the north rim of Autzen Stadium this season to house more seats, but these offset standing-room-only ticket allotments negating an increase in overall capacity.  Hundreds also pack the Mo Center during games to indulge in what the school likes to call “the world’s largest indoor tailgate party,” and this seems the likeliest of options to present to former players, free admission to the Mo to enjoy the gameday atmosphere…at least until expansion of Autzen Stadium begins with a reconstruction of the north rim.

After hearing these common complaints so often from former players, I brought it up in a conversation with my business partner, Charles Fischer a.k.a. FishDuck.  Since Charles has been a season ticket holder for years, I was curious…as somebody who donates to the DAF for the right to purchase season tickets, do you think former players should be granted the opportunity to purchase tickets ahead of fans?  “ABSOLUTELY!” Charles responded, “Me spending cash and sitting in the stands year after year doesn’t measure against the sacrifice those guys have given up, they deserve first pick.”  I agreed.  And so I asked a few others who are season ticket holders or often attend games.  I asked current students who fight for the right to get student tickets.  Everyone that I spoke to shared the same general sentiment as Charles.  Former players need to be honored, and the smallest token of appreciation that could be showed for their efforts, the very least we could do, is to let them cut in line, acknowledge their efforts by granting free access to the Mo, granting them the opportunity to be eligible for tickets without a mandatory donation to the DAF.  They’ve given enough, they don’t need to donate more.

All they ask for is a little respect, and recognition.

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