Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Nostalgia on Christmas Eve

It's hard for my grandkids and even my kids to understand the Christmases before technology grew so insidious. But back home in Tennessee, Christmas almost always went down the same way for my younger brother and me. Seems only fitting to share those Tennessee traditions with those who've never had to experience them. 

Christmas Eve was an important day in our house. For one thing, my parents owned a farm store and that store was always open on Christmas Eve. Hand in hand with that, though, came the party. The Christmas party began when my mother, who was born in France and chock full of those traditions, decided to have some food as a thank you to our customers. Her father, a chef, had owned a restaurant before the Nazis killed him on their way out of occupied Paris, and he'd always celebrated Christmas Eve the same way in predominantly Catholic France. He put on an all-day party in his cafe, displaying his skills as a chef in gratitude for the people who patronized his business. During the years of occupation, he used that party--and the Nazis who attended it--as a way to smuggle both food and information to the French Underground, feeding hundreds of people who were desperately fighting against the Germans or fleeing them. 

In Tennessee, of course, we weren't fighting anyone. But starting in the late 1970s, the farming communities in the northwestern part of central Tennessee and southern Kentucky were struggling to survive under worsening economic conditions. So my mom came up with the idea of having some food available on the half-day we worked on Christmas Eve. She and I spent the night before baking and cooking. The spread we put out was unexpected--pate' and French salads, slow roasted prime rib and hams for sandwiches, crusty French breads, eclairs and croissants and creme du caramel and a sheet cake for those less adventurous in their dessert choices. And after that first year, the party blew up beyond our expectations. The spread got bigger every year. So did the crowd. Instead of taking one night to get everything ready, my mom and I would work for a week. Some of the farmers from the near-by Mennonite community would bring ducks or geese in the days before the party, and hundreds of people would show up every year. They'd talk about the party all year long too. There's a large number of farming families around Clarksville for whom chicken liver pate' is now an annual homemade tradition, because my mom was generous with the recipe. And even now, after my parents were divorced and ten years after my mom passed away, today in Clarksville, my dad threw his fortieth Christmas Eve party for his customers--a tradition for our family as well as theirs. 

But unlike every other day of the year, Christmas Eve we closed the store early. It'd be three o'clock by the time we got home after cleaning away the remains of the feast. Night would already have fallen as we drove from our house in St. Bethlehem to my grandmother's house in Oakwood. Highway 79 was two lanes from the bridge over the Red River all the way to Land Between the Lakes. Oakwood was the last bump in the road before you could leave Montgomery County for Stewart County. 

My grandparents lived in a modest ranch house on the family farm, a mile away from the small convenience store my grandfather had owned. My dad had eight brothers and sisters, six of whom lived in the area. On Christmas Eve, my grandparents' house was stuffed to the gills with Harrisons. All my aunts and uncles, all my cousins, and as I grew older all my cousins' spouses and kids crowded into the house. There were so many of us that we only got token gifts. But we weren't there to get presents. We were there to give presents to our grandparents, who'd slaved as small tobacco farmers during the Depression, who'd moved to the steel mills in Gary, Indiana during the war years, who'd come back and started over on the tobacco farm after that. In my dad's words, they were "poor as snakes" when he was growing up--no money to educate their kids beyond their high school graduations. But all of my aunts and uncles grew into successful, affluent adults and they loved to give back to their parents. 

As a little kid, of course, this felt like a punishment. Watching old people open presents on Christmas Eve? Man, give me Santa Claus instead! But as I grew older, those two hours in my grandparents' house every Christmas Eve gave me the deepest sense of family, of roots and ties and obligations to the grand old family whose name I bore. Even after I got married, I continued the Christmas Eve trip to Grandma's house and took my own kids who were the hit of the evening from their first Christmas on. 

But then, we'd drive back home. 

The world is still dark in that part of Tennessee at night. The rural area of western Montgomery County wasn't broken up by anything other than Christmas lights and the headlights of oncoming cars. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car, watching each new decorated house come up and pass by. The radio was always on the same local station that played the same pre-recorded Christmas special every year for decades. I could recite the stories they told and knew which song was next. And while the frosty night made the December lawns glistened like sugar and there was rarely any snow, the quiet winter's peace of Christmas Eve would enter my soul. When we got home, only Midnight Mass was left to do, when my mother and I would go to the tiny old cathedral and worship in the oldest Catholic chapel west of the Appalachians. The candlelit service made the old church even more beautiful than it already was, and Father Bob's Irish-accented Massachusetts voice which always sounded so incongruous in Tennessee became an integral part of my Christmas experience, enough so that even now I don't feel like the priest is doing Mass right if he doesn't have that peculiar blend of heritages infusing the beauty of the loveliest service of the year with that resonant tone. 

In my family, Christmas Eve was the real holiday. Christmas Day, once my brother was old enough to have outgrown Santa, was a day to sleep late, a day where eating leftover sheet cake for breakfast was an acceptable meal (none of the French dishes ever had leftovers), a day where my parents actually got to rest from the rigors of running a business six days a week, a day where a girl who was more interested in books than clothes got to stay in her room and dream. 

Now my family is scattered, my mom is gone and my dad is still plugging along, running his store at 81 much the same way he did at 41. My brother and I both are grandparents, and our kids live apart from us and juggle the traditions of their spouses' families with their own. My husband and I this year are spending Christmas with his parents, which we're devoutly grateful to do after the scare we had with my mother-in-law's health just a few weeks ago.  But as I sit here on this Christmas Eve, I remember the quiet beauty of those long-ago nights where I sat with my face against the car window in the back seat watching as the glow of decorated houses first grew then slipped away out of sight. I can see the clarity with which the stars sparkled overhead, and while listening to "What Child is This?" or Bing and Bowie's "Little Drummer Boy" on the radio, wondering which star was THE star. 

I'm not a nostalgic person for the most part. But some part of me will always be nostalgic for the Christmas Eves of my youths, when my mother shared her French heritage with a group of men who looked forward to her annual gift to them every year, and my father changed from the gruff disciplinarian of the rest of the year into a man both proud and fond of his kids as we all moved through the unspoken schedule of our holiday that reaffirmed our heritage as part of an old, large Tennessee family. All the hurts and anger drains away, and for this one night I think of my family and what makes them such an overwhelming influence over who I am today. Both French and Tennesseean, country-bred and city savvy, dreaming away a Christmas Eve while reality clustered cold and dark and yet somehow gilded on the other side of a frosty window.

Merry Christmas...and Joyeux Noel. 

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Count Haslamovich--A Tennessee Vampire Story

Author's note: As this 100% fabricated story is becoming better known among the Tennessee fan base and media, other alleged sources are coming forward to add their imaginary suggestions for my fictional story regarding the Tennessee coaching search. With the events of the past few days, it seems like this story needs a sequel or--more properly a prequel into a sequel. So here's my totally fictional, 100% completely made up continuation of this tale as it would have been told to me if I'd been told by now around fifteen imaginary sources close to the UT program. No really. Fiction. I promise. 

This fictional story is a little different from the last one. This one is a horror story, about a vampire that feeds off a beloved institution and nearly drives it into the grave. Pay close attention to this story, because as with all my fiction there's more here than it seems.

There's almost a perfect line of demarcation between the success of Tennessee athletic teams and the misery of the last nine years. This story began with a huge power play in 2008 and culminates in a bigger one in 2017. So now it's time to pull the threads of this story together and see what we can come up with. 

On Thursday, when then-AD of the University of Tennessee suddenly disappeared off the grid, it was a desperation move. If he was going to save his job, he was going to have to go solo and ignore the wishes of the man who was really calling all the shots. That man was, of course, a mega-booster vampire.

One completely made up source said, "He's the epitome of a kid that was born on third base and always acted like he'd hit a triple."

In our society, money confers power. The vampire's family had plenty of both. After the fictional purchase of the Cleveland Browns in October of 2012 for $1.05 billion, the vampire was able to turn his attention back to his first franchise--the University of Tennessee. A few weeks later, his hand-picked coach for the University of Tennessee, Derek Dooley, was fired after being allegedly beaten by Vanderbilt.

Sorry. Had to put that one in. That loss hurt.

When Lane Kiffin had abruptly departed the program to bolt to USC, the UT athletic department had two choices: they could proceed with an interim coach or they could hire Derek Dooley, who had a 17-20 record at Louisiana Tech. The vampire insisted on the Dooley hire which propelled UT into a dismal three-year stretch of football. Allegedly, the fictional David Blackburn, then in the UTK athletic department and future UTC athletic director was the only one who stepped forward.

"That's a bad hire. The man can't coach."

Blackburn was overruled, but his protest was noted by the vindictive vampire. This act became important later.

Strangely, when Dooley was fired three seasons later, there was a sudden surge of hope. Jon Gruden, an imaginary Super Bowl-winning coach who'd also coached at UT, was available. And interested. A group of pretend boosters had him close to signing but there was a sticking point--the pay pool for assistant coaches. The boosters thought they could get the deal done, but as they worked out the details with Gruden then-AD Dave Hart--allegedly primed by the vampire--suddenly went off course in pursuit of Charlie Strong. Gruden got angry...hypothetically...and walked away from the deal. When Strong turned UT down the vampire and Hart offered the job to Butch Jones, who had been headed to Colorado.

You read that correctly. the vampire preferred Charlie Strong and Butch Jones over Jon Gruden. (note there are no references to fictional or allegedly or made up in that sentence)

In 2017, when Hart resigned, there were two popular candidates for the job. Phillip Fulmer, who the vampire and Hamilton had ousted in that fictional 2008 power play, and David Blackburn, one of the brightest and best young ADs in NCAA sports. But neither was an acceptable option to the vampire. Fulmer had been booted because he had too much control over the football program, and Blackburn, of course, had questioned his judgment in the Dooley hire.

The vampire--let's call him Count Haslamovich--pressured the university to choose someone completely not on the radar: John Currie, the athletic director at Kansas State. Currie was loathed by a huge section of the K-State fanbase, and allegedly had issues with legendary football coach Bill Snyder. Currie, of course, had also participated in the "Et tu Brute?" ouster of Fulmer in 2008 and so the vampire wanted him in the UTAD office. Currie was a yes man, and that was the vampire's primary job requirement in an athletic director. So Currie was hired over the two men pretty much everyone else thought should be given the job. Thus the vampire avenged himself on Blackburn, and Fulmer was passed over entirely.The former coach was installed afterwards as a special assistant to President DePietro, which becomes important later.

And then, Butch Jones was fired.

I imagine one of these totally fictional imaginary boosters would say something like this: "Fast forward to this year. Same group of boosters approach Gruden, except this time all contract terms were thought to have been agreed upon. Count Haslamovich, although he led Hart away from Gruden in 2012, played like he was on board this time. The other boosters were wary but really didn’t think the vampire would try to sabotage this thing. These boosters had begun working this plan back in 2012 when they got blindsided the night Hart went after Strong."

But there was another sticking point.

"This is where Count Haslamovich balked. He has always had the most say so in regards to athletics due to being the largest donor. I believe he’s also pledged the most money toward the stadium renovation project. I believe he’s worried if Gruden is hired then he loses the control he desperately loves to have. He knows someone of the magnitude of Jon Gruden will do things his way, not Haslamovich's. The vampire also knows that since the other boosters brought Gruden to the table that he would be more apt to listen to them than Haslamovich. So, the vampire enacts his sabotage plan by having Currie (who was his hand-picked AD, even though most of the other boosters wanted David Blackburn) to cut a deal with Schiano. All the boosters were unaware of this as well as most in the AD office."

Bolding mine.

"So, when the other boosters thought we were fixing to bring Gruden to the table Currie goes rogue and gets (a) MOU signed by Schiano. Luckily someone in our AD office finds out and leaks it. They knew this would not sit well with Vol Nation, and you saw what happened. From that point forward the other boosters that brought Gruden to the table went to work to remove Currie and minimize Haslamovich’s influence."

All this, folks, is the imaginary preface to the Schiano fiasco and what followed. 

But here's the thing. There's a vampire in this story, a vampire that's been feeding on the life's blood of Tennessee athletics and football in particular for the past ten years. This vampire drove the program into its darkest era after a series of disastrous hires, ridiculous PR, and the most humiliating public spectacle of a coaching hire ever. That vampire has been pushed back out of the spotlight with the dismissal of his AD-gone-AWOL John Currie, who allegedly vanished Thursday and had to be summoned back to Knoxville by fictional Chancellor Beverly Davenport. But make no mistake--he'd not only gone rogue from the UT athletic department but allegedly also from Count Haslamovich in his desperation to save his job. 

Why? Because what's the one thing that can kill a monster that feels safe hiding in its castle?

A mob of pissed off Vols fans.

So by the time Currie met with Davenport on Friday and was dismissed in record time--eight minutes--everything was already in place to elevate Fulmer to the position many felt he should have been hired for eight months before.

Almost immediately, Haslamovich's murky contact system within the media got to work. First, reports surfaced that Currie's lieutenant in the athletic department, Reid Sigmon, would become interim AD. Then, certain members of the media both in Knoxville and national started to circulate the idea that Fulmer had undermined Currie in an act of selfish ambition and petty revenge. And make no mistake, the vampire's not done yet. 

"You'll soon start to hear rumors that players were paid during Fulmer's tenure," an imaginary source informed me allegedly. "That is absolutely Haslamovich's doing. Don't be surprised if a former player says as much." 

Bolding mine. Just in case there's any substance to this fictional tale, we'll just leave that little tidbit right there. Maybe the vampire will pay him in tacos or gas station hot dogs or something.

And what's the situation now, you ask?

Well, as a novelist I love a great tale of revenge. These kinds of stories have teeth in a very Julius Caesar-Brutus-Marc Antony kind of way and that's awesome. So since I'm writing an entirely fictional piece, I have to really make the plot thicker at this point, right? In my fiction, usually that means my readers' favorite character dies. But this is a different kind of story. This is a story of injustice, banishment, and then revenge. What happens next absolutely has to be...vindication. 

So if I were writing this as a piece of fiction--which I am--then I'd say that the boosters behind the coup d'etat that ousted Currie and the vampire were in touch with Gruden's camp the whole time, and instantly began to try to bring UT and Gruden back together. In fact, I'd probably go a hypothetical step further and state that's the whole reason the coup occurred in the first place. And while Gruden might initially be reluctant after the debacle of the Schiano deal, I'd venture to guess those imaginary boosters would keep adding money to the pot until it was a deal too sweet to refuse. At the moment, the fangs of the vampire have been pulled and they'd have to move quickly to get the deal worked. 

"We don't know if he'll accept after the Schiano fiasco," one completely pretend source said. "But we'll keep adding a million until we're all bankrupt." 

Great line. Wish I'd thought of that--I mean...glad I thought of it!

Just think about this from my point of view. What greater vindication than for Phillip Fulmer to go out and bring the very man that no one in the world save for the people behind the scenes believes would actually ever coach at the University of Tennessee? Imagine what the reaction of other fan bases would be, of national media--and of the vampires that have had their way for way too long if the greatest coach of the modern era landed Jon Gruden as UT football coach within days of kicking Currie out of the AD office.

That mental picture almost makes up for the press conference from 2008, doesn't it? 

But at the end of the day, this story leads to more questions--and some answers. 

First and foremost, the athletic department is in the hands of a man who has no reason to say "yes" to any vampire, and that's a great thing. This same man has been a Volunteer from birth. We can trust him to stand up to the villain and to do what's best for UT as a whole.

Second, the vampire has been beaten in battle but the war is not won. And while the vampire might have found a way to launder away his influence on UT athletics so he looks blameless in the past, in the future that kind of diabolical influence has to be destroyed. One of the most surefire ways to destroy a vampire is to expose it to the light. And make no mistake, the voices of Vol Nation are a definite light. Every transaction, every decision must be examined carefully for evidence of undue influence.No one can forget even for a moment that in order for UT to thrive, Vol Nation must drive a stake through the heart of the vampire.

Third, the University of Tennessee absolutely must distance itself from the vampire sucking the life away from the institution. Even the appearance of collusion or corruption can no longer be tolerated, no matter what a vampire's last name may be. 

I am a writer primarily of epic fantasy. I know the story is never entirely over, and I know better than to assume the ending. The possibilities for sequels are endless as long as the vampire survives. Between hypothetical legal woes, the pretend close scrutiny of the NFL now looking at the vampire's Browns franchise in relation to an imaginary fraud case, and the fictional situation at UT now coming to light, it's essential for anyone reading this to keep the volume turned up. Because when you get right down to it, a vampire is little more than a leech...a bloodsucker

And we don't need bloodsuckers on Rocky Top. Not any more.

Not ever.

Hypothetically, of course.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

UT Football Coach Search--The Plot Thickens

Author's note: Sometimes, writers hear stories from sources that want to remain anonymous, which means those stories won't work in the context of regular journalism. That's where blogs can come in handy. And if I HAD heard any allegories from...say...4 or 5 boosters who didn't want to be named, I imagine the story would sound remarkably like this. Take from that what you will. 

You folks know I’m a novelist by profession, so I decided I would have a little fun with the ongoing UT coaching hire nightmare —just for fun and laughs — and tell you the story I would write if this was one of my books. I'd market it as a behind-the-doors business intrigue work of fiction that spans the gamut from the hiring of a football coach at a state university to big-money boosters and corruption.

First, the foreword. I’ve already inflicted poetry on you folks, so might as well go ahead and quote the Bible here:
Matthew 6:24 — No man can be the bondservant of two masters; for either he will dislike one and like the other, or he will attach himself to one and think slightingly of the other. You cannot be the bondservants both of God and of gold.
In my book, the real problem in the coaching search all along is that the UT athletic director, John Currie, is serving two masters. One is the university, and the other is top booster Jimmy Haslam. Currie follows Haslam’s lead to the detriment of Tennessee, ignoring the other boosters or deliberately misleading them, and condescending to the opinions of the fan base who are, in the world of big money college sports, relatively unimportant and unnecessary to his fundraising goals. And let’s make no bones about it — he’s not the first UT AD to do that. His two predecessors set a precedent for doing exactly that, and now it seems to be UTAD policy.

Harsh? Yes. But acceptable to all concerned. And while the boosters believed that big-time elite coach Jon Gruden has agreed to come to UT, down to the dollar amount of the deal(between $9-10 million dollars per year) and prospective assistant coaches to hire, somehow that deal isn't what happens. Currie, at the instruction of Haslam, tries to bring someone completely unacceptable through the back door as head football coach. The other boosters are shocked because no one told them anything about a deal with Greg Schiano. But the backlash from the fan base is so violent that UT has to back out of the deal. Currie then goes to Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State, who flirts for a minute with a big money deal but then declines.

Meanwhile, in my fictional account…the fan base is screaming two names over and over. One is Tee Martin, the last quarterback to bring a national title to UT. But he’s not called, and rumors state that Tennessee favored son, Peyton Manning, also a former and beloved UT QB, has a problem with Tee as the next head football coach. If that’s the case, at the end of the day Manning should suppress his dissent in favor of the fans who have supported him throughout his whole career. But if that’s not the case, then who threw Peyton under the bus by claiming it was his doing? Peyton Manning, who is rumored to be under consideration for the front office of the Cleveland Browns? The GOAT, most beloved son of Rocky Top? More on that in a minute.

The other fan favorite is Lane Kiffin, who a lot of alumni and boosters would have a difficult time welcoming back to Knoxville after what he pulled the last time he was here. And since the narrator agrees with them (don’t @ me; just my personal opinion), I’ll just leave that conversation to sit.

So, in my totally fictional novel, while the fans want Tee or Kiffin, the university just got rejected in advance by Chad Morris of SMU and in minutes by Jeff Broehm of Purdue. Unthinkable.

Now the crazy train starts again, as Currie tries to find a candidate that Haslam will somehow approve of but who won’t be met by furious protesters outside the athletic department. Even as a novelist, I would imagine that list of names is very short. And then next — 

But…wait. As a novelist, I know that when something is bugging me about my story, I need to stop and think about it for a minute. I storyboard plots, like the evidence boards you see on TV crime shows. And in this case, I keep running into the same question.

Why would UT boosters have thought to a man that Gruden was coming to Knoxville, and how did they get surprised by the Schiano deal? A university doesn’t just up and change course on a decision if the boosters are all on board, right? Not without telling someone.

But the boosters’ shock and dismay was so evident and so universal that I can’t think anything other than they weren’t told. And if that’s the case, then the reasonable conclusion for any fiction writer is that there was a deal with Gruden that somehow fell through at the last possible minute. Who knows? 

Maybe that deal was actually signed . Maybe an actual MOU, even, say in some super secret facility at a country club, but Gruden's side amended it so Currie backed out of the deal. Then Currie went rogue at the instigation of Haslam and tried to hurry a new deal through and get Schiano installed before anyone could react. Especially the boosters, who thought they were getting (and perhaps had donated money to get) Jon Gruden. 

So how does that impact my story’s plot? And how do I bring this nightmare back around for the happy ever after ending? Difficult questions to answer. Obviously, getting rid of Currie’s not the entirety of the answer, because Haslam would be at the center of any new AD hire as well. If Currie was forced out, and he would be soon after this point of the story for rank incompetence if nothing else, then the next AD would be a Currie Lite. 

No, the real cancer eating away at UT’s guts from the inside is named Haslam. That’s what must fall if the good guys are going to win. 

You know, the narrator of this story lives up in Ohio so she(thankfully) avoids almost all of the cesspool influence named Haslam — except, of course, for the worst-run franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns. (Coincidentally, where Peyton is rumored to be heading to the front office.) Apparently, Haslam likes to ruin proud, storied football heritages because he’s certainly done so for Cleveland and is single-handedly undertaking the same at UT. 


And yes, people that pony up millions to build a football legacy at a university absolutely are and should be involved in some decisions within the process. No one’s unrealistic enough to think otherwise. But involved, not dictating, and never to the point where one booster is basically running the whole show despite the other boosters, the alumni, fans, and the best interests of the university overall. Anyone with a grain of common sense could see the answer to UT’s woes — ditch Haslam and Currie, put Blackburn or Fulmer in at AD, and bring back a UT guy to change the narrative of this coaching hire. Make a popular hire, pay the staff well, and put the football team’s fate in the hands of the program and not some fat cat’s plush office where he sits like a spider in the middle of a destructive web. 

Easy, right? 

But common sense is a rarity these days, it seems, especially on the Hill where apparently no one from the university president on down seems to see the danger of UT’s continued association with Jimmy Haslam. Oh, and it’s oh so dangerous, too. As in a bringing down the whole house of cards in one stroke dangerous. Everyone, literally from the governor’s office on down, is in danger of losing more than they realize as the result of a football coaching search debacle. So when the university manages to hire someone — if that ever happens — the UTAD can take a deep breath. Disaster averted, so now the fans can shut up.

But the narrator is still bothered, and it all goes back to one thing — how so many prominent boosters and alumni were of the belief Jon Gruden was coming to UT and instead got Greg Schiano.
That seems…strange, doesn’t it? Almost as if those boosters were misled somehow into believing what everyone in the national media said was a pipe dream. In and of itself, that doesn’t seem possible. Those boosters are savvy businessmen from top to bottom. 


Unless those boosters were misled — say, for example, when the Gruden deal fell through and they weren’t informed of that after ponying up a rumored $20 million to make the deal happen. 

Unless the decision to go after Schiano was an AD going rogue. 

Unless the only other guy aware of and supporting the Schiano hire was the same guy who tried to get Schiano hired for a pro franchise…say maybe…in Cleveland. 

That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. I’m an extremely logical person, and I certainly try to be level-headed, although Twitter makes that challenging at times. But I am also a novelist, and pulling plot strings together into a story is what I do for a living. So if I were writing this as a novel, I would have to assume that there actually was a done deal with Gruden, maybe even a signed MOU that was amended at the last minute so that UT rescinded the offer, and that the Schiano offer was an attempt to sneak a malleable candidate through the back door without the knowledge or approval of the other athletic boosters but with the full support of one. 

In my book--a fictional book, mind you--I don’t think any athletic director would have been inept enough to present Greg Schiano as the “home run hire” that UT would “open the checkbooks” for in order to bring a man of “integrity” to run football. No one sitting at an AD’s desk is stupid enough to think that’s anything other than Bad PR 101. And obviously, the university had not called one other coach prior to last week.

Not. One. 

If I’m right, and if that’s the case, then in my fictionalized account of the UT shinola show, the story isn’t over with an acceptable football hire. UT has to look to the future, and future hires, to keep this from happening again. So what has to happen to prevent future horrors is that the regular guy fan base needs to come together with the folks in the sky boxes they never meet. The boosters. The boosters not named Haslam. Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how much money one guy has, it’s not enough to supersede the rest of the boosters, the season ticket holders, the donors, the former players, and the alumni. Between major UT donors, boosters, alumni, and season ticket holders alone, Tennessee stands to lose $100 million if those groups unite and stand up to the one fat cat Svenagli at the top of the heap.

That's an insurmountable number. 

In my fictional world, Jimmy Haslam should not be the real power running the show at the UTAD. The fact that he is, quite frankly, should be a massive legal conflict of interest since his brother is currently the sitting governor in the state of Tennessee. That kind of power over a state-run entity like a university stinks of corruption, and corruption always goes up, not down. With Governor Haslam mulling a Senate run, the last thing he needs to be tainted by his brother’s shenanigans in Knoxville. And the last thing Tennesseans should tolerate is the continued involvement of anyone named Haslam in the decision-making processes that impact not just their everyday lives, but what they love. 

The University of Tennessee. 

So anyone up to his nose in Jimmy Haslam’s armpits, who botched this hire so horrifically from the get go, needs to be kicked out of his — or her — office too. 

But as Currie continues to woo sitting head coaches with the hopes that one of them would be ambitious enough to be starry-eyed over the name of Rocky Top or dumb enough to ignore Haslam pulling the purse- and puppet-strings to actually agree to coach at UT, the real problem at UT leaned back in his custom-built chair, smoking those Cuban cigars, swilling his “no one can afford this but me” Scotch, and congratulating himself on being the Machiavelli that really runs the UT athletic department.

How does my novel sound to you folks? Think it’s bestseller material? I do. Because at the heart of this fictional story is how a big-time university screwed up the biggest hiring deal in a century of college sports and subsequently tried to kowtow to a booster’s demands to the detriment of everyone. 

I’m not a world-famous author. Not yet. Plan to be. But what most people don’t know about me is that I am a pretty damn good editor by God, and that I edit for writers who are on the NYT and USA Today bestseller list even as we speak. Believe me — I can spot a story from two states away. I can pull those strings together as well as anyone in the business. And if I were writing a (wholly fictional) story about corruption in big-money collegiate athletics? This plot I’ve outlined here would be a bestseller. Not because it’s fanciful, but because it’s credible. The problem with big-money boosters is that they’re universal when it comes to big-time football programs. You don’t think there’s a similar story in Tuscaloosa? 

Or South Bend? Tallahassee? 


Think again. 

But in this novel of football desperation, all the big money boosters (but one) were taken off-guard as well. In order to get the happily ever after ending in my fictional account, those boosters and the fan base would have to come together fast and create such an uproar that the real cancer at the heart of the UTAD woes would be cut out: Haslam is prevented from dictating university policy, Currie is fired along with any UT officials part and parcel of this deal with the devil, a native son like David Blackburn is brought in to clean up the UTAD mess, and a new coach with integrity starts to put the pieces back together of the football team. Of course, in my story that denouement would involve sirens and jail time and shots fired and maybe some gore, but hey — that’s what I write, right? Sci fi? Horror? 


At the end of the day, I’m just a struggling writer, making ends meet by editing for big name authors, who every once in a while finds a way to spin a little fancy with her one guilty pleasure — Tennessee sports. The problem with me writing this fictionalized account of a botched coaching hire, is that at the end of the day I’m not sure this is fiction. And if it’s not, the story will be written by someone with a lot more power in the publishing and sports media world than me, who can convince people to step up and corroborate this story. That’s how the publishing business goes. 

More than likely, that’s how the hiring of a football coach at a big university goes too. Fortunately for fat cats and their minions, no one pays any attention to the stories a struggling novelist tells. 

All fiction when you get right down to it. Just…100%, complete, nothing to see here fiction.

No, really. It's fiction. Promise.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

So...Let's Talk About the Harlequinade's Life History in Publishing

A few people in the world have read some or all of my Harlequinade series. Many of those people are NY editors at Big 5 houses, and from most everyone who's read one or more of the books I have gotten seriously mixed signals. 

Let me catch you up. The Harlequinade series is set in a world where American professional theater meets urban fantasy/horror--kind of like Something Wicked This Way Comes had a love child with The Phantom of the Opera. It's a serious genre mashup with elements of horror, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, time travel, and literary science fiction. The first book in this series, Theater of Seduction, won an award at RT, landed me my awesome agent, and managed to bulldoze its way through numerous publishing departments only to be killed off after multiple reads. The feedback I did receive was a variant of the following:

Don't know where we'd shelve it.

Too intellectual. 

Needs more *insert whatever the last editor said to take out of it*

--and my personal favorite:

Chapters are too long. 

Don't get me wrong. These are all legitimate criticisms from editors I don't know and some very good friends as well. As anyone who follows me knows, I am absolutely incapable of writing something uncomplicated. So these points are certainly valid, particularly as literature is a very subjective field from top to bottom. 

Is it any wonder that my forehead is permanently flat from banging it into my desk? In fact, the very first Big Five house (probably THE Big Five house in my opinion) my agent submitted Theater of Seduction to looked like a miraculously speedy done deal. The manuscript hit an editor's desk who absolutely loved it. Couldn't wait to sign it. Then it got to the final editorial committee and one guy shot it down.

Still have nightmares after that horrorfest. Went from looking like a world record--land agent, submit to major publishing giant, editor falls in love and contracts it--to a harbinger of heartbreak. 

Everyone who's read the series loves it. They love the voice, love the setting, love the twists, love everything but contracting the book for publication, in fact. So when that happens--and considering that NY publishing isn't looking for anything new and different despite what they may claim on their blogs--that leaves only a few fates for my much-beloved Harlequin. I can trunk him and forget I ever wrote the series, I can look for a small publisher, or I can self-publish. 

Until a couple of months ago, I would have slam dunked the Harlequin into my trunk and then cried miserably for months. But seeing how lightning struck unexpectedly with Zozo (evidently, it takes a demon for me where it takes a village for normal people), the self-publication option is unexpectedly attractive. 

May only cry for weeks instead of months. 

But here's the thing that I think a lot of publishers miss--there is definitely a market for non-trope, intelligent, multiple-genre romance out there, and that market is NOT getting the kinds of books they prefer. I am not a huge reader of romance, but I love it when I find those smart epic romances like the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. And I don't go in for percentages, either, like some publishers do in their submission guidelines--"the plot needs to be 50% romance" and so forth.

My novels hit right around 100,000 words each. Does that mean 50,000 words need to be all romantic plot? 

Kind of...sterile and unromantic when you put it that way. 

At the end of the day, publishing is a business and that business was thrown ass over head with the advent of digital publishing, followed by the ease and (relative) affordability of self-publishing so that now it's hedging its bets--established authors OR self-publishing success stories with a built-in platform who crave the phrase "bestselling author" behind their name. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Except, perhaps, for the readers who are craving something new. 

I've been blessed throughout my career as an author and editor to meet so many people--fans, reviewers, editors, other authors and particularly those in the romance genres--who have sincerely loved my work and gave me the opportunity to share in theirs. At the end of the day, I'm going to rely upon their judgment on my work because their judgment is what really matters. Harlequinade is too risky for Big Five publishing and that's cool. 

But it's not too different for readers actively searching for something different. And different happens to be my specialty. 

This is a massive series--ten completed books including a historical fiction prequel--with one of the riskiest characters arcs I've ever attempted. Yes, that's saying a lot considering what I'm known for doing to my characters. But I wanted to experiment with the romance genre, and set its tropes against speculative fiction tropes just to see what I could make of it. And what ensued was, in my opinion, pretty damn awesome. These books are books I would read over and over--not because I wrote them, but because someone finally did.

So here in a few months, you guys will get to meet my favorite characters I've written so far. I have a feeling the Harlequin might just intrigue some of you. 


Yes, the Harlequin is one of the main characters. He's the bad guy, in fact. 


My motto remains unchanged. Nothing is as it seems.

Theater of Seduction--February, 2018
Theater of Deception--March, 2018
Theater of Cruelty--April, 2018
Theater of War--May, 2018
Theater of Desire--June, 2018
Theater of Vengeance--July, 2018
Theater of Destiny--August, 2018
Theater of Birth--September, 2018
Theater of Death--October, 2018
Theater of Power (prequel)--November, 2018

Strap in, kids. It's about to get busy with the Harlequinade.

Harlequinade Book One--Theater of Seduction back jacket copy:

Catherine Brighton had given up on theater when crippling panic attacks drove her from New York and her dreams, but when enigmatic director Phillip Lewis invites her to join his theatrical company, she knows it’s her ticket to Broadway. The company’s magical performance style is the holy grail of theater, an acting style that uses empathy to heighten the theatrical experience and psychically seduces the audience. Catherine quickly discovers that the company isn’t what it seems. Phillip has a strange hold over the cast, and the lines between reality and the play blur into a dangerous emotional minefield…one that’s cost previous leading ladies their lives.

The danger is compounded when Catherine falls in love with one of the male leads, Dominic LeClair, who is torn between his love for Cat and the secrets pressing in around them. When Catherine’s best friend, Mike, offends Phillip at a party and dies in a mysterious accident hours later, Catherine begins to question the uses of the company’s unique magic—and Phillip’s motives.

Despite her fear, Catherine is drawn deeper into the mystery surrounding the company and the man she loves.  As the eighteenth century tragedy unfolds on the stage, Catherine discovers that the plot extends well beyond the script, and empathy can be used for much more than wowing an audience. If she can’t find a way to free them all from Phillip, she’ll remain trapped in his theater of seduction forever.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Tragedy of George RR Martin--Discipline, Joy, and Speculative Fiction

Because I write speculative fiction, creating epic novels or series be they fantasy, sci fi, or paranormal is an advantage. Spec fic readers love to immerse themselves in a vast world capable of supporting huge plot arcs with hordes of characters to fall in love with and, in my worlds at least, grieve over after they suffer heinous deaths. That's the kind of interaction any writer craves for their readers. When I get hate mail for killing off favorite characters, I do a little happy dance around my desk. 

When readers get pissed enough to yell at me for killing off a character, that means I did my job right and I did it well. 


Because the readers were so emotionally invested in the story that they responded to that character's death with genuine feeling. 

The great thing about epic fiction is that you can kill off a lot of characters in a long, complex plot arc. 

But there are pitfalls, too. 

Sometimes, an epic plot arc can get away from a writer. I'm a very prolific and fast writer. That's because of two reasons--first, that movie I'm watching in my head. I'm not sitting around for weeks constructing a painstaking, convoluted plot outline. I'm already writing. The form of the story is ingrained enough in my head that I know how to write from the beginning of the plot's road, up onto the first small hill, dipping into the valley, and then building the trip up the mountain of the plot. Every great story has those peaks and ebbs, a natural rhythm as they grow and the world expands. 

And the second reason is that I'm just damn fast. I used to do product testing for IBM when I was young, which puts my typing speed over 100 wpm (words per minute). Since I have only the one job (writer) I can easily spend 10-12 hours a day at my computer. I usually can clock in around 2,000 words an hour. So if the story is really rolling--like the one my agent is currently shopping--I can write the first draft of an epic fantasy novel in two weeks or less. 

Man, that first draft is crappy but it's on paper, by golly. 

There are a lot of writers who have the absolute opposite problem. Chief among them is George RR Martin, whose last novel in his wildly successful A Song of Ice and Fire--A Dance With Dragons--came out in 2011. With two novels left to complete the story line, Martin stalled so dramatically that now the television show based on his series has moved past his last published installment and has already completed a season beyond the books. He's reworked some of his older works, collaborated on a reference guide to Westeros, and zipped out a few novellas but the main series has languished now for seven years with no publication date in sight. 

What made that even worse was Martin continuing to announce publication dates, getting his fans excited, and then all those dates slipped by without a novel in sight. The latest self-imposed deadline by GRRM claims The Winds of Winter will be released in late 2018 or early 2019. If he actually makes this deadline, that will end up being a hiatus of eight years between book five and book six. So how is it possible that George RR Martin, who was trained in the deadline-heavy minefield of writing soap opera scripts, now finds himself unable to finish ASOIAF? What happened? 

I think he's gotten lost in the story himself. If you read Martin's ASOIAF, as the series moves forward the plot becomes extremely convoluted, with Martin occasionally going off on self-inflicted momentum murder by focusing on secondary characters and their plot arcs when those stories barely intersect with the main through line *coughSandSnakescough* and have little or no impact upon the ultimate denouement of the world. (That last bit is an assumption, because I can't imagine the Sand Snakes affecting much of anything except giving readers a PITA.) So now, having invested tens of thousands of words on that secondary plot, and hundreds of thousands on a slew of similar secondary plots, the writer sits and stares at his computer for days when he finally realizes what he's done to himself. 

He has so many plots going that he can't resolve the main storyline.

Time for...the Red Wedding, or other similar catastrophes. \

The only way to resolve a plethora of unneeded plots is to massacre them. Literally. But that, in turn, leads to other problems. With so many plots and characters it's only to easy to accidentally murder the wrong ones.

Enter Lady Stoneheart. Catelyn Stark's character could have done so much more than to be an implacable zombie seeking vengeance. In order to keep her in some fashion, Martin took away her greatest assets--her voice of reason, her common sense, her impact upon major players like Littlefinger and Jon and Sansa, and her ultimate moment of  revenge on Cersei Lannister, First of her Name.

But Martin is a perfectionist, and he loves the convoluted plotlines he used to whip out daily for soap operas. While I'm sure these two problems are, in some degree, to blame for his inability to finish the series, in the end it's more than likely something completely different and far more common. 

Writing isn't something you can just sit down and do, whiling away the hours like you are playing a video game or watching television. Writing requires discipline. Oh, I know. I'm the queen of procrastination. That's why for a long time I never finished a book. Once I completed my first novel, though, I created a set time every day to write new material. Back then I had to schedule around my job and other stuff, just like you do now more than likely. 

Now that I don't have a work schedule or kids in the house or a business to run, things are much different. I've created a discipline that works for me and enables me to maximize my productivity. I write new material in four hour blocks, and do at least one block a day. During my writing time, I turn off my phone, disconnect from the internet, and switch off the television. I will let my Alexa play music, but mostly classical and almost always instrumental--which is why I have playlists that are developed for specific moods. Then I open up the manuscript I'm working on to the last page and I start writing. 

I can hear some of my editing clients now. "But Celina, what if inspiration doesn't come?" 

Inspiration--the Muse--doesn't have a choice whether it's showing up or not for a disciplined writer. Writing is a job just like any other--except for the fact that it's a lot more enjoyable--and it comes when I want it to...not the other way around. Writers who sit around and wait for the Muse to pay a visit are generally writers who never finish a book. I keep the Muse showing up because of the next to the last thing I do in every writing block. I leave a comment for myself in the manuscript, making note of whatever my next thought or plot point following the last thing I wrote. 

The last thing I do is back up my manuscript. Trust me: you want to do that too. 

Once I finish a writing block, I'll play online or clean house or whatever. I'll work on my editing clients' work, or write an article. I do not read what I just wrote though. Revision and editing is something I approach after I've completed the first draft of the novel and not before. The only thing I work on regarding my work in progress outside of those writing blocks is research/story boarding. I basically scout locations, find costumes for character description (or hair styles or shoes or interior design or what's on the dinner table. When I find an image that evokes my world, I'll pop it on my Pinterest storyboards. 

But I don't write. Just like any other job, you need to rest when you take a break. Writing is no different. Then, usually a couple of hours later, I'll start another writing block and do it all over again. 

This discipline helps keep my writing time productive, allows me to maximize both my time and my word counts, and lets me finish first drafts fairly quickly. But it also helps to keep writing fun for me. When I sit at my computer to start working on my manuscript again, I'm excited to get back into the world and find out what happened next. And if I'm excited to learn that, I can be fairly certain or at the very least hopeful that my readers will be as well. 

I don't think GRRM feels that same excitement. The announced deadlines that are subsequently missed, the lack of progress on such a heavily developed world, and the still-stretching distance between books five and six all indicate to me that he's bogged down emotionally. Hell,, he's a multi-gazillionaire off books one through five. He doesn't have to drag himself to the computer every morning like I do and start my work timer to compel myself to get to work. His hunger for the series has left him, and walking in the world he created no longer brings him the joy it once did. So he gives himself deadlines. He means to beat every one of them, too. He knows how long it usually takes him to crank out 200,000 words, and gives himself a generous cushion to ensure he beats that predicted date. 

Then he sits at his computer, waiting to pick up the lost threads of the story, knowing in his head where he needs to go next but dreading the journey because it's So he turns to the internet, seeking that inspiration. He answers fan mail because it makes him feel good. He checks out his website, then decides to write a blog post because blogging is writing too. He can write his way into the book. But the blog post diverts his attention to something else, and before he realizes it he's wasted two hours and not one word was written. So he gives it up for the day, meaning to make a fresh start the following morning.

Inevitably, it happens again. Because with all the chatter out there about Game of Thrones, absolutely none of it is about his books anymore. All the excitement, all the intense love of the fans is now reserved for the television show...and their writers have already forged the plotline that will resonate in fans' minds. GRRM's no longer necessary to build his own world, to set the characters he created onto the path he'd always intended for them to follow. ASOIAF is now secondary to the HBO version of Westeros, because GRRM didn't have the discipline he needed to finish the books before the series caught up with him. 

And now, it's passed him. 

When I sit down to write, it's a labor of love. I enjoy every moment I spend exploring my imagination. But I had to learn the discipline I needed to be at maximum productivity. In 2016, I wrote a little over a million words. In 2017, I will almost certainly write over 1.25 million words. Crappy words. First draft words. Words that I will beat and shape and melt until I forge a new story, a new book out of them. Make no mistake--I loved every single crappy word I wrote, and remember the singular joy each of them gave me. But not a single word would have been written if I hadn't created a disciplined routine for myself and stuck to it. I know myself too well. And that, in turn, had enabled me to make damn sure that if/when one of my series takes off like ASOIAF, I won't lose my joy in the middle and leave the last couple of books unwritten. Although my agent very intelligently told me not to worry about sequels until the first book is sold, GRRM stands as a cautionary tale and the lesson I learned from watching him the last seven years is that for any writer, even the great ones, the joy can absolutely evaporate from your own world. The money, the fame, the fans can become a distraction taking you away from what you really love. 

So, young writers, a bit of advice since I believe strongly in paying it forward. Create your own discipline. Not daily word counts, but a daily commitment of time without the distractions of everyday life where you can sit down, shut the door on the rest of the world, and walk beside your characters into whatever world you've created for them. Without the discipline, it's inevitable that you, too, will lose your joy in writing. And at the end of the day, that is the ultimate tragedy of George RR Martin. Not that he can't meet a deadline or finish his next book, but that he's lost his joy in Westeros, which has brought so much joy to millions of people around the world. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Happy Warrior

Our world is different different from the world we expected growing up. But one of the biggest differences is how our sense of community has changed. Once, our closest friends, our nearest and dearest, were people who lived in our hometowns, or worked at the same place, or went to the same school. Our acquaintanceships were local. But now, I find that everything is completely reversed. The only reason I know the neighbor's name on one side is because UPS delivered a package to my house by mistake last week. I'll probably have forgotten it here in a week or two. On the other side? I'm clueless.

But as a result, my community is now global. I know more about what my friend Scarlett in Scotland is doing than anyone who lives on my street. People with like minds and interests come together online, and in a remarkably short period of time are exchanging details about their lives, exchanging points of view, and creating close and palpable relationships with others they've never met. That's because writing is a deliberate process, and also an intimate one. You learn to care for people and associate them with their screen names, because that's the most common interaction you have with them. 

And when they suffer, you suffer right along with them. That's when the screen name falls by the wayside, because you feel the pain of a real, live, breathing person. That person's not right there or down the street, but his presence is even more palpable in some ways. It doesn't count anything to have a cross-country friend like it used to, when long distance was a huge deal financially. 

So as I sit here in muggy as hell Ohio, my thoughts today are several states over, in Missouri. Right now, there sits a family grieving the most heinous loss imaginable, and I--even though I have never met them in person--am grieving with them. 

You've heard me talk about the Finebaum family--a group of Paul Finebaum and SEC college football fans who have pulled together on several occasions in the past few years. It's because of them that I'm sitting here today, writing this column. One of the Finebaum family is a guy named Larry Byrom--Larry from Missouri. We don't agree on football very often, but we do on pretty much everything else.

Okay. Some stuff.


He's hilarious, a smug as hell smartass who can type almost as fast as I can.

Almost, but not quite. He's mean with a meme, though. 

But Larry is one of those people you can't take at face value. There are depths to him that aren't always apparent when he's dogging your school on Twitter or calling in to Finebaum. And at the heart of who he is was always his son Mason. Mason suffered from a rare and incurable condition called ROHHAD--an endocrinic and nervous system disorder that causes the destruction of the involuntary processes of the body, like respiration, heart rate, and temperature control. This is such a rare disease that since it was first identified in 1965, under 200 children have ever been diagnosed with it worldwide. Mason presented with ROHHAD when he was three.

Mason passed away yesterday at the age of twelve. 

It was months after I met Larry before I knew about Mason and the struggles he was going through, months before I realized the anguish that was hiding behind the genial facade of the man who could piss me off so thoroughly just by posting memes about Phillip Fulmer on the Finebaum Twitter feed. Once Larry told me, however, I kept a closer eye on what was going on. 

The battle was never ceded. Neither Mason nor his family ever quit. They never broadcast their troubles, really. Their focus was solidly narrowed in on Mason--what he needed, what made him happy, what comfort they could bring to the terrifying world where he lived. And through it all, Larry kept up his cheerful albeit sometimes teeth-clenchingly annoying irreverence online. 

The past six months or so, I've been buried in work. I have so many projects on my desk that I'm not even sure there's a desk under there anymore. I haven't even had time to watch or listen to Finebaum. But when I opened my Twitter feed ten days ago and saw Larry's post that his son was back at home and on hospice care, it kind of cut through me. I mean--I know Larry. I know what a stubborn cuss he is. 

And I know how he loves his son. That stubborn cussedness is obviously a family trait, because Mason survived with his condition for nine years. That's almost unthinkable courage for an adult, much less a child. A miraculous ability to tell fate to kiss his ass while his dad, being Larry, probably mooned fate for good measure. 

But there comes a time in any struggle when the fight is no longer the focus. Every fight ends, one way or another, and yesterday morning, Mason's fight did as well. The Tweet yesterday didn't sink in at first. It didn't seem possible. But as the day wore on, I felt weighed down by the news. I sat down and tried to write a conventional little condolence note but, as anyone knows who reads my stuff, conventional and little just really aren't my style. I couldn't put down trite phrases of comfort--not for this child. Not for this family. 

Not for Larry. 

My gift with words had failed me. 

But then tonight I felt compelled to write this because it seemed incomprehensible to me that a kid like Mason, with a family like his and a dad like Larry, should have his story lost because there's something so very important and amazing inside it. This boy, this child who was called the Happy Warrior, fought against one of the rarest medical conditions imaginable for three quarters of his life. And yet somehow, he and his family found a path to laughter instead of tears. In a time where the family unit is being constantly eroded by technology and splintered by irresponsibility, this family grew closer and stronger--not because of the tragedy in their midst, but because of their refusal to allow it to beat them. They quietly went about the business of living, cherishing each day, and never bowing to the weight of the burden they carried.

I don't mean they ignored it. I mean they defied it.

I can't write that condolence note to Larry and his lovely wife because they deserve better than that. They deserve to be honored for the triumph they had over some amalgamation of initials that affected their son. They deserve to know that #MasonStrong wasn't just a hashtag, but a blueprint for life that all of us--all of us who are parents and grandparents--should learn from and apply to the children in our lives.

The Byrom family wasn't defeated and neither was Mason. 

In the end, though, tonight the result is still the same. The Byrom family and their circle of friends in Missouri are mourning the loss of a brave, beautiful, brilliant boy, while those of us who Mason touched even peripherally try to figure out the best way to let them know that we, too, share their pain and grief. We look at our own kids a little more generously, admitting to ourselves that all those annoying tip-taps on their phones and godawful video game music may not be quite as irritating as we've claimed the past few years.

That moment of generosity is Mason's gift to us all. And Larry's, too.

And when Larry's ready, he'll be right back online, right back into full smartass gear, right back into making silly comments about Coach Fulmer just to get a rise out of me and he'll laugh when I get pissed off--because that's who Larry Byrom is inherently. He's not just strong.

He's Mason strong. 

You can help the Byrom family out now by donating to their Happy Warrior GoFundMe campaign, or take a look at this report where you can learn more about Mason's story. 

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Baylor Rape Scandal for Blogcritics--Part Five

(This is the fifth article in a five part series analyzing athletes, universities, and crime. The primary focus of the series is the ongoing revelations from the rape scandal at Baylor University and was originally published at Blogcritics Magazine on February 4, 2017. I anticipate further articles will follow up this one.)

Welcome to NCAA: Fact or Fanatic, where we’ve reached the final installment of our analysis of athletes’ criminal behavior and the culpability that ensues. Once again, Texas attorney Kevin Lindstrom (who also writes for and Texas-based Laura Leigh Majer, special contributor to and Down and Dirty Sports, weigh in on the issues.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the fans’ part in the growing problem of student-athletes and crime, focused upon Baylor University and other schools with ongoing sexual assault issues.  One of the best places to gather information about how fans feel is The Paul Finebaum Show, a popular sports call-in show on the SEC Network, where on Monday the following occurred:
A Baylor fan from Dallas called the show to claim that “due process” has to play out in the Baylor rape allegations that blew up exponentially over the weekend, and that “it’s not fair” to the athletes or the program to be “punished further” since the president, athletic director, head football coach, and entire assistant coaching staff are no longer employed by the university.
That statement right there is exactly what’s wrong with college football, encapsulated in one fan’s opinion. The fans are what drive college athletics – dollars, attendance, boosters, alumni, gear, tickets, post-season play, online footprint. All of it is fan-generated and fan-driven. The sad fact is that to the average Joe and Jill Q. Public, winning football and basketball games is more important than the physical, emotional, and sexual health of a few anonymous females. And while Baylor University isn’t the only school with issues resulting from sexual assault, there can no longer be much question that it is the worst offender in a national problem.
And fans of the Baylor Bears are more concerned – still – about how fair play should happen for the program and its athletes.
You think this is exaggerated? Well, let’s take a look at the latest twist in the Baylor disaster.
A federal lawsuit filed Friday alleged that at least 31 football players at Baylor University committed at least 52 “acts of rape” over four years — including five gang rapes, two of which involved 10 or more players at the same time, some of whom videotaped the rapes on their phones and passed the recordings around to teammates.
The lawsuit, filed by a Virginia woman who alleges that she was gang-raped by two Baylor players in 2013, is the latest fallout in a sexual-violence scandal that has embroiled the Baptist university in Waco, Tex., for more than a year.
Stop for a moment and let that sink in.
Yes, these are “just” allegations. But with videotaped evidence of gang rapes that involved 10 players or more at the same time, they won’t remain as “just” allegations for long. Just as in the case at the University of Minnesota we discussed a couple of columns ago, video, audio, and phone records are finite, easily subpoenaed, and easily found by people who know how technology works.
And that includes what coaches say and how.
The lawsuit describes a culture of sexual violence under former Baylor football coach Art Briles in which the school implemented a “show ’em a good time” policy that “used sex to sell” the football program to recruits. That included escorting underage recruits to strip clubs and arranging women to have sex with prospective players, the suit alleges. Former assistant coach Kendal Briles — the son of the head coach — once told a Dallas-area student athlete, “Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor and they love football players,” according to the suit.
art_briles_at_2014_press_conferenceWe had to read that four or five times before it sank in, really. Throughout the multiple universities named in Title IX lawsuits over the past five years has been a key phrase: “culture of rape.” The Title IX suit that the University of Tennessee settled in 2016 accused the school of establishing a “culture of rape,” but the UT cases involved athletes who were immediately deprived of their student-athlete privileges and removed from the team within hours of the allegations being made.
Baylor is different. At Baylor, athletes were protected by the coaches, police, and administration from facing punishment for sexual assault. At Baylor, victims were threatened into silence in order to keep that football program winning. At Baylor, everyone from the board of regents to the athletic director to university officials and police have undoubtedly contributed to what we may absolutely call, in all honesty, a “culture of rape.”
Oh, and let’s be for real here: The fans are guilty of that too.
For any normal adult human being, the idea that the major consideration in a case like this should be for the athletes and the program is incomprehensible. The fact of the matter is that at Baylor, all of the actions taken by the university were for the protection of itself, its program, and its athletes. Not the victims. Not the women who were gang-raped by 10 or more athletes who’d been conditioned to think it was okay because the coachestold them “we have a lot of women and they love football players.”
The victims, on the other hand, were told their parents would be informed of their illicit behavior. You know – drinking, drugs, and promiscuity.
So tell us, Baylor fans. How is it that the athletes involved in these crimes require more consideration than the victims do?
In no way. It can’t be.
The fact of the matter is that fans are not only entitled to expect explanations from universities and the NCAA regarding athlete-involved crimes where a student sexually assaults another student but we, as fans, must accept responsibility for our own part in creating an atmosphere on college campuses across the country in which injustice, torture, and persecution are acceptable as long as the team keeps on winning.
As usual, Lindstrom and Majer bring a sharp focus onto the real issues buried within the larger story. Majer weighs in on the role that football fans play in the dilemma that’s exemplified at Baylor:
The money a winning football team brings to a school also attracts alumni donations. It’s a loop of sorts: give to the team, win big, get money back to school. If covering up for a star player leads to more wins, which could turn into dollars, a program might be tempted to cover up for a player’s misdeeds.
This is borne out by Baylor’s rise to prominence as a football program. Disgraced head coach Art Briles was hired on the heels of a 3-9 2007 record under former head coach Guy Morriss. Under Briles’s “show ’em a good time” recruiting philosophy, the program thrived, as evidenced by their W-L record during his tenure.
Still not convinced?
The plans to build a new stadium began in 2011, when Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy.
In July 2012, Baylor’s board of regents approved the building of the new, state-of-the-art McLane stadium. The stadium was ready for the season opener on August 31, 2014 at a cost of $266 million dollars – dollars that had been raised since Briles became the head coach.
You read that correctly. Baylor raised over a quarter of a billion dollars and built a brand new stadium from the ground up in three years. Three. Years. From 2011-2014, right?
Friday’s new lawsuit, remember, alleges 52 rapes committed by 31 football players from 2011-2014.
Every dollar spent on McLane Stadium was blood money, handed over by donors, boosters, alumni and the state of Texas to a university that was busily threatening, punishing, and marginalizing rape victims while issuing self-congratulatory reports about its purpose as exemplified by its mission statement:
The mission of Baylor University is to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.
And while it would be devastatingly simple to break down that mission statement word by word, the sorry fact of the matter is that we don’t have to. This mission statement is a bunch of words, jumbled together and spewed out as rote. We don’t have to break it down because Baylor has proven that every single word is categorically and emphatically the direct opposite of what Baylor actually does. And while some fans, like the Finebaum caller we mentioned earlier, may think that since the erstwhile president, athletic director, head football coach, and all the assistant football coaches are gone Baylor has been punished enough, that’s really not the case.
baylor_university_june_2016_69_mclane_stadiumUnfortunately, convincing Baylor fans of the necessity for further penalties appears to be a lost cause. Surprisingly, Baylor fans are continuing to stand by Art Briles, with some boosters and alumni spending thousands of dollars to “protest” his dismissal. Briles, astonishingly, is suing Baylor for his firing. And as more victims come forward and the sheer scale of the program’s horrific actions continues to grow, the definition of a “culture of rape” is shockingly, unbelievably clear.
culture of rape (phrase) – 1. a sociological concept used to describe a setting in which rape is pervasive and normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality 2. Baylor University
Come on down to Baylor! We’ve got lots of women and they love football players.
There you go, folks. A bona fide, in your face, without-a-shred-of-morality culture of rape.
But here’s where we need to begin drawing the line – not just at Baylor, but at the universities of which we are fans, alumni, or (in the case of our home state schools) supporters via our tax dollars. As fans, we hold the ultimate trump card and that’s the almighty dollar, as Lindstrom remarked:
“Fans as the ultimate consumers can speak with their dollars. Anybody who makes a conscious choice to give money to universities to watch these athletes [is] contributing.”
Which is absolutely true. Majer expanded with another serious consideration:
“Fans, especially student fans, need to see come kind of punishment for athletes who commit crimes. I cannot imagine being a victim of a star player and having to see him get all kinds of attention from the fans and the media every week.”
So the problem isn’t as simple as he said/she said. The issues that are driving the catastrophic rise of student-athletes committing crimes, and particularly sexual assault, are entrenched. They are also not new. Enabling criminal activity has been a part of college football culture for decades. Fans expect wins, and they demand the coaches provide those wins regardless of the cost. Universities rely upon the college football cash cow, and the NCAA does as well. Players are shown as recruits that their personal behavior isn’t a priority for those win-starved coaches, and then undertake criminal activity because they are confident the coaches and the university will either enable those activities or genuinely obstruct any attempts to discipline the player. The administrations are counting on the NCAA not getting overly involved in student-athlete crimes, although they’re paranoid about breakfast buffets and photo ops during official visits by top recruits. And the NCAA believes it is answerable to whom?
But that’s not the case, according to Lindstrom.
At the very least, fans have a right to expect the NCAA to not cover up or actively support anyone who is involved in criminal activity. The question comes in with how much they should get involved when schools dropped the ball. Baylor is a clear example of this. Especially because we’re talking about student-athlete on student violence, it absolutely is in the purview of the NCAA. This is not the Penn State situation.
What it boils down to is this: There’s a serious problem in this country and has been for some time. Athletes at the collegiate and pro levels support and subsidize a system that enables their criminal behavior in return. Not all schools do this. Most athletes never commit any offense worse than a speeding ticket. Not all coaches enable their players by overlooking their actions.
But those programs, those coaches, those players who do are operating within a back-scratching good-ole-boy-network mentality that football fans, boosters, and alumni willfully ignore because all they care about is the win. They reward those wins with dollars, and those dollars reinforce the system that is turning a blind eye to all these behaviors.
brock_turnerAnd then when a young woman is gang-raped in Minnesota by football players while a recruit participates and onlookers text and video the event, or another woman is raped by two football players at Baylor and that event is videotaped and passed around to teammates who were told by a coach during recruiting to come to Baylor because they have lots of women and they love football players, or an unconscious woman is found by a Stanford athlete who rapes her in a parking lot instead of calling emergency services – what’s the first thing you hear from fans?
And that, fellow football fans, is no one’s fault but our own.
The one absolute in cases like these is simple, but overlooked: All college students are entitled to a safe, healthy campus where they will not be preyed upon by their fellow students. Everyone from the NCAA down to the fan is obligated socially, morally, and legally to ensure the safety of every single student. If we, as fans, are to demand that the NCAA, universities, and programs guarantee that one absolute, the system we have in place now must be overhauled in its entirety. And we, too, must take a good, hard look at ourselves. By participating financially with the toxic programs discussed in this column, we are supporting the status quo.
That includes hiring coaches.
Since Briles was ejected from Baylor, the rumor mill has been grinding out a list of potential places the disgraced coach might land – both on the collegiate level and in the NFL. But with last week’s latest allegations, what does the future look like for Briles now?
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, on February 2, a series of damning text messages from Art Briles regarding victims exploded all over the internet.
When a female student-athlete reported that a football player had brandished a gun at her, the court paperwork said, Briles texted an assistant coach: “what a fool – she reporting to authorities.”
In another case, where a masseuse asked the team to discipline a player who reportedly exposed himself and asked for favors during a massage, the document said Briles’ first response was, “What kind of discipline…She a stripper?”
That, our friends, epitomizes what a “rape culture” is. That sloughing off of the real issues, blaming the victim, contemptuous laughter about the victim’s situation, is exactly what a rape culture is all about. Art Briles’s reaction to the atmosphere he himself had created in the Baylor football program is as much a rape of the victims as the actual assault was.
Interestingly, Briles dropped his wrongful termination suit against Baylor on the same day.
Even before these texts burst onto the internet just days ago, even before we worked them into an article already submitted to the editors as completed, Lindstrom’s opinion about Briles’s potential future in coaching was clear:
Throw in the new allegations that came out January 26th, it’s going to be a number of years before anybody even thinks about [Briles]. He was probably radioactive before today, but now it’s unimaginable. In fact, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with his assistant coaches that went on to other schools. Back to Briles, never is a long time but on the other hand, he isn’t a spring chicken. There’s a good chance that by the time he rehabilitates himself, if that’s possible, there will be too many good young coaches that he just won’t get work.
Majer agrees.
After this latest report on rape allegations against Baylor (52 rapes over 4 years), I do not think Briles should ever coach again on a college level. He could probably go on an NFL staff in a minor role, but I think he has shown he has no business being anywhere near the college game. Given the most recent allegations, I am disappointed that coaches who were on his staff have been hired to other programs. Clearly, these men are not concerned about the conduct of their players as long as they win games. Coaches with this attitude do not belong on the college coaching level either.
We agree. Our responsibility as fans of the game is to ensure that the poisonous ideologies exemplified by Briles, his staff, and the University of Baylor are never accepted into other collegiate programs. Never.
And until fans do that? Baylor is only the tip of a very toxic iceberg.