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The College Football Report: Fracking And The Honey Badger

Car wash attendant turned jazz singer Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. opened the LSU-West Virginia game Saturday night at Mountaineer Field in front of 62,056 ravenous WVU fans. Regardless of your feelings about America's Got Talent, soul singers or car washes, Murphy's story is a good one. Homeless at the age of 19, Murphy dedicated himself to singing while scraping by on odd jobs. We confess, we didn't know who the hell this guy was or why the crowd was so fired up about his performance but a bit of Googling turned up news of his AGT (as the kids call it) win and - more important for fans of the home team - his hometown: Logan, West Virginia.

We were also puzzled by the emblem on Eugene's snappy WVU jacket. Perhaps we are conditioned to ignore more familiar corporate badges on team gear and uniforms, such as Nike, Russell and Under Armour, but a logo like "Friends of Coal" stands out.

West Virginia University and the coal industry maintain a cozy relationship with Friends of Coal that extends far beyond a few complimentary windbreakers. The FOC (as the kids call it) claims to "inform and educate West Virginia citizens about the coal industry and its vital role in the state's future," and part of that information campaign seems to include routing massive donations to the university.

Since 2006, the FOC has sponsored an annual game between the Mountaineers and rival Marshall University from nearby Maple Grove. The so-called Friends of Coal Bowl series, scheduled to wrap up next season, carries the heavy mark of its sponsor beyond the (football shaped!) lump of coal encased within the Governor's Cup trophy awarded to the winner. Beyond attaching the FOC name to the Coal Bowl, the lobby presumably played a part in establishing a new "tradition" for tailgating fans before each WVU home game: the Mountaineer Mantrip.

Named after a mining contraption that shuttles miners underground, the Mantrip takes place about two hours before kickoff as fans rally around the team bus and walk with the players to the stadium. Team walks are not unusual - fans, cheerleaders and the school band escort the home squad to the field at campuses across the country (although the Michigan State team walk that takes place before departing for road games is pretty bizarre; each player files past a fountain on campus and drops a penny beneath the bare ass of some sculpture.) But a team walk - or any event associated with a college athletic program - sponsored by a political advocacy group? We haven't heard of any other similar situations, nor any as problematic as the case of Friends of Coal and West Virginia.

We aren't alone in voicing our concern over the troubling nature of a public university consorting with Washington lobbyists. Local bloggers in Morgantown (writing for, appropriately enough, the City of Morgantown blog) presented an open letter to WVU President James Clements. The letter reads, in part:

With the exception of higher education and research issues that directly affect the school's mission, is it not in West Virginia University's best interest to remain as apolitical as possible? . . . What if the annual Maryland-WVU series was approached by Democratic or Republican Parties of WV? Certainly sponsorship by a group with such an obvious agenda wouldn't be considered. Why, then, is Friends of Coal given a platform for their cause?

We grant that one blogger does not represent a groundswell of local discontent about the coal industry sponsoring the Mountaineers football team. Nor can we overlook the counterargument that any lines between sponsors (corporate or otherwise) and football programs are hopelessly blurred, meaning that our critique of FOC's involvement is arbitrary and unprincipled. We would point to the openly political nature of the Friends of Coal as a counterbalance to this objection. Corporate sponsors rarely, if ever, take a position on issues as politically, environmentally and economically complicated as energy and natural resources. For example, in a 2009 press release, the Friends of Coal asserted that the coal industry, and the $7 billion dollars (their figure) it contributes to the West Virginia economy, is under attack. The release further states that:

". . . [the industry] is threatened by the Obama Administration, its allies in Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and radical anti-coal extremists. Coal use, they say, must be stopped. The nation's coal-fired electric generation plants must be shut down. Coal miners, they say, must find other work. The Friends of Coal say such arguments are based simply on politics and not on science or reason."

Other notable donors to West Virginia include Foresight Energy president Chris Cline, dubbed New King Coal by Bloomberg. In May, Cline, who also does a lot of business in Illinois, announced a donation of $5 million dollars to the university. Forbes estimates Cline's net worth at $2.3 billion, making him one of the richest (#256, to be precise) men in America.

If we decide universities should be allowed to entertain sponsorship offers from political advocacy groups, the landscape of college football - already the biggest moneymaker, by far, in the NCAA - will change dramatically. With hundreds of thousands of fans presenting a lucrative target to interest groups, insidious sponsorships will inevitably creep into every prominent aspect of the game. The guys at Exxon, for example, could sponsor neighboring Penn State. Pennsylvania is a battleground in the debate over gas and oil mined from deep beds of shale. To help sway opinions among the 106,572 attending Penn State home games, Exxon could sponsor "Frackin' Friday" pep rallies and coin a new slogan for the program: "Nittany Lions Football Is On Fire! Just Like Your Tapwater!"

For that matter, West Virginia might as well go all the way and court sponsorship money from the National Rifle Association. After all, their mascot already carries a muzzleloader.

The Honey Badger Don't Give A Shit
Just as we predicted in our season preview, LSU pasted (or mauled, as the case may be) host West Virginia last week.

LSU sophomore defensive back Tyrann Mathieu played a big part in the swarming Tiger defense that forced two fumbles and two interceptions. We first saw Mathieu produce some great plays as a true freshman last year, especially on the big stage in LSU's bowl win over Texas A&M when he forced two fumbles, recovered one, made an interception and (just for good measure) registered a sack.

He picked up where left off in Week One when he stripped a punt in the primetime game against Oregon.

As a high school senior, Mathieu was lightly recruited due to his slight stature and the increasing emphasis on size in cover corners forced to match up with Randy Moss-sized wideouts.

A native of New Orleans, Mathieu received limited interest from SEC teams - only Tennessee expressed mild interest - and even less (SMU, Southern Miss, Tulane, et al.) from outside the conference.

Even after impressive performances at summer camps hosted by the Volunteers and Alabama, coaches shied away from the diminutive back.

No one apart from Frank Wilson, a recruiter at LSU with a keen eye for talent, believed the kid was big enough or fast enough to play on an elite level.

The Rivals.com recruiting experts listed him at (generous, by about two inches) 5'10" and 170lb and ranked him as the #13 recruit at his position and #191 overall in the nation.

Not that you could tell by watching Mathieu. On Saturday night, #7 stripped a catch resulting in a fumble and, in what will stand as one of the most phenomenal plays of the 2011 season, tipped a pass to himself in an eye-opening interception to set up an LSU score.

At the age of 19, he has carved out a leadership role on what some call an NFL-caliber defense and a following in the locker room. His teammates have even coined a nickname for him inspired by Mathieu's dyed hair and a nature documentary clip gone viral: The Honey Badger.

While we deplore the current state of college football, we also - like most fans of the game - bear a deep love for the sport. Players like Mathieu help keep that feeling alive. Among rosters stocked with stud athletes recruited under dubious circumstances, here is a young man who plays with heart, the ultimate intangible combination of abandon and intensity impossible to measure or capture on paper. In other words, for us, the embodiment of what college football should be all about.

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Comments welcome.


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