Murder of football player in Kansas shakes town (cont.)
The fact that even economically disadvantaged students end up footing the percentage of tuition not covered by athletic scholarships (usually through a combination of loans and need-based awards like Pell Grants) means that student-athletes who do succeed in the classroom tend to graduate with high amounts of debt. As of 2011, the average indebtedness of a graduating senior at Tabor was just over $27,000. Given a typical repayment scheme (say, $250 a month against $27K plus 3.4 percent interest), that can take more than a decade to reimburse -- which means that a student in Brandon Brown's situation might well be in his 40s before he stops paying for the privilege of playing football in Kansas.
Both Tabor and McPherson were skittish about media attention in the wake of Brandon Brown's murder. When I called Tabor, a series of startled-sounding administrative assistants put me in touch with a startled-sounding communications director. She informed me that Tabor has an obligation to protect the privacy of its student-athletes, and the school's president and football coach would not be not available for comment. Switching to email, I sent a direct appeal to the president himself, Jules Glanzer. He replied almost immediately and cited similar privacy and community concerns. "Please respect our wishes," he wrote. "I realize that this means that Tabor will not be included in your story, which is fine with us."
Given that the murder victim was a Tabor student, Glanzer's statement was so foolish in its wishful thinking that it was faintly endearing. In a way I could empathize with the guy, since his school is in the tough position of maintaining a prim religious image for alumni while dealing with the less-than-pious realities that come with a changing student body. Unfortunately for conservative schools like Tabor, however, nothing can guarantee the privacy of students who broadcast every aspect of their lives on Twitter and Facebook.
I had, in fact, been following the Twitter feeds of a dozen or so out-of-state Tabor football players for the previous couple of weeks. They seemed like decent enough guys. @KLew_7, a senior defensive back from Atlanta, took his studies seriously, didn't swear or use the n-word in his tweets, and gave thanks to the Heavenly Father each morning for another day of life. But his positive attitude was offset by darker moods ("Father, please give me strength to get through my remaining time here at this school"). @KLew_7 was particularly irritated by what he saw as insincerity in the wake of Brown's death. "Takes something like this to happen to 'bring us closer together' yeah right save it," he tweeted during one Tabor chapel service. "Didn't care about who he was before this happened I bet."
Based on their day-to-day tweets, Tabor's out-of-state players have the same interests and obsessions as male student-athletes most anywhere in the U.S. They enjoy watching SpongeBob, The Family Guy and online porn. They have respect for their coaches and take their workouts seriously. Some players tweet about getting stoned; others tweet Bible verses. @AirLawrence23, a freshman defensive lineman from Houston, is upbeat about his time at Tabor, especially after he has a good game ("I f----g LOVE college son!"), while @partinmyhead, a freshman defensive back from Houston, is stymied by the lack of social options ("nigga be bored at tabor be needing somethin 2 do"). @M_missile23, a senior defensive back from Orange County, Calif., is reverent in his faith and diligent in his studies ("If i dont get an A on that business test ima be one mad mexican"), while @bigjoe68210, a sophomore defensive lineman from San Antonio, wishes professors would stop talking about God so much ("just teach me about science ...). Other frequent Twitter themes include racial alienation ("I miss my brown people, too many white folk round here"), the standoffishness of girls on campus ("said hi to a girl at tabor. . . . She think im creepin now") and the almost unanimous conviction that Tabor's professors might lecture better if they had sex more often.
McPherson's president, Michael Schneider, is a handsome guy in his late 30s who dresses like an undergrad (black pullover with the collar up, gray pants, Puma sneakers with no socks) and is well aware of his students' Twitter habits. He told me that what happened to Brown (and Paul Ziegler) had had an outsized effect on his small campus, and letting a journalist interview his students would be socially and emotionally distracting for them. He also noted that the criminal investigation was still ongoing. "There's a lot we still don't know about what happened that night," he said. "What if they end up arresting some of the guys you talk to? It would be irresponsible of me to risk something like that."
In Kansas we tend to avoid discussing race until we have no other choice but to do so. I talked to upward of 40 people with KCAC ties in the weeks after Brown's death, and even off the record they were reluctant to address the fact that both the victim and the suspects in the incident are black. Whenever I used the phrase out-of-state athletes in a context that implied race, they took great pains to remind me that not all student-athletes who come to Kansas from other places are minorities.
Marcos Franco, a senior wide receiver at Bethany, has no such inhibitions when it comes to talking about race. We arranged to meet in the basement of the student union building after a campus poetry slam. When I arrived, an Afro-Latino kid in a black Bethany College hoodie held up one of his big receiver hands and waved me over to a lunch table. He told me about his upbringing, how his family left a crime-infested part of Chicago when he was eight and settled near relatives 10 miles east of downtown Dallas. This new neighborhood had dangers of its own, but Franco stayed out of trouble by focusing on sports. Two or three small colleges scouted him during his senior year of high school, and Bethany showed the strongest interest. Franco had scarcely spent any time around white people, but his family encouraged him to give the tiny Lutheran college a try. "My father said that nine times out of 10 your manager in life will be white," Franco recalled. "And even if he's not white, then the man above him will be white. That's just the way this country is, and if you want to be successful you should learn how to act around white people. He told me I should watch what they do, how they take care of their business, and do things the same way."
Life in Kansas did not begin well for Franco. It didn't help that his Texas high school had focused on getting students to pass a standardized basic-skills test, and he wasn't prepared for college-level studies. It also didn't help that he'd been recruited for a Bethany team that was having a thug problem. Not wanting to back down from confrontations in his new environment, Franco wound up brawling with a couple teammates from Houston, both on and off the field. "After that year [Coach Jamie Cruce] got us together," Franco recalled. "He told us he'd rather recruit a group of good guys and go 0-10 than recruit another group of thugs and go 10-0."
Fewer than 10 players in that 45-man recruiting class returned to Bethany the following year. "A lot of those guys weren't here for anything," Franco said. "They just came because they didn't want to stop playing ball after high school. A couple guys were drinking it up, smoking weed every day, not going to class, always talking about going back home, always starting fights with people. They didn't even try to fit in."
After the student union closed we headed to the dorm, where Marcos introduced me to his roommate, Steven Williams, a strapping junior defensive end from Houston. Steven told me how he came to Kansas sight-unseen after having sent his highlight video to every college coach in Texas ("Bethany was the last piece of pie in the pan," he said, "so I took it.") He didn't come from a rough neighborhood like Marcos did, and his transition to college was comparatively smooth. "I felt I had a lot to prove in coming to Kansas," Steven said. "There was no way I was gonna go to a school in the middle of nowhere just to flunk out and go back home. I like the challenge of coming up here and proving to the white folk that I'm not just some black high-jumping dunking brother."
Marcos added that the turning point was for him as a college student came when his old teammates didn't return to Bethany after his first year. Away from their negative influence, he got more involved with daily life on-campus. He began to date a girl who helped him study with more discipline, and he made new friends, including Steven, whom he now considers family. "Being in Kansas forced me to figure out who I was," he said. "There was nothing else for me to do here, so I developed a personality."
When I asked about what happened to Brown in McPherson, Franco noted that football is a form of legal violence, and this adds to the tension when players from an opposing team turn up at a house party. "It was early in the season, and those two teams hadn't played each other yet," Franco said. "It's easy to take things too far, trying to be the toughest guy there. Somebody needed to tell those guys they weren't in a big city anymore. This is someplace new, and if you don't learn how to act new, situations like that can escalate into some serious trouble."
A few days later I finally heard from Alton Franklin's attorney, who granted me permission to visit his client in the McPherson County jail. I was required to submit my questions in advance and conduct the interview with the lawyer present, so I wasn't hoping to get information about what happened the night Brown was beaten. I mainly wanted to get a sense for who Franklin is.
We met in the jail's attorney-client conference room. Franklin walked in wearing jailhouse stripes with orange slippers, and he looked at least an inch shorter than the 5-7 listed on McPherson's roster. He acted a little nervous, but he seemed like a pleasant enough kid. He told me that he started playing youth-league football at age 10, and over time he learned to make up for his small size by being extra-aggressive. He followed a former high school teammate to McPherson, and his mom approved of his move to Kansas but expressed concern about tornadoes. He's studying to be a gym coach, and his classes give him the chance to try out sports he's never played, such as field hockey and Ultimate Frisbee. He has yet to play a game for McPherson, because he redshirted his freshman season and was suspended for bad grades in advance of the 2012 season. When I asked him why he likes to play football, he talked about the sport's sense of unity. "You all gotta be in the same mindset to win," he said. "But it's not even about winning. It's about being a brotherhood, and staying together. If somebody is out of tune, that could bring the whole team down."