The beef between Arkansas and Arkansas State flares up
One side views in-state rivalry as detriment to harmony. The other side sees in-state rivalry as healthy sportsmanship. Are both right?
A number of circumstances likely contributed to a sudden renewed interest in the Arkansas Razorbacks archaic policy for not playing in-state opponents. The Hogs are losing and the Red Wolves are performing well is one such circumstance. Another? The University of Arkansas’ contract with Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium is coming to a messy conclusion, and many wonder why the state’s two biggest football programs can’t meet there to keep Old Lady WM alive. A third circumstance is that Arkansas State is hosting University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff this Saturday, while the Razorbacks seem content with treating its fans to the Florida A&Ms of the world.
Whatever the reason, The Policy is back in the news. Recently, representatives from both of the state’s major programs were asked to weigh in. The responses could not be more opposite. This is UofA Athletic Director Jeff Long, speaking at the Little Rock Touchdown Club, responding to playing in-state teams:
There are no plans and no discussions to play ASU. We’ve had the longstanding policy of not playing in-state schools because we feel like it divides people in the state. Right now, from our point of view, somebody can be a UCA grad, they can be a UA-Monticello grad, they can be an Arkansas State grad and they can still be a Razorback. Again, coming from a small state, we need as many fans cheering for us and pulling for us and engaging with us, coming to games. And if we start playing these schools, people will have to start dividing their loyalties.
Long would have Arkansan’s believe that The Policy is a purely altruistic measure to keep us from hurting ourselves. Okay! Here is Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson’s take on in-state rivalry:
We’re going to fight to have a local team on our schedule every year. (AD) Terry (Mohajir) and I agree that it’s great for the state of Arkansas. It’s great to be able to get in the car and drive and hour or two-three hours and be at a game instead of having to be on a plane. It’s great for the fan base. It’s obviously good for the community as well. It’s just something we’re committed to doing. There’s a risk involved when you do that, no doubt, that you play a team that on paper you’re better than. You’ve got to go out and execute, but I think the benefits outweigh the risks and we’re going to continue to take that approach. I want the football in the state of Arkansas from elementary school all the way ip through college to be as good as it could possibly be, so we’ve got to do our part – promote football within the state and playing a local, playing an in-state team, is one of the ways to do that.
Anderson enters the fray from the position of sportsmanship. He understands everything is silly about Long’s defense of a policy that makes no logistical sense. Let’s break down Long’s shortsighted assessment:
“We’ve had the longstanding policy of not playing in-state schools because we feel like it divides people in the state.”
First of all, who is the University of Arkansas to say what does and what doesn’t divide the state? Every state in the nation except Arkansas has a collegiate in-state rivalry. And the citizenry has somehow, against all odds, survived. Does Long really believe that Arkansans are too weak to handle the emotional impact of an Arkansas vs Arkansas State game?
“Right now, from our point of view, somebody can be a UCA grad, they can be a UA-Monticello grad, they can be an Arkansas State grad and they can still be a Razorback.”
Where does Long come off poaching the loyalties from in-state campuses without paying them the respect of a fair contest? This is absurd and insulting. Institutions like UCA and Arkansas State rely on proud and loyal alums to support the school for a lifetime. And Long wants those fans for himself?
“Again, coming from a small state, we need as many fans cheering for us and pulling for us and engaging with us, coming to games.”
This is where Long finally makes a genuine statement. You see, it’s not about protecting Arkansans’ delicate feelings. It’s about cash. Lots of it. What Long implies is that the Arkansas brand, with its thousands of fans and billions of dollars and deep-pocketed benefactors, is too fragile to meet UCA on a baseball diamond. Hey, $15M coaching buyouts don’t grow on trees.
“And if we start playing these schools, people will have to start dividing their loyalties.”
Guess what, Mr. Long? The state is already divided! That’s the delicious spice of rivalry – the antithesis of dull monopoly, which you would have us endure. The Razorbacks’ brand has grown fat and lazy without the competition fans desperately want.
Blake Anderson, on the other hand, sees the long view
Anderson knows fans need storylines to engage with brands. The Red Wolves story involves a plucky upstart who is rising to meet a challenge despite daunting odds. The Razorbacks story, as Long writes it, is “we’re rich and you have to accept our mediocrity and like it.”
But it’s even deeper (and simpler) than that. Long is an accountant. Anderson is a sportsman. He recognizes that football is not just a builder of revenue, but a builder of character. He sees the state divided not by rivalry, but by one monolithic program that is attempting to squash its competition for the sake of greed. That’s a terrible lesson.
On Saturday, Arkansas State plays UAPB, a program in the UofA system that the Razorbacks refuse to play. Fans from both teams won’t be Razorbacks. They’ll be Red Wolves and Golden Lions.
And Jeff Long will hate it.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.