Barker rant raises bigger question in college sports

Let us all give thanks for the Internet. For it has delivered the fascinating and disturbing rant of all athlete rants from former University of Minnesota receiver A.J. Barker.

Barker, Minnesota's leading receiver, announced via Twitter that he was quitting the team. The move came in response to allegations that he received verbal abuse and manipulation from head coach Jerry Kill and other coaches during his three seasons and that the Golden Gophers' mishandled his recent ankle injury. Barker followed up his announcement with a searing 4,000-plus word online letter subtitled "My Letter to Jerry Kill, Why I quit."

And you thought "Basketball Wives" and "Housewives" owned the trademark on drama.

It's easy to dismiss this as another spoiled athlete spouting off on social media, and I suspect few people burned 30 minutes of their lives to read his War and Peace tumblr novel.

No worries. I did the heavy lifting for you, and let me tell you, this story deserves a deeper look because it raised critical questions about the gaping power imbalance between administrators and athletes in the multimillion-dollar business of college sports.

Whether it's Penn State, Ohio State or Miami, we're talking about adults who believed building winning programs was worth risking the integrity of young people. Sometimes that meant turning a blind eye to rule-breaking, ignoring a monster for the sake of image protection or, in the case of Barker, allegedly pushing an athlete beyond his or her physical limits.

Barker alleged Kill blasted him in front of teammates at practice for challenging a recommended rehab plan from the team trainer. He wasn't recovering fast enough and this was somehow his fault.

Barker says it took about two weeks before an MRI was taken after the initial injury caused by a late hit in the end zone against Purdue on Oct. 27. The exam confirmed his fears; he had tears to his anterior talofibular ligament and bruising to the bone above his heel.

He says he was accused of not working hard enough, and the coach threatened to withhold a scholarship.

Here's the kicker: Barker was a walk-on.

There's two sides to every story, of course. Kill denied Barker's lengthy accusations of mistreatment.

"I feel bad for A.J. I feel bad that that's the way he feels about the situation," Kill said Monday.

But it's hard to overlook the fact that Kill gets paid $1.7 million dollars to coach a mediocre Big Ten team, while Barker paid thousands of dollars to play for a mediocre team.

The bigger issue hidden in Barker's rambling is the actual or perceived negligence from administrators concerning his injury and the fact he felt bullied for expressing concern over his health. The truly unsettling part is how common of an issue this is in college sports, according to Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA linebacker and founder of the National College Players Association.

Huma gets frequent calls from parents and athletes from all NCAA divisions seeking help regarding administrators allegedly putting athletes' safety in jeopardy by pushing them play despite suffering significant injuries.

"It's not really a problem that's contained where you can say it's just big-time football or big-time basketball," Huma said. "It's really a pervasive issue."

Remember former Oklahoma basketball player Kyle Hardrick? Last year, Hardrick's mother, Valerie, claimed team medical officials did not correctly identify or aggressively treat his knee injury. Team officials devised a rehab plan for torn meniscus and far greater damage was discovered during surgery. Administrators eventually dropped his scholarship.

Last month, USC receiver Robert Woods stumbled to the ground and nearly to the wrong sideline after a brutal hit. Amazingly, team officials said he passed a concussion test and sent him back in the game.

I hope the events leading to this messy, public breakup between Barker and Kill was an epic misunderstanding. I'd hate to think a hard-working, non-scholarship player is being berated — or worse, bullied — for being protective about his most valuable asset to any team — his health.

sjowens@orlandosentinel.com

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