Riot Rhythm: Ole Miss and its football recruits believe there's nothing to see here

An incident errantly described as a riot resonated long past one night, thanks to the history of the place where it happened.

If you believe in such a concept as a "New South," Devante Kincade is the prodigal son of that utopia. The 6'1, 185-pound Elite 11 quarterback was born and raised in the heart of the Dallas Metroplex. Yet the current showstopper of Skyline High School's storied program also happens to be America's biggest Ole Miss fan.

"It's just a great family. I've always had a great relationship with those coaches. Plus it will be good to come in and follow behind Eli [Manning]. Try and break some of those records, you know?" he says, laughing.

That a young African-American athlete from a major city would be infatuated with the University of Mississippi Rebels isn't much to note. Everyone around Ole Miss is eager tell visitors the campus' history is just that: history. As an alumnus of the university, I usually struggle to completely agree or disagree with that sentiment.

That Kincade, a top national quarterback prospect with listed offers from Notre Dame, Nebraska and Kansas State (among others), would not only commit to the Rebels two months prior to his senior season at Skyline but also become a de facto recruiter to other potential signees is the impressive part of the story. It is also more of a testament to new head coach Hugh Freeze's recruiting abilities than some kind of new revelation in Southern studies.

Kincade also holds such a passion without having ever stepped foot on campus at Ole Miss, and without having ever visited the state of Mississippi before last Saturday - four days after Ole Miss again made national headlines for racial "tension" after an "incident" with students.

***

Exactly 50 years ago this football season, one of America's most famous race riots broke out in front of The Lyceum building on the heart of the Ole Miss campus. President John F. Kennedy sent in the National Guard to call the bluff of segregationist governor Ross Barnett and an angry, all-white student body. Two people were killed in a riot that drew thousands of federal soldiers. James Meredith, the first black student in Ole Miss history, enrolled the next day.

Last Tuesday night, a handful of drunk students, mad about the re-election of President Barack Obama, took to a bout of hell-raising. Published reports indicated an initial group of 20 to 40 people spilled out from a residence hall, where fire alarms were pulled and Obama campaign signs burned. The group then gathered at the Ole Miss Student Union, but through the magic of social media, a throng of nearly 400, both pro and anti-Obama, had gathered just over midnight.

Nothing save for the burned signs was destroyed. There were no reports of injuries or violence, and two arrests for failure to comply with police. According to accounts given to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the entire event ran 90 minutes from start to finish (click here for a gallery at The Daily Mississippian), and would've been forgotten except for two issues that warring sides in a neverending debate have used against each other for a half-century or longer.

***

1. In a statement from Chancellor Dan Jones released the following day, university police confirmed the use of racially offensive language and the chant "The South Will Rise Again," banned by Jones three years ago after students would cry it out at the end of "From Dixie with Love," formerly an in-game Ole Miss fight song. That confirmation validated one belief: that absolutely nothing has changed in 50 years at Ole Miss.

The acknowledgement from the Chancellor that racially offensive language was used would be the kindling needed to push the incident to a national headline status, a story fueled by the campus' well-known, well-told past. Columnists from around the nation had the exact narrative they needed - that racism and violence were still as present at Ole Miss today as they had been 50 years ago. By Wednesday afternoon, the incident had become national news.

2. Frustrated fans, alumni and students targeted the precarious use of the word "riot" to describe the event. Whereas any other university might not be as sensitive to that specific label, Ole Miss' history combined with present day Southern zeitgeist has created a powerful mistrust of the national media, and not just along the usual political party lines. On Wednesday, Freeze and Jones would decry the media's reporting of the event as a "riot." Freeze himself specifically targeted the local media:

"In the thirty or so kids that gathered to do whatever they were going to call that, which by the way happened at a lot of places across the nation and not just at Ole Miss," Freeze said. "I’m very disappointed in our local media that took it upon themselves to run with it and make it into something it wasn’t. We are our own worst enemy when we do those kinds of things. It’s not, in my opinion, proper journalism, and that’s frustrating."

After all, many in the Ole Miss community would argue, racial tension exists worldwide and incidents occur everyday without media magnification. Just a few weeks prior, three Pittsburgh football players were arrested for an assault in which one player, running back Ray Graham, allegedly used a racial slur against a Pitt student. And scores of reports on bizarre, racially framed Obama outrage were coming in from across the country after Election Night.

It was understood among the Ole Miss press corps that the "local media" Freeze meant to specifically target was the student media on campus at Ole Miss. The first use of the word "riot" by any reporter came from Margaret Ann Morgan, a student reporter for Newswatch 99, the campus TV station (Please note: the chronology below is ascending):

Screen_shot_2012-11-15_at_9

Morgan said during a phone interview on Saturday that after a certain point in the evening, the decision was made by student media not to classify the incident as a riot:

To an angry, embarrassed Ole Miss community, this was all Morgan's fault first.

***

On Wednesday morning, another verbal commitment for the Ole Miss class of 2013, running back Mark Dodson of Memphis' Whitehaven High School, confirmed the greatest fear for Rebel coaches trying to ressurect a program that has never won the SEC West outright and has, since '62, become an afterthought in the national conversation:

The first response to his early morning tweet was Kincade's:

Both Kincade and Dodson would make official visit to campus on Saturday as 5-4 Ole Miss played Vanderbilt. It would be Kincade's first-ever trip to Mississippi.

***

A few hours later, as the university scrambled to find hard facts among a litany of rumors and claims, an Ole Miss student named Brandon Adams took to Twitter and identified himself as one of the people at the sign burning.

Screen_shot_2012-11-14_at_6

Adams appears to be the individual on the far right of the picture:

Signburn_medium

Adams is a native of South Carolina, who, per his Facebook page, transferred to Ole Miss this semester from Clemson. After identifying himself on Wednesday morning, he would spend the rest of the afternoon arguing about the night prior; his specific role in the previous night's events, his justification for being at the protest and his personal politics, which according to his then-public Twitter feed the night before, involved being furious over the re-election of Obama. Still, Adams committed no crime. He was merely the only person present at the incident who admitted to being a part of the group that burned an Obama campaign sign, although there's no evidence he himself burned anything or used offensive language.

However, in the public forum, Adams retweeted offensive language about the election results shortly before the Tuesday night protest occurred. The next day, he took to social media to argue his point on the same account.

Adams did not respond to requests for an interview. By Saturday his Twitter account was set to private viewing only.

***

Deuce McAllister is a native of Morton, Miss., a superstar for the Rebels in the late 1990s in the program's resurgence under former head coach Tommy Tuberville. McAllister was taken in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, led the league in rushing in 2002 and made two Pro Bowls in his seven-year career. When he retired he returned to Mississippi, and he was one of the first to speak out against the Tuesday night protest.

Almost a week later, his tone had calmed considerably. Although the frustration was still apparent, he was more vocal on the coverage of the incident, saying that it wouldn't have been national news had it not taken place at Ole Miss.

"You can't change the perception," he said. "An incident like this is going to get amplified more because of the past. We can’t condone what happened in any sense of the term, but if you look at the police report, this wasn't what it was made out to be. But over-the-top sells better. You need headlines, and if you can grab one with the word 'riot,' that’s what you do."

In addition to rebuilding the Rebels after probation and bringing in talent like McAllister, Tuberville's tenure is best known for the beginning of the end of the Confederate flag at Ole Miss. After meeting with his players (including a vocal McAllister) and lobbying university officials, Tuberville had the usual sea of Confederate flags removed from Vaught-Hemingway through a creative ban on sticks, not flags, as an in-stadium safety measure in 1997. The then-wildly unpopular move would be bookended In 2003, during Eli Manning's senior season, when the school removed the Colonel Reb mascot from the sidelines, as well as from all official university materials and merchandise.

"[The flag] did bother me. Yeah, it did. As an athlete you try not to get too caught up in that, but there was part of you that noticed. And when it left, that’s when you see the university start to make the progression and understand that it was only hurting itself," McAllister said.

***

Under the stately oaks of the Grove, opulent tailgating and gameday fashions have earned Ole Miss a reputation as a must-see mecca for sports fans and Southern culture buffs as well as a racially torn, stubborn culture of traditional conservatism. Ole Miss, through its symbolism and attitudes, has become something of a totem for political conservatives nationally - most with no personal tie to the university or state.

In the last decade-plus, the understanding has been that if the New York Times or Washington Post are in town, it's either for the tailgating or the history. The two are in many ways interminably connected, a point almost every national journalist seems to miss.

Around campus, it's always depended not on where you look, but how you see it. Walking through the Grove before Saturday's game against Vanderbilt, you'd notice most tents have banners bearing the names or locales of the hosts: "Meridian Rebels." "Hotty Toddy, Germantown Rebels." One entirely innocuous banner claims "The Free State of Jones," a reference to Jones County, Miss., an area that according to a much-debated story, became a haven for Confederate deserters and slave owners unwilling to fight, and thus "seceded" from both Mississippi and the Union.The culture of the past, good and bad, is crammed into almost every facet of the Ole Miss experience.

At the corner of intersecting walkways is an oversized inflatable Colonel Rebel, the once-official mascot of the University. The mascot has been banned in some fashion for almost a decade now, but he's ever-present among tailgaters. Children are writing their names on the vinyl blow-up with magic markers. There is no effort to censor signs or items featuring the Colonel.

Only once on Saturday did I hear the infamous "TSWRA." Shortly before kickoff a group of tailgaters blared "From Dixie with Love" from a car stereo, and a pair of fans, one black and one white, jumped to their feet to mockingly chant, "The South will rise again!" at the corresponding crescendo. They did so laughingly. From across the street I watched them then shrug and roll their eyes before plopping back down to pour another drink.

***

This week I talked to a former Ole Miss assistant coach who has recruited for the Rebels in the post-flag, post-Colonel era. He said he never encountered a recruit hesitant to commit because of racial tension or any kind of social dynamic.

"Honestly, I think [last Tuesday night] was an isolated incident. And if you’d try to use that against the school [in recruiting], it’s pretty low. Especially after all they’ve done there. I think there’s two sides to that story. If you do that, it can backfire in a recruiter’s face. It could go the other way if you tried that with people that are educated about the progress made on that campus. You could insult them and lose a commitment."

He said he'd never lost a recruit to the perception of Ole Miss, nor had it even come up while he was on the job.

"These kids just want to play."

***

On Wednesday, multiple active Ole Miss football players began tweeting the same statement:

While I never expected Freeze to stray from the narrative he built, the circumstances for him to reflect upon the events couldn't be worse: he's fresh from a last-minute, 27-26 loss to Vanderbilt that could very well keep the now 5-5 Rebels from a bowl bid.

"Yeah, it’s frustrating. Any campus you go on there’s ignorant people, whether you’re talking about what happened here or [about how] what happened here happened at a lot of campuses. You know, unfortunately, we’re a lightning rod for that. I know this, I know the kids in our locker room and our coaches are nothing like that and I know that the Ole Miss people aren’t for the large percentage. We addressed it but we know what the truth, and hopefully the truth is good enough."

"I just tell them to be honest and tell people what we’re about. You know, we’re a family and we love one another no matter what the color is of our skin. That’s who we are"

Were any of his players concerned about what happened? Were any upset?

Freeze pauses and then shrugs.

"Nope. No, not that I can remember."

***

Marvin King is an associate professor of political science at Ole Miss, a title he held when the Klan showed up in 2009, and when another student, an undergraduate from Atlanta named Michael Hudec, became momentarily famous for a racist tirade videotaped in the Grove on a football Saturday.

"I was appalled, disgusted, humiliated ... I think those students did a disservice to the university."

I asked him if there's something to a growing trend of out-of-state students with hardline conservative beliefs coming to Ole Miss thinking it's a haven for that mentality by virtue of its marketing and image.

"I think you can ask that question, it’s a fair one. Do we attract that kind of student to this campus? Do the symbols of Ole Miss attract a type of student that thinks those attitudes are accepted here? These incidents occur everywhere, but the difference is, they seem to happen with some regularity here, for whatever reason. You hope the university would develop some sort of way to arrest that."

"It was blown up because it's Ole Miss, absolutely, but we've earned that. There's no doubt we get more coverage than other places, but our problem isn't the media, it's the racialized incident. I'm interested in how the administration would handle this if there was no media coverage. They should be taking a proactive role no matter the amount of attention."

While not officially announced, nor confirmed by university officials, a committee of administrators and staff at Ole Miss is currently investigating the incident to explore any potential punishment that could be handed out. One source stated on Wednesday that the committee is exercising extreme caution in order not to create a First Amendment issue, but that the University Creed binds an Ole Miss student to a certain code of conduct, and that offensive language towards others on campus could be grounds for expulsion. Identifying those responsible and providing hard evidence may be impossible, though.

The committee, arguably the first of its kind on campus, might be the first sign of an exhausted, angry university aware of its overexposed status with the national media and fed up with any student or employee who would set off another round of negative press. 24 hours after the protest/riot, a candlelight vigil promoting "One Mississippi" was held on campus.

It drew almost double the amount of students and a fraction of the national coverage.

***

I know from firsthand experience how convenient it is to write off a student journalist in Oxford. On campus at Ole Miss, the perception of the large majority of Daily Mississippian and Newswatch staffers is that of liberal outsiders with an anti-tradition, anti-Greek system agenda. Among the most conspiratorial, student journalists at Ole Miss are "just plain-out anti-Ole Miss."

I talked to Morgan on Saturday morning. She'd already spoken to most of the newspapers across the state, and had little to add. She wouldn't elaborate on any particular incidents of harassment, but she sounded exhausted.

Morgan: It's certainly been interesting. Definitely something I'll remember.

Me: I bet. But don't worry too much, these things have a way of blowing over, sort of.

Morgan: I know.

Me: I heard you're also an intern for University P.R., so this really must have been quite the week.

Morgan: Oh yeah, and when you combine that with just coming off the campus election, it's crazy.

Me: Election?

Morgan: Yeah. I'm also Miss Ole Miss.

Me: ...you've got to be kidding.

Morgan is a member of the founding chapter of the Delta Gamma sorority. As Miss Ole Miss, she may be the sorority member on the Ole Miss campus. Brandon Adams - like Hudec before him - has no affiliation to Mississippi and was a transfer to campus. According to three sources on campus, he went through fraternity rush this year but left after pledging an on-campus frat but never paying dues and failing to show up for meetings. His entire stint in the Greek system lasted under a month.

***

For better or worse, nothing has forced integration in the American South faster and more effective than college football.

"Sports in general does that," McAllister says. "Obviously football is king in the South. Football is a game that, regardless of ethnicity or history, you have to be equals. I don't care about what color that man is, he's my teammate. Even in the South."

At Ole Miss, the pastoral setting and gobs of Antebellum imagery only further illuminate the dichotomy - and irony - of largely white, affluent fans cheering on a largely black, working class team of players. I asked McAllister if the present day culture of Ole Miss was appealing to young African-Americans.

"It depends on what you want. For me, it certainly was. Obviously the NFL was my goal at the time, but if you're looking to achieve in something like business, the opportunity is great. On the field and off the field, there was a ton of opportunity for me."

When football has been successful at Ole Miss, the past 15 years worth of slow image transitioning is rarely discussed, and when single-issue dissenters try and go public with campaigns to restore, repeal or attack on various issues, they're shouted down by fans black, white, rich and poor alike, all in the name of football.

When the Rebels have struggled, however, those issues have dominated the conversation among fans and across the state. For years I've tried to cajole former athletic director Pete Boone into admitting that the removal of Colonel Reb in midseason of '03 - the Rebels' strongest year in decades and a national coming out party for Eli - was timed with the success of the football team. He never admitted as much, but when a tattered handful of Ku Klux Klan members protested the banning of "The South Will Rise Again" in 2009, the fact it came on the same day Ole Miss beat LSU at home to clinch a nine-win season drowned out whatever was left of the argument over "TSWRA" among actual students and alumni.

***

Devante Kincade loved it. All of it. Every bit of it.

Following his first official visit to campus, he beamed.

"Aw, the family. It's the family. When I first got there on campus, I was looking for the other recruits. Mainly looking for Robert [Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 1 2013 prospect]. Just wanted to talk to all those boys. Honestly, the place grew on me even more. I don't know, it was just a family atmosphere. People come up and try to talk to you, to greet you. They were inviting me to go to their tents. Everyone has to go see it for themselves."

Dodson returned home to Memphis with his concerns erased.

"Coach Freeze came out of nowhere and started talking about it. He said everywhere you go there's going to be ignorant people, that it happened on other campuses and other places even worse and that didn't get the attention."

Kincade: "We talked about it, but I'd already heard from students that it was a bunch of freshman that were probably drunk.

Dodson said Kincade's mother was a little concerned before their visit, but by Saturday she was having a great time, and so was his mother.

***

"Short term, this may affect recruiting, but not long term," McAllister says. "You look at the university and how far they've come, they've reached the pinnacle they've strived and made a concerted effort and prove that they are beyond certain things in the past."

His message to the greater Ole Miss community:

"You have to do what's best for the university. Whatever the different staffs need, those guys need the tools to be successful, especially the coaches."

Despite the response, it's impossible to think this won't happen again in some form or fashion. Whether that's a fault of Ole Miss, or a symptom of larger societal problem is a daily debate in Oxford. While there's a consensus that any event, consequential or not, that takes place on the Ole Miss campus will receive a disproportionate amount of national media coverage, no one in leadership at Ole Miss has acknowledged that fact in an effort to rally the entire community to act and express themselves at a higher standard.

"I do not envy the administration here," King says. "They've got tough choices to make here, there's a lot of cross pressures; students who just want to be left alone, alumni who feel unfairly maligned, parents worried about safety, and faculty who want the university to move faster than it probably can. I think you can make a good argument that it's better to be proactive. If you're going to err, err on the side of trying to do too much rather than waiting to get embarrassed the next time."

It's possible that most in the Ole Miss community, while angry and embarrassed, view last week as an ultimately damage-free incident. The fallout seems to have had zero effect on the bottom line when it comes to attracting young African-American student athletes to Ole Miss.

"Hey," Kincade says, "there's stuff way worse than Ole Miss going on out there."

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