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Hair of the Bear: End of the Line

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Definitely an inauspicious start to the return of this column.

NCAA Football: California at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The longstanding Bruins Nation Community Guideline prohibiting political discussion on the site is being temporarily suspended for the purpose of this post and others with respect to AB5. AB5 is a piece of legislation passed by the California State Legislature which prohibits freelance writers from publishing more than 35 submissions per year with the same entity.

You know, in retrospect maybe this wasn’t the best week to try and bring this column back.

I assume you all have heard the news by now, but just in case you haven’t heard, things are about to change around here. To recap: California Bill AB5 is one of those bills that has great intentions (stop businesses from taking advantage of vastly underpaying their labor force) but unintended consequences. In this case, poor design made it so freelance writers are limited to only 35 articles a year. Then, to follow up, Vox Media decided to take a sledgehammer to surgery by announcing an end to all contractors at all of their California-based sites, shifting instead to a handful of full-time and part-time writers covering all of the sports blogs in the state.

What does that mean for us here? For right now, it’s hard to say.

I’m trying to be diplomatic here, but there is an equal amount of blame to go around. I’ll admit to being the bleeding-heart liberal of the staff, but I can admit that AB5, as currently constructed, has a lot of flaws, but the heart of it is good. Frankly, corporations have abused what it means to be a contractor in order to skirt labor laws and fair compensation for too long.

Again being diplomatic here, but Vox Media is going to rightly carry some of the blame here. The contractor model utilized by SB Nation woefully underpaid the writers for the work they were required to complete, to the point where someone like Joe, who by his own admission is writing about 300+ articles a year, should have been a full-time staffer and paid accordingly. Even the part-timers like myself, who normally crank out 2 articles a week with a high level of analysis, were getting paid only a fraction of what they should have been under a more equitable system.

And that doesn’t leave in how badly Vox Media has wanged this announcement. Not giving the writers fair warning was a slap in the face for all the work these sites have done over the years, and the subsequent PR spin was easily disproven (my favorite? A PR person saying everyone was given advance notice, only to immediately have people point out the mass email they got was sent out after the public announcement was made). Most of the writers from other sites I have talked to have no idea what the future entails, and to announce this all before Christmas is just the icing on this sad cake.

That Vox Media is moving forward in this fashion, to me, shows that they don’t understand the heart of what made these communities so successful. It is the unique voices at each of these sites that make them what they are. For me, I was brought to this site during the Pauley renovation fiasco - I was young (well, I’m still young, but real young then) and the words of people like gbruin, Ryan Rosenblatt, MexiBruin, and yes even Nestor resonated with me. When Greg and Joe took over the site, I was excited as I thought it would lead to a new path forward, which is why I signed up. Writing things like basketball postgames and Eye Tests and the offseason profiles brought me my own sense of joy, and interacting with all of you remained one of the more enjoyable aspects of my “job” here. Shifting to a handful of full-time writers to cover the entirety of the California sports teams is going to remove that personal touch, and is eerily reminiscent of what TheMaven is doing to Sports Illustrated. SB Nation’s tagline was “By the fans, for the fans”, but this move stands in contrast to that mission statement.

So where does that leave me? It’s hard to say. At the very least, I’ll be sticking around for a few months while I figure out the next step. Depending on how Vox Media chooses to proceed after this backlash, it may include sticking around in a part-time role. In any case, I’m sure you all will be one of the first to know.

But enough about that, let’s move on to some other stuff.


I wanted to bring back Hair of the Bear to give me a general catch-all column I could write to cover a variety of topics, so let’s shift to a happier topic and discuss.....UCLA football recruiting?

Ugh.

As of right now, the Bruins are ranked 29th nationally and 4th in the Pac-12 according to 247Sports Composite Rankings, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. For example, we could be Southern Cal at the moment, who is sitting down there at 82nd in the nation. But that ranking belies that there are some glaring holes in the recruiting class.

Let’s take quarterback for example. UCLA has a commitment from Parker McQuarrie, who is a composite four-star recruit. But 247Sports themselves recently downgraded him to a 3-star, and a flurry of activity from UCLA towards other recruits like CJ Stroud indicates that the Bruins may not be fully confident in their QB options. All of this looms in the shadow of the Bryce Young recruitment, as the 5-star was a UCLA legacy who desperately wanted an offer but Chip Kelly refused because he was a junior at the time. Since then, UCLA has been completely on the outside, as Young went from Southern Cal to Alabama without giving the program that spurned him much thought.

Or take offensive line, where UCLA desperately needs to bring in bodies, but only has two commitments from 3-star prospects. Bruno Fina and Patrick Selna are fine players, but they’re not instant-impact kind of guys, and looking at UCLA’s upcoming depth chart, they really need some of the previous recruits to step up in a big way. It’s easier to do that if you have more bodies in the program.

Defensive line is a problem in the making, especially looking at UCLA’s last few recruiting classes. UCLA brought in a host of defensive line prospects in the 2018 cycle, including guys like Otito Ogbonnia and Atonio Mafi. But last year’s defensive line class was incredibly small, with only three defensive line prospects brought in. And of those three, one has already entered the transfer portal, one is getting moved to the offensive line, and the third was a JC transfer with limited playing time left. For UCLA to then essentially neglect the position for a second year in a row is going to create a huge experience gap, similar to what we’re currently seeing with the linebackers.

Now, this isn’t to say UCLA can’t finish strong. There are rumblings of a few prospects looking to announce for UCLA on this early signing day, and there are some fantastic players already committed. But for the second full cycle in a row, it appears that Chip Kelly has drastically misjudged what he needs to do to be successful in the recruiting game, and it’s the kind of mistake that eventually gets people fired.


Is it bad to say that I’m at peace with UCLA basketball in its current state?

Part of it has to do with the glow of no longer employing Steve Alford and having to cover his version of UCLA, where players lack fundamentals and do whatever they felt like on offense. So the shift to a coach who has an idea of what a well-run program even looks like is a breath of fresh air, and is doing a lot to alleviate any frustration I’m having.

What’s also helping is the knowledge that this team, as constructed by the previous regime, is extremely flawed. Certainly there are athletes, and it’s led to a fantastic turnaround on the defensive end since last season. But it also lacks a go-to scorer, or rather players who have a knack for putting the ball in the bucket. There are times when some of the players on this team can do a solid impression of a scorer, but not on a consistent basis, and certainly not enough at the same time to take down a good team routinely.

I don’t know that I would go so far as to say the players on this team are bad, but they aren’t elite. The best of the bunch, somehow, has been true freshman Jaime Jaquez Jr., who has looked the part of a Cronin-type player. But Jaquez projects to be a four-year rotation piece, the kind that any championship program would love to have, but also not the kind who is meant to carry the team.

And that’s fine! No really, it’s actually ok that UCLA is not very good at the moment. This is essentially a free year, where the players in the program develop and learn the system while high-level recruits (hey Daishen Nix!) are waiting in the wings. UCLA could absolutely still make a run to the NCAA tournament, but the main goal is development, and if the Bruins look improved going into the 2020 season, I think most Bruin fans would take that.


I’m going to end this with two shout-outs.

First, shout out to the UCLA Women’s Soccer team. I’ve gotten very into following women’s soccer the past few years, in part because I have cousins that play at Arizona and Southern Cal (unfortunate, I know), so I’ve gotten to watch this current UCLA squad at the same time, and the collection of talent they’ve had these last few years has been nothing short of incredible. It’s a shame they haven’t been able to break through against Stanford, but that doesn’t take away from how fantastic these teams have been.

The second shout out goes to the UCLA Gymnastics team, under new head coach Chris Waller. The Meet the Bruins showcase last weekend was as much about continuity than anything, which isn’t a bad thing considering how fantastic the program had been under previous coach Valorie Kondos-Field, but it was still another impressive showing from one of the crown jewel programs of the school. Plus those Operation Peacock leotards were straight fire.

Alright, hopefully I’ll see you guys soon.

Go Bruins!