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Scheduling Liberty is a giant mistake for Mizzou basketball

There’s a long list of reasons why this game shouldn’t happen, and an incredibly short list of why it should.

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NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - San Jose Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Strip out everything except the basketball, and the scheduling deal Missouri has reportedly struck with Liberty isn’t half bad.

On paper, the Atlantic Sun program is a quality mid-major, one that’s averaged 25 wins over the past four seasons and was sitting at 30 before the coronavirus canceled the postseason. The Tigers locked in a pair of home games in exchange for a tough road trip, but one that could also improve an NCAA tournament resume.

Good work, right?

But with Liberty University, it’s never just about basketball.

Anytime you’re talking about an institution founded by Jerry Falwell, it’s impossible to separate the school, its athletics and rotten history tied to segregation, racism, and extreme anti-gay rhetoric. Given that Liberty was established in 1971, that statement may seem outlandish. In legal terms, the Supreme Court killed “separate but equal” with its landmark decision for Brown v. Board of Education 17 years earlier. And a decade later, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

But here is Falwell’s appraisal of the high court’s handiwork.

If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made. The facilities should be separate. When God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.

Falwell was adept at blowing the dog whistle. He was known for promoting racists and bigots on his radio show. And on the hallowed grounds of Liberty’s campus sits the Helms School of Government. Yes, it’s named after that Jesse Helms. When Falwell died in 2007, it surely set the stage for a thoughtful reckoning, reconciliation and reset, right?

Well, that would also be wrong. Jerry Falwell, Jr. took the reins and administered Liberty in manner befitting of his father. Actually, he has made most matters worse in Lynchburg, Va., if you can believe that.

Aside from preaching a curdled strain of evangelical Christianity, Falwell Jr.’s plied the family’s other trade: staying in the headlines for all manners of terrible choices. Recently, black alumni denounced Falwell the Younger after he sent out a tweet that included a racist photo. His apology wasn’t enough to prevent Liberty’s Director of Diversity Retention from submitting his resignation. Meanwhile, Falwell reportedly instills a ‘culture of fear’ among students and faculty who aren’t strident supporters of President Donald Trump.

Also, whatever this entire thing is about:

Earlier this week, Politico published a story connecting him and his wife Becki Falwell to a host of questionable real estate deals; possible self-dealing efforts to financially benefit members of the Falwell family; online poll manipulation; and visits to Miami nightclubs. (Liberty University forbids students from attending dances.) According to employees of the University, Falwell Jr. runs a “dictatorship” at Liberty, but said that speaking out about his conduct was necessary.

Falwell’s concerning behavior reportedly also includes his communications with students. As detailed by Reuters this week, Falwell described students at Liberty as “physically retarded” and “social misfits” in emails, the latter stemming from concern from students who wanted to work out at a Liberty-owned off-campus gym (which Falwell wanted to be kept private for Liberty executive use only).

But even before the revelations regarding financial mismanagement and bad behavior, there was a steady drip of half-veiled stories of other real estate deals the couple had made, including a business relationship with a former hotel pool attendant (whom Falwell and his wife took on trips) and investments in a South Beach hostel that advertised racy parties and listed its rules as being “No Soliciting, Fundraising, Politics, Salesmen, Religion.”

The emphasis is mine, but it’s all just...odd.

And on top of Liberty’s worldview when it comes to race relations, its views on public health are also alarming. As state and local governments rushed to put in place social distancing measures, Falwell Jr. refused to close Liberty. Not only that, but he brought back students after spring break to a partially reopened campus.

Falwell Jr. is toxic, and he surrounds himself with leadership that only makes the environment worse.

While his father was a pastor, Falwell Jr. is a lawyer by trade and a shameless opportunist. So, it should come as no surprise he hired Ian McCaw as Liberty’s athletic director. If McCaw’s name is unfamiliar, I’ll just remind you he was the man in charge of the Baylor Athletic Department when a lot of really awful things happened.

That disgraced AD then went on to hire Hugh Freeze to head up Liberty’s football program. You know him, too: the zealous former coach of Ole Miss who used his University phone to contact an escort service while on a recruiting trip in Florida. Freeze proved to be too toxic for Ole Miss, which is a notable achievement considering his former employer is a replete with confederate statues and imagery all over campus.

Although, Freeze’s hiring did give us this hilarious image:

A school taking these steps and proclaiming to be a religious institution is farcical, and they’re antithetical to the values that the academic and athletic leadership in Columbia claims are central to Mizzou’s culture.

And in a way, word leaking about the series is darkly ironic given the state of the country these days.

A day later, Mizzou’s basketball had a Twitter thread of the players speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter. And since the death of George Floyd, coach Cuonzo Martin has been all over the media speaking out against racism and its deep roots in American society. Those efforts have been rightly praised.

As Missouri is saying all the right things right now, are they doing the right things? Look, building a non-conference schedule, especially in a time of belt-tightening for athletic departments, is tough. Other options were likely vetted.

That said, locking down a three-year series with a school overtly linked to segregationists and run by a corrupt bigot strikes me as tone deaf. And as I’ve gone through Liberty’s greatest hits, I haven’t even brought up their standing views on LGBTQ issues.

Missouri had a chance this offseason to set some new rules. It was floated they were planning a game against Missouri State. I’d much rather see a game against the Bears in Springfield.

Let’s set aside Liberty’s worldview for a moment and evaluate swapping them in for Missouri State in purely basketball terms.

Last year, the Atlantic Sun was the 26th-rated conference in the country, per KenPom. Meanwhile, Liberty has had just five finishes inside the top 200 since 2000. And that 30-win roster was set to churn a bit with four seniors exiting the program, meaning the Flames may have been facing a slight reset and undercutting their value on the slate.

By contrast, the Missouri Valley Conference was the 11th-rated conference last season. The Bears, who were picked to win the league last season, underwhelmed to a certain degree, but the program still has 14 finishes inside the KenPom top-150 over the past two decades. So, if you’re looking for a two-for-one... why give these sets of games to Liberty and not Missouri State?

Let’s not leave SLU out of the conversation, either. The Atlantic 10 was ninth in the country, and SLU has been a little more inconsistent than Missouri State. With the return of Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin, the Billikens could be among the contenders for the regular season title and an at-large bid come March. They’re clearly better right now. The benefits to playing SLU or Missouri State greatly outweigh the benefits (strictly speaking on basketball terms) than Liberty.

Even better, it spares us from a reading of Liberty’s rap sheet.

There are 351 other Division 1 basketball teams in the NCAA that Missouri could schedule. Nearly all of them don’t have the lightning rod of Liberty University. It doesn’t have to be MSU or SLU, even if they make more sense locally. There are a number of mid-majors in fine standing would love to take the deal offered to the Flames, and none of them come with the immense downside.