At 12:10 p.m., on Sunday, Nov. 20, Garrett Uekman, a student-athlete at the University of Arkansas, was pronounced dead at Washington Regional Medical Center, in Fayetteville, Ark.
There was nothing illicit about Uekman's death. He did not overdose on prescription medication. He was not a victim of an alcohol overdose. Reportedly, the 19-year old football player was last seen playing video games in his dorm room at approximately 11:15 a.m.
Now, little more than a day later, I am writing about him for all of the wrong reasons.
It isn't that he doesn't deserve a proper eulogy. I am just not qualified to write such a thing. I did not know Garrett Uekman.
Neither did Margie Phelps or anyone else associated with Westboro Baptist Church. But, once the news of Uekman's death became a national headline, Phelps pounced.
"What is Coach Petrino letting go on in his showers at @uarkansas so God killed 19YO Uekman in His wrath? #stop it," Phelps tweeted. "Obey God & stop the rapes. Westboro will picket funeral."
Evidently, it was explained to her shortly thereafter that "Petrino" is not "Paterno," and there was no "rape" in the shower at the University of Arkansas.
"So, are they still going to protest?" asked my girlfriend, Katie.
"Yep," I said.
"Why?" she asked. Such is the obvious question.
According to Phelps' slightly amended justification, WBC will picket Uekman's funeral in protest of the "proud sin that permeates college football."
A few days prior to Uekman's death, Oklahoma State University was hit with tragedy of its own. A single-engine airplane carrying women's head basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna crashed over central Arkansas, killing everyone aboard.
In the Oklahoma State Cowgirl handbook, Budke listed the expected priorities of his student athletes in the following order: God, family, education, basketball.
Never one to let pesky details get in the way of an opportunity to pimp false ideals, Phelps responded predictably.
"Westboro will picket funerals of OSU plane crash dead,” Phelps tweeted. “Coaches teach sin; you love it; God h8s it. #warnliving @KDTrey5 @NewsOn6 @Espn @espnu.”
For those of you that are unfamiliar with Twitter, "@" tags a tweet to an individual. In other words, it lets them know what you are saying without them following you.
Tulsa's News on 6? Sure, okay. The most rogerian of debaters could rationalize the need for alerting the local media to the purpose of its presence in Stillwater.
But, ESPN? National sports media have no place in WBC's madness. ESPN, however, is among the most-watched news stations in the world. Phelps knew the latter and ignored the prior in choosing to alert multiple entities of the network.
And what about Kevin freakin' Durant? Last I checked, KD attended the University of Texas. What purpose could there possibly be for including Durant in a tweet like that?
Phelps and her constituents prey upon death and tragedy, without regard to those devastated by it, in hopes of garnering the media attention that they crave.
"There have been literally hundreds of thousands of stories that report on the street preaching and web ministry of Westboro Baptist Church," boasts its website.
None of those have provided positive publicity, mind you, but negative attention is still attention. And, to those delusional enough to protest the funerals of soldiers whose presence helped to afford them the freedom necessary to do so, any attention is good attention.
The problem with the WBC is not necessarily its radical message.
Students at universities all across the country have undoubtedly encountered the preaching of “Brother Jed” on their way to class. When I was a student at the University of Oklahoma, Jed would perch on the steps of Dale Hall, verbally accosting students as he saw fit.
But, Jed was catching us on the way back to the dorms after our morning classes. Our biggest concerns were typically what to eat for lunch and whether we could squeeze a game of “Halo” or “FIFA” in between study hall and practice.
In other words, emotions ran low. So what if he thought my pants were too baggy or my girlfriend’s skirt was too short? It was easy to shrug off.
Westboro isn’t catching people on their way back to the dorms.
The WBC makes a calculated effort to appear when emotions are peaking. Worse, it delivers its message in boldly matter-of-fact tones, contorting scripture to back up its claims as if they were fact.
Truly ironic—not to mention, demented—is the group’s assertion that it comprises God’s chosen people, while its leader casts judgment upon complete strangers as if she is God.
“There's nothing new or different about this particular pretentious prancing,” states the Westboro website.
It is talking about Lady Gaga, but the quote applies to its own organization.
There is nothing new about craving publicity, just as there is nothing new about using the shock factor to attain it.
There is nothing more shocking and repulsive than declaring with signs and propaganda that the deceased is burning in hell—just feet from where their friends and family mourn.
Picketing high-profile funerals? That provides the perfect storm—and the best chance for a law suit—for this warped assortment of rejects.
The group picketed at the funeral of Steve Jobs in October in protest of…well, no one is sure. Officially, the group was “condemning him for teaching others to sin,” as if there is something inherently sinful about an iPad.
That Phelps tweeted the picket announcement with an iPhone adds an element of ironic humor to an otherwise grossly blatant attempt at soliciting media attention without regard to those close to Jobs.
There would have been nothing funny about the group’s appearance at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater on Monday.
In fact, there were numerous warnings in regard to “pistols firing,” directed at Phelps and her Westboro followers, which seems to beg an inevitable question: Eventually, isn’t someone going to snap?
Five Oklahoma radio stations agreed to give WBC five minutes of air time if they would stay away from Budke and Serna’s campus memorial. True to form, the group did not hesitate to trade “principle” for publicity.
In taking one for the team, so to speak, the Oklahoma stations may have prevented an act of violence from occurring. But, what happens when there is no bargain?
I was raised in Springdale, Ark., just a few miles from the campus of the University of Arkansas. My mother has multiple degrees from the school. My younger brother was a member of the university’s proudest fraternity, the Kappa Sigma Xi Chapter. Katie is a current student and member of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority.
The point is, I know a thing or ten about the state of Arkansas and its love for Razorback student-athletes.
Schools often refer to their campus community as a family, and that may be true in many cases. But, in Arkansas, that family extends beyond the perimeter surrounding campus buildings. In Arkansas there is an unparalleled emotional attachment between the everyman citizens and the university. Affiliation in some form or another is not necessary, but it drastically heightens the affectivity.
The 190 miles between Fayetteville and Uekman’s hometown of Little Rock does nothing to suppress that endearment.
So, when Westboro Baptist Church arrives, they should understand two things above all else: First, the day that Uekman set foot on the campus of the University of Arkansas, he became the adopted son of no less than the simple majority of 2.8 million Arkansans. Second, Little Rock, Ark., is uniquely located in an area that combines the protective environment of the Bible Belt, with kinship and family values of the deep south.
They will not be tolerated.
While the best reaction to their presence is probably no reaction at all, that level of syllogism is unrealistic.
In April, USMC Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers was laid to rest in Brandon, Miss. Naturally, Westboro intended to attend. But, on the day of the funeral WBC members were noticeably absent.
So, what happened? For starters, a member of the WBC engaged in a verbal altercation with a man at a Brandon gas station. A beating ensued, but authorities were unable to locate a witness to provide any information on the attacks.
Strangely, trucks were left unattended behind cars parked in hotel parking lots with Kansas plates, as well. Police were called, but no two trucks were available to move the vehicles. Those members that did arrive at the funeral were ushered away for questioning about a crime that they "may have had some involvement in." The questioning took about two hours, and the funeral was over by the time they got free.
Westboro shouldn’t expect an easier time in Little Rock. If anything, the group should simply cross its fingers that it gets off that easily. The priority of those not attending the funeral should be—and undoubtedly will be—to keep the WBC bane away from the Uekman family.
Of course, if they hadn’t omitted the book of Matthew from their distorted interpretation of the Bible, Phelps and her degenerate crew of followers wouldn’t be there in the first place.
“Judge not,” circus freaks, lest ye be handled accordingly.