(Editor's Note: Oppel is editorial advisor to Austonia.com. From 1995-2008, he was editor and vice president of the Austin American-Statesman.)
Veteran sportswriter Suzanne Halliburton and culture critic Joe Gross were among seven staffers laid off on Friday by the Austin American-Statesman. The layoffs come at a time when most Statesman employees are on unpaid furloughs one week each month.
The Statesman layoffs apparently were a part of layoffs across Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain, which owns the Statesman and 260 other newspapers in 46 states.
Those dismissed by the Statesman were:
—Arianna Auber, who was the "liquid Austin" columnist covering beverages in the features department.
—Joe Gross, who was the pop culture, film and literature writer. He was considered one of the strongest writers on the Statesman's staff.
"May 1 will be my final day at the Austin-American Statesman, where I have worked fulltime for 18 years and had a byline for nearly 20," Gross tweeted Friday. "I was informed this morning my position was eliminated. Thank you for reading my stuff there."
—James Gregg, who was a photojournalist and deputy director of video and photography. Gregg is a University of Kansas graduate who previously worked for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has been in Austin since 2014.
—Suzanne Halliburton, who covered Texas A&M football and was an expert on recruiting and on the NFL draft. She was among the female pioneers of sports journalism who gained access to the once male-dominated press boxes and locker rooms. She joined the Statesman in August 1986.
"So, let me tell you about my day," Halliburton wrote on a Facebook post Friday evening. "Woke up late after working til after midnight. Heard rumors about layoffs. Noticed I had a had a text message and a Zoom invite from the editor. I had time to fix my face and find out I'd been laid off from a job I've had for almost 34 years.
"To say this sucks is an understatement. I feel like my family filed for divorce. But this is what happens when your paper is bought out, then one chain merges with another. Got any job ideas? Please send them my way."
The Statesman was purchased from Cox Enterprises Inc. of Atlanta for $47.5 million by GateHouse in April 2018. In August 2019, GateHouse bought Gannett for $1.4 billion. In the combined company, GateHouse took on Gannett's name.
—Mike Parker, who graduated from Texas State University in 2002 with a B.A. in mass communications, for the last five years has been editor of the Round Rock Leader and Pflugerville Pflag, both in the Statesman's community newspapers group.
—Nick Wagner, who graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2017, was a photojournalist with the Statesman.
Wagner tweeted, "Hey editor! I'm your newest freelancer available for hire in Texas/northern Mexico. I am fluent in Spanish, excel under pressure & nothing stops me from making photos (just ask Bevo XV). @Gannett just laid me off from @statesman as a result of its latest merger. DMs are open!"
Wagner was struck by Bevo during the 2019 Sugar Bowl when the Longhorns' mascot charged Uga, the Georgia Bulldogs' mascot. He was not hurt.
—Aaricka Washington, the K-12 education reporter, who has a degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and joined the Statesman in September 2019.
She tweeted, "It's been taking me hours to muster the courage and strength to write this. I was one of seven reporters who just got laid off from @Statesman. It hurts. It feels unreal. But I'm grateful for everything I've learned as an edu reporter working for this great org."
Poynter.org reported on its website, "It's unclear if the layoffs are in response to the economic impact of the coronavirus or the result of the merger with Gatehouse, though one source told Poynter the cuts relate to the Gatehouse/Gannett integration and that sites with overlap were getting the cuts. Gannett executives told The New York Times in November that they would look for 'efficiencies' after the merger."
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies is a nonprofit journalism school and research organization located in St. Petersburg, Fla.
It is not clear how efficiencies would be achieved at the Statesman by reducing "overlaps," since no other Gannett newspapers operate in Central Texas. However, the Statesman has been well-staffed among its Gannett peers, given the tough environment for newspapers.
Statesman editors declined to comment.
On March 30, the Statesman newsroom was among Gannett newsrooms that were directed to furlough employees. Those making more than $38,000 a year were required to take one week of unpaid leave for April, May and June.
A Gannett company spokesperson told Poynter.org, "We remain steadfast in our efforts to integrate our new company in order to realize the full potential of our combined resources and scale to sustain and preserve quality journalism for the long term. The moves, while imperative, are tough. The elimination of any job and the loss of valued colleagues is deeply felt."
Wagner, the photojournalist, tweeted that at the time of the GateHouse-Gannett merger, "CEO Paul Bascobert said front-line reporters are 'the last place we want to touch' with cuts. A week ago I was 'front line' in every sense or the term, covering a protest an risking my health. Yesterday I was laid off."
He added later, "I can only hope Gannett keeps its hands off my favorite newsroom."
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Texas Longhorns linebacker Jake Ehlingers' death this spring was the result of an accidental drug overdose, according to a statement by the late student's family.
According to the statement, the 20-year-old University of Texas student and Westlake High grad overdosed on pills believed to be Xanax laced with Fentanyl, an often-deadly combo that has resulted in thousands of accidental fatalities nationwide.
Ehlinger was found dead off campus May 6 in a tragedy that shook the Austin and UT community, as well as Ehlinger's family, including his brother, former UT quarterback Sam Ehlinger, who now plays for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
An honorable mention All-State player and district defensive MVP while in high school, Ehlinger followed in his brother's footsteps and continued his football career as a walk-on at UT. He was also a sophomore in finance, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and a member of the Texas Silver Spurs, a student organization that cares for beloved mascot Bevo the Longhorn.
Counterfeit Xanax pills have caused an increasing number of fatalities in the area with 1,000 deaths related to synthetic opioids in the state in 2020. Drug dealers have begun stuffing fentanyl, an opiod that the DEA said can be up to 60 times more deadly than heroin, into pills resembling the prescription anti-anxiety medication and selling them to unwitting customers.
"The spread of counterfeit pills is an ongoing and significant issue throughout our country, particularly in schools, colleges and universities," the the Ehlinger family said in a statement. "As our family continues to process Jake's death, we felt it was important to share these details with the hope that Jake will not have died in vain. We pray that sharing Jake's story will help shed light on this problem and prevent other families from also tragically losing a loved one."
To combat the surge of deaths, Austin police now have access to a supply of Narcan, a drug that can combat the effects of an opiod overdose. Though it's not mandatory, APD officers can now check out supplies of the drug when responding to calls. The department had almost completed training on the drug by June, according to a KXAN report.
"You can talk to a number of families that have had family members die because of opioid overdoses and if this was an option to help their loved one or save their loved one, I'm sure that every single one of them would tell you that it was incredibly important that we now have this incredible tool in our tool belt," Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in the report.
Ehlinger is remembered by his brother, Sam, his mother Jena, his sister Morgen and the University of Texas community. Ehlinger's father, Ross, died of an apparent heart attack while swimming in a triathlon in 2013.
"(Jake) was his dad's little buddy, and they shared an unbreakable bond," Jake's obituary read. "His father's spirit was alive and well in every part of Jake's life. Tragic life circumstances created a unique opportunity for Sam and Jake to uplift and empower each other. They were each other's biggest fans. Their mother, Jena, as well as their sister, Morgen, were the loves of Jake's life. Everyone will miss his giant hugs, but no one more than Jena and Morgen."
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Eight of the world's best Brazilian jiu-jitsu athletes flew into Austin in September to be in the new hub for the sport. But after over a decade of fighting together, they'll no longer be under the same name.
The legendary Danaher Death Squad, which started in 2007 and was led by black belt John Danaher, made a highly-publicized split in late July while in Puerto Rico, with Danaher, legend Gordon Ryan and teammate Gary Tonon announcing the aptly-titled "New Wave Jiu Jitsu" as their new studio to open soon in Austin.
Missing from the new roster were former teammates Craig Jones, Ethan Crelinstein, Nick Rodriguez and even Ryan's younger brother, Nicky Ryan. The new crew announced that day that they would also be forming a new studio with the tongue-in-cheek title "B Team Jiu Jitsu."
Jiu jitsu greats Craig Jones (left) and Gordon Ryan have opened rival studios in Austin.
Both teams chose to move to Austin, a hotbed for the sport that the B Team's Seth Belisle said is becoming a "mecca for jiu-jitsu." With plenty of renowned studios, jiu-jitsu enthusiasts like Joe Rogan coming into town and the presence of Flo Grappling, the sport's premier media outlet, Belisle said there's now "more jiu-jitsu here than anywhere in the world."
While Belisle, an Austin native, handles the business side for the crew, the team's coaching is headed by Jones, a leopard-print wearing Aussie who has been known to sport assless chaps and places importance on the lighter side of things (the studio advertises that they train "Mexican ground karate," a name they created for jiu-jitsu).
Rumors abound about the famed fighters' breakup, including money issues in the Ryan family or a well-rehearsed PR stunt, but Jones told Austonia that the split of the Death Squad simply comes down to personal differences between the fighters.
"It wasn't an amicable breakup at all," Jones said. "What Gordan represents is quite controversial... I would say there would be no line he wouldn't cross to promote a grappling match. So in that sense, we're sort of focused on a different, more positive sort of vibe."
B Team and New Wave alike are opening at a critical time for jiu-jitsu, as the sport slowly becomes a household name. Now, top fighters can make a living from their sport while still maintaining a much lower profile than MMA fighters or boxers.
That name recognition and B Team's positive attitude drew in droves of new trainees, with many opting to move to Austin solely to train at B Team.
"Jiu-jitsu is a relatively new sport," Belisle said. "If you love basketball, it's impossible for you to say, 'I'm going to go play with LeBron James and learn from him this weekend... in jiu-jitsu, that's possible. You have access to the stars of the sport because it hasn't really blown up yet. It's something special."
After an open house that saw over 150 athletes show up, the team realized they needed to become more exclusive. Now, the studio trains only the "Olympians" of the sport, something that sets them apart from other local studios. They also frequently bring in celebrities of the sport for training sessions, including famed female fighter Ffion Eira Davies.
"We're obviously a new gym, but we're probably some of the best guys in the world," Jones said.
Meanwhile, New Wave is training at the famed Renzo Gracie Studio, Danaher's former trainer, as they wait for a new studio.
Will the world's two best teams soon have showdowns in the Texas capital?
While it's unclear whether or not things will get personal (no brother vs. brother matchup is on the horizon), trainees under each studio went head-to-head for the first time Wednesday as New Wave's Gordon Ryan announced his first match out of semi-retirement. Ryan, often lauded as the best grappler in the world, forced UFC fighter Phillip Rowe to submit four times in the 15-minute friendly exhibition match at Austin's Palmer Events Center.
But Rowe, who was first a jiu-jitsu athlete before switching to UFC, said he didn't know about the beef and was just looking to train under his favorite athletes, Jones and Rodriguez.
He competed for a few reasons—including a break from UFC and a chance to give BJJ a bigger name—but he mostly came into town for the fun of it. Ryan and Rowe talked often prior to the meet, with Rowe gifting Ryan a Bumpboxx, or decorated boombox, in honor of Ryans' father. The respect was mutual—Ryan shouted out Rowe after the match for coming out with a broken hand and the death of some loved ones a week prior.
The match was the first indirect competition between the two gyms. Jones said they won't be training with the goal of fighting any of their former New Wave compadres.
"I don't know what's going to happen ultimately," Jones said. "Because obviously, we're not friendly as it is right now, but I mean. I wouldn't go so far as to train someone that was going to compete against them directly."
But with B Team fighters like Nick Rodriguez expressing their interest in fighting in the future and both gyms training for the WNO Championships in 2022, it's almost inevitable that the former teammates will find themselves on either side of the mat sooner or later.
"'I'd be lying if I said that every day since I started jiu-jitsu my goal is to beat Gordon. I'd be lying if I was saying that isn't true," Rodriguez told the Jason Chambers podcast. "My goal is to be the best grappler in the world and nothing less. That's an old teammate that I have to go through to knock him out and get to the top, then that's fine with me."
Atop one of Austin's signature rolling hilltops, 1501 Ridgecrest Drive is similar to one of the plush palaces that one might find in Calabasas. For $10.9 million, the home has four bedrooms, four-and-a-half bathrooms and caps at 10,498 square feet.
Park in the massive, fully air-conditioned garage before walking in, where you'll have eight full spaces to park your collection of cars. If you're not a collector, the garage makes an excellent studio space.
The wide-open living spaces will draw your eyes to the two-story ceilings, glass catwalk, integrated fireplace and wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the pool.
Though the house was built in 2011, it doesn't show its age. Sleek, clean lines lead seamlessly from the formal living area to an elite open-plan kitchen. Separated by a 25-foot waterfall island that can seat at least eight people, the kitchen is fitted with only the finest Miele and Subzero appliances. The custom cabinets are just as pricey as the rest of the place, finished with custom high-gloss Aston Martin (you read that right) paint.
Upstairs in the sprawling master's suite, there are enough amenities to never have to set foot outside again. Armani tile floors, space for living and a walk-in showcase closet lead into the resort-style bathroom, where you'll find dual vanities, a walk-in shower and a lounging bathtub.
The bedroom is a quick elevator trip away from the "party" room, complete with a bar, wine room and movie theater, only the best for entertaining. If your guests are staying over, rest assured they'll be comfortable with the kitchenette, washer and dryer and spa-like bath in their suite.
Though summer has passed, you can still enjoy the grand lap pool's unobstructed Hill Country views, many private lounging areas, grill a homemade snack at the outdoor kitchen or shoot some hoops at the newly-added court.
The listing is held by Compass' Gary Dolch.
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