Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Halibut smacking and Judgment Day ... maybe

Something that had gone mostly unmentioned in the blogosphere lately but has been weighing fairly heavily on my mind, are the NCAA investigations that are tentatively set to be completed on December 31. I've tried poking around for any whisper on the status of the investigation but understandably couldn't find all that much. I did find, however, to I'm sure no one's surprise, that the Free Press has continued their quest and has an entire directory of stories aggregated in a site core page dedicated to the investigation--page title: Free Press investigation: Michigan football program broke rules, players say.

I haven't spent all that much time addressing the Free Press or the situation. I had a moment of panic when Michigan's practice logs came up missing, looking for any way that it wasn't a horrible, terrible problem that would crush the program. The upshot: It wasn't. But I've generally left the other criticism and analysis to MGoBlog and Jon Chait, both of whom have been thoroughly torching the Free Press for what will politely be called yellow journalism.

But in my recent searching, I came across the Free Press' non-Rosenberg-written Colleges on their own when enforcing time limits. From the headline, you think, "Well maybe this is an honest evaluation of the NCAA and a reasonable look at what is wrong with the system." It's not. It did, however, say a few things to me about the Free Press and its coverage.

I've said it before around these parts, but the Free Press' continued coverage and insistence on sticking to its guns in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary screams of desperation. But reading this article, more than that, it's a newspaper trying to salvage its dignity when it's been firmly placed behind the eight ball by shoddy editing and a columnist with an axe to grind. Let's say that no serious violations come from the investigation and the NCAA only issues some sort of formal reprimand. The Free Press is then fully exposed, making all of the accusations the Michigan faithful have made against the paper seem true, or at least gives them substantive evidence.

At this point, the Free Press needs the investigation to find something wrong, and if it doesn't, there are basically two approaches the paper can take: issue some sort of apology and admit they were wrong--and this might even require the removal of an editor or two--or come out against the NCAA investigation, saying that for whatever reason, it was unable to uncover the problems their reporters found, standing behind its mass of "evidence". And this is exactly why articles like "Colleges on their own when enforcing time limits" exist. The Free Press is safeguarding itself against the possibility that the investigation won't turn something up and is looking for an exit strategy in case it needs one.

But that doesn't excuse the proliferation of poor reporting, twisting stories, and semantics--a topic Chait addressed rather poorly, IMO, here. (Per the Chait piece, it's not that I necessarily disagree with his sentiment or logic, but it feels petty and needless. He's looking for bias in the details when it's smacking him upside the head with a halibut.) Chait did, however, touch on the idea of an institutional bias, and one that has only become clearer as the newspaper continues to produce one-sided reporting with, apparently, zero editing. From "Colleges on their own when enforcing time limits", the authors supply an anecdote of a former Iowa player who thought Kirk Ferentz was exceeding practice limits (emphasis mine):

Nine years ago, Christoph Trappe was convinced coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff at Iowa were breaking the NCAA’s 20-hour rule. So Trappe began keeping track.

It was 2000, and the Iowa offensive lineman documented every football-related activity he participated in. He didn’t count getting taped or putting on shoulder pads or getting treated for bruises or watching film on his own. He did count practice, games and anything else coaches told him to do.

"Not once," he e-mailed the Free Press, "were the Iowa coaches over. Usually they ended up 15 minutes below it."

And that seems reasonable, right? Players are unaware of what exactly constitutes countable hours and though they may feel that the coaches are going over the 20-hour limit, they are usually incredibly specific about how much time they spend on these activities. Maybe the same happened in the Michigan case, and, had the players who allegedly accused Rodriguez of ignoring the limits actually tracked the hours, they would come up with a similar discovery. The Free Press definitely came to that conclusion, right? (again, emphasis mine):

“Myself and some other teammates thought that perhaps Iowa was going over those 20 hours,” he wrote. “It sure felt like much more.”

Trappe told the Free Press he never felt his coaches coerced him into putting in more than 20 hours while at Iowa.

In Michigan’s case, former and current players described Sunday practices during the season that would have far exceeded the NCAA’s limit of 4 hours a day, in addition to weekly totals that appeared to exceed the 20-hour limit.

Unlike Trappe at Iowa, Allen Langford felt that at Wisconsin he had no choice but to put in more than 20 hours.

Not only does the article move on from the Michigan case in one sentence, but it explicitly differentiates the situation between Trappe and Michigan, indicating that Michigan actually did do something wrong, whereas the Iowa situation was handled properly. I would bet that if you interviewed Trappe before his experiment that he'd describe exactly what anonymous Michigan players did; it was the catalyst for Trappe's experiment, no less. But again, no critical analysis by the Free Press and an important omission in an effort to prove themselves right (again, because they have to be).

What's really sad is that this sort of stunt doesn't even bother me at this point. The Free Press is going to do what they're going to do, regardless of the results of the NCAA investigation, and at this point, they're doing it as a safeguard against the backlash if no major violation surface. Although I'm increasingly anxious about what the end result will be, especially with its pending, tentative deadline looming, reading schlock like this from the Free Press actually settles my fears a bit.


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