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May 25, 2010The average college football fan heard last year that the Detroit Free Press reported major violations by the University of Michigan football program. Then they heard today that the university admitted to major violations. The average fan probably concludes that the Free Press report has been vindicated. It's a sensible conclusion based on limited information. But it's wrong.
To read the original Free Press report alongside the university's report is to compare two pictures that bear almost no relation to each other. The Free Press painted a horrific portrait of a football program obliterating any semblance of limits on practice time. The paper reported that "the Wolverines were expected to spend two to three times more than the eight hours allowed for required workouts each week." It further alleged, "Players spent at least nine hours on football activities on Sundays after games last fall. NCAA rules mandate a daily 4-hour limit." And it further portrayed this alleged epidemic of rule-flouting as the product of Rich Rodriguez's obsession with conditioning, and the near-mania of his prized assistant Mike Barwis - a natural conclusion from the article's anonymous sourcing from players and parents of players disgruntled with the new coaching regime. The Free Press article breaking the allegations is entitled, "A look inside Rodriguez's rigorous program."
It was immediately clear that the article suffered from enormous and potentially fatal problems, the most serious among them being a failure to understand the difference between countable and non-countable hours, which is the heart of the applicable rule. Still, faced with such serious allegations from a media source widely deemed as credible, the university invited the NCAA into a wide-ranging investigation. Inevitably, having your bunk and locker tossed by a demanding drill sergeant will produce some shortcomings. But the striking finding of the report is how little of the Free Press allegations it bore out.
The football program turned out to have exceeded practice and training limits by a minuscule amount. The vast majority of the violations during the off-season turned out to center around the strength and conditioning staff's failure to understand that stretching counted as time spent under staff supervision. This bore no relationship to the Free Press's allegations. As for the draconian practice regimen during the season, violations were more minimal still. In 2008, Michigan failed to account weightlifting on Sundays as countable hours, causing "the total CARA time on Sundays to exceed the daily maximum by as much as one hour." As for the weekly maximum, it was violated on one occasion, for a total of 20 minutes.
Nothing remotely resembling the Free Press's Dickensian portrait of players working two or three times the prescribed time appears in the report. This is the equivalent of being accused of massive tax fraud, bringing in the IRS for a thorough audit, and then admitting you mistakenly expensed a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The university confessed to a "major violation" because the NCAA's definition of major is different than the normal English use of the word. "Secondary" violations are so picayune and routine that programs commit them annually by the score, even the hundreds. A major violation is anything higher than that.
Contrary to the Free Press's insinuation, the university persuasively showed that the small excesses in practice time stemmed not from Rodriguez or Barwis but miscommunication by the Athletic Department staff.
The one small area of overlap between the Free Press report and the university's findings is the fact that quality control assistants - essentially, football interns - participated in prohibited skill development. It's a genuine rules violation, one caused by dysfunctional communication within the athletic department. But here's it's worth plunging a bit into the specifics. Confusion about the limits of quality control staffers appears widespread - so widespread that football programs do not even feel compelled to hide the activities of their QC staffers. As the university noted in its report, "The job descriptions available online for some of these positions indicate that the job duties include activities that constitute 'coaching activities' more serious than those alleged in this case." Let me translate this. It's not just the case that if you sent the NCAA to peek into the corners of every football program, you'd find similar or worse violations. It's that other programs actually advertise similar or worse violations. That's how little understood these rules are.
Now, the notion of comparing Michigan's behavior to that of other programs has fallen into disrepute. Anybody pointing out such a thing is invariably met with the charge that Michigan is supposed to hold itself to a higher standard. Even the university has exhibited notable defensiveness about making such a point - "The University mentions this information not as an 'everybody does it' defense," it points out, defensively.
But "everybody does it" is a valid defense against charges such as this. If the accusation was doing something inherently wrong - say, providing athletes with dangerous performance-enhancing drugs - then it wouldn't matter if everybody did it. When it comes to rules that are solely designed to prevent a relative advantage, though, it's crucial. There's nothing inherently wrong with a quality control staffer who tosses a taped towel around with a player. It's only wrong to the extent that it gives that program a leg up on its competitors. If the competitors are doing the same thing, then it isn't a leg up.
There is also a larger issue with the moral question of whether "everybody does it." It is supposedly beneath Michigan to compare its practices to its peers. But Michigan, first of all, faces a unique situation. It's highly unusual for a university to call in the NCAA as a result of an obviously shoddy report by an openly hostile columnist carrying water for disgruntled partisans of a departed coach. Moreover, in the court of public opinion, Michigan is not being accused of acting no better than its peers. It is being accused of acting worse. (On the occasion of Michigan's report, Detroit News columnist Lynn Henning offered up a typical example of the sentiment: "Michigan State is now the regional example for how a Big Ten athletic program should be run.") There is a two-step quality to the accusation: First accuse Michigan of operating a rogue program. And then, when Michigan replies that the minor offenses it uncovered in response to hysterical accusations do not exceed common practice, retreat to the defense that Michigan should hold itself above others.
The reality, of course, is that Free Press is highly unlikely to apologize for its bungling report. Indeed, criticisms of the paper's journalistic failures seem to have created a bunker mentality at the newspaper. Ray Donovan, a Reagan-era Secretary of Labor, was indicted of a high-profile crime that commanded media attention. When he was acquitted, he famously asked, "Which office do I go to get my reputation back?"
The University's report shows that, whatever small rules violations occurred, there's no evidence that Rich Rodriguez had any knowledge of, or gained any substantial benefit from them. The charge that he has operated a football sweatshop has been totally debunked. Where does he go to get his reputation back? Not the Detroit Free Press.