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August 31, 2009

Violations truly worthy of firing

Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg's expose on Michigan workout program revealed a shocking breach of rules that should cause somebody to lose his job. That somebody is Michael Rosenberg's editor.

Rosenberg is a talented writer. I enjoyed his book and gave it a favorable review in the New York Times. Yes, he has strong opinions on Rich Rodriguez. (He's hated him from the moment he appeared on Michigan's radar and has made it his life's work to run him out of town.) But that's his right as an opinion columnist.

What's not his right is conducting investigative journalism for a newspaper on a topic on which he has expressed such passionate opinions. In my primary field (writing about politics) no respectable newspaper would dream of letting an opinion columnist who had crusaded against an administration write a news article claiming to uncover dirt on that very same administration. It's wildly improper.

If I were a sports editor at the Free Press, and Rosenberg came to me with his stories about illegal workouts at Michigan, I'd thank him for the lead. Then I'd pass the information on to one of my reporters. I'd tell the reporter to look into several college programs, not just ones run by coaches Rosenberg was trying to get fired. If Michigan really turned out to be doing something unusual, fine.

Instead, the Free Press published a prosecutor's brief, determined to make the case against Rodriguez, rather than present the facts in an evenhanded way.

The key concept behind his allegations of rule-breaking is "involuntary." Players can work out as long as they want. It only breaks the rules if the players are being forced to work out beyond the allotted time. Rosenberg filled his article with quotes from Michigan players describing how hard they work. It's meaningless. It's as if he set out to expose an epidemic of rape, and came back with an article mainly describing the conjugal relations of happily married couples.

Now, the concept of "voluntary" is pretty hard to pin down. The Free Press would have done college athletes a great service by exploring whether it's actually possible for players to make voluntary decisions. After all, college coaches have enormous power over their players, and the players usually see the coach's desire as a command. When I played high school football twenty years ago, I did not consider offseason workouts to be voluntary. Neither did the players who, having missed such sessions, "decided" to stay after practice and run wind sprints until they puked.

A few years ago, USA Today did a good piece on offseason workouts in college, questioning whether such activities could truly be voluntary. The article quoted one Georgia football player scoffing at the notion. ("It's mandatory to us," he confessed.) But that sort of comprehensive approach didn't advance Rosenberg's goal.

Rosenberg made only a farcical effort to compare Michigan's program to that run elsewhere. He solicited a few on-the-record quotes from former Michigan State players, who told him with a straight face that no, sir, we only condition for an hour or two a day. Maybe this claim is worth verifying.

Now, I'm no Bob Woodward. But I did manage to dig up an obscure source confirming that Michigan State football players work just as hard as the Wolverines. My secret source is a publication called the Detroit News. It printed an article on July 29, 2008, reporting:

MSU says it has a strong weight coach, too
Dave Dye
The Detroit News

Much has been made about the intense workouts at Michigan under Mike Barwis, the new strength and conditioning coach.

The Michigan State Spartans would like everyone to know they're working pretty hard, too.

"I don't think they're working harder than us anyway," MSU running back Javon Ringer said. "I'm pretty sure they're working tremendously hard, but the things we go through with our weight-training coach -- coach (Ken) Mannie -- are unbelievable."

Big Ten players know each other pretty well - especially players from the same state, who often share hometowns. I think they probably have a good sense of how often they work out.

Now, here's why Rosenberg's opinions matter so much. In an article like the one he wrote, the readers have to place a lot of trust in the author. We have to trust that he interviewed the sources fairly, and didn't solicit answers that confirmed his prejudices. We have to trust that he granted his sources anonymity for good reason - not because they had an axe to grind. And we have to trust that he looked for evidence to undermine his thesis, and if it didn't appear in his article, it's because none could be found.

Rosenberg, with his deep connections to the anti-Rodriguez community, would be a good source of leads for an enterprising reporter to follow up on. Letting him write and report the article himself is journalistic malpractice.

Jonathan Chait is Senior Editor at The New Republic

Michigan NEWS


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