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September 7, 2009

Don't look back in Anger

In Sunday's newspaper, the Detroit Free Press editor Paul Anger ran a defense of his newspaper's investigation of Michigan football workouts. It's a great example of what we in the journalism business call "covering your butt." (Come to think of it, people in other professions may use this phrase also.) But it's worth a close look, because it shows just how defensive the Freep has become over its work.

Let me go through the major arguments offered by the paper.

Claim: What players described, over and over, in separate interviews, was a constant pattern -- they were required by coach Rich Rodriguez and his staff to spend more time on football through the year than National Collegiate Athletic Association rules allow.

Reality: The Free Press was extremely squishy about what exactly is "required." Most of the report simply described the effort put in by the players, without establishing which parts were required, and what the enforcement mechanism was. The report did mention extra running for players who missed workout sessions, but it did not explore whether those sessions were themselves enforced by peer pressure or through some more coercive mechanism.

The article made no attempt to ascertain how the NCAA defines what forms of extra conditioning are mandatory versus those merely enforced through encouragement and peer pressure. Numerous articles on this subject in other newspapers have noted the proliferation of "voluntary" offseason workouts that players feel compelled to attend. This would seem to suggest that this practice is not the violation of NCAA rules alleged by the Free Press. But the Freep implied that Michigan's practices are unique.

Claim: The Free Press had a significant, sensitive story, well documented. We had talked to 10 players and four parents who indicated how time spent on football was excessive and mandatory, under the supervision of coaches and staff, even when the players were supposed to be on their own. Players said they surpassed time limits in the winter off-season, in summer drills and during the fall season itself -- especially on Sundays, when players said they routinely put in nine hours or more instead of the NCAA-set maximum of four hours per day.

Players asked not to be identified because they feared retribution from coaches and some peers. Interviews were done separately, then matched up for corroboration.

Reality:Once again, the Free Press is eliding the important distinction between "players" and "former players." This ambiguity has caused the national media to draw the almost certainly false impression that large numbers of current players tried to expose the Michigan coaching staff. Moreover, the distinction is extremely important when it comes to the ethics of anonymity.

Granting anonymity to current players is sensible - none of them would want to rat out their coaches. But granting anonymity to former players is highly unusual at best. What retribution could Michigan exact upon a player who's already left? Naming the former players might have helped readers assess their motives in criticizing the coaching staff - which, in turn, may well have undermined the allegations.

As for the routine time the players put it, especially on Sundays, the Free Press story elided the second crucial distinction, between countable and non-countable hours. Many football-related activities, such as taping and meals, do not count against mandatory limits. The Free Press erroneously treated all hours as countable and appeared unaware of the vital difference. Indeed, the story reported, "'They know the rules,' one player said. 'Of course they know the rules. There was a time when the offensive line coach' Greg Frey 'told me, 'You're not doing nothing different than anybody else in the country is.'"

Yet it ignored the clear implication of this passage.

Claim: ESPN followed with its own reporting and got information similar to ours. A former Wolverine went on the record and said he would describe the excesses if any investigators asked him.

Reality: ESPN simply piggybacked on the Free Press's reporting, accepting at face value its allegation that the practices described constituted violations. The former Wolverine, who showed no evidence of being aware of the fine points of NCAA regulations, did the same. The Free Press is being disingenuous to present these as independent confirmation of its allegations.

Claim: Athletic director Bill Martin indicated the university would investigate itself, and then hired an outside law firm to assist. Rodriguez said he would no longer ask players to report for duty on Sundays. University President Mary Sue Coleman promised "a thorough and objective investigation" and said the NCAA would take part.

Reality:This is thrown in to suggest to readers that the Free Press allegations have merit - after all, the University is investigating, right? More likely, the University is bending over backward to prove its innocence. After all, the Free Press would interpret the failure to conduct a serious investigation as a cover-up.

Claim: We knew what was coming -- a backlash from some Wolverine fans, who are as passionate about their team as fans are about theirs in East Lansing or Gainesville, Austin or Norman.

The backlash has included threats against Rosenberg and Snyder. One gem from the fanatical fringe: "I'm a person of strong moral conviction ... however, I wish nothing but pain and death to you."

Reality: This obviously has zero to do with the merits of the report. It's thrown in to suggest that the Freep is dispassionate and impartial, and the only critics of its report are crazed partisans. The hyperbolic attack on Rosenberg is decoration. Wild hyperbole is a sad reality of modern public discourse. Picking out examples is a way to frame yourself as reasonable. Yes, there are idiots saying idiotic things about the Free Press. There are also such idiots saying such things about Rodriguez.

Claim: Rosenberg is primarily a sports columnist but, like many columnists, is also an excellent reporter. In columns, he's been critical of Rodriguez, as some cyberspace conspiracy theorists point out.

But there's no agenda at work with Snyder or Rosenberg, both U-M grads. Their reporting is straightforward.

Reality: I may be the "conspiracy theorist" referred to here, but there's no claim of a conspiracy. Rosenberg has openly expressed his disdain for Rodriguez. Giving such a columnist the chance to use the news pages to continue the campaign he's been waging in his opinion columns is a clear breach of journalistic norms. Calling this objection a conspiracy theory is name-calling designed to avoid the charge.

Likewise, the fact that the authors graduated from Michigan hardly diffuses the question. The people most opposed to Rodriguez, and most determined to get him fired, are associated with Michigan. Rosenberg has obviously served as the voice of the anti-Rodriguez faction. His history with the University is not a defense, it's a part of the problem.

Claim: Now it's up to the university and the NCAA to decide what infractions, if any, have been committed at Michigan.

Reality: So the Free Press is willing to accept the NCAA's verdict? Or, if Michigan gets a clean bill of health, will it simply move on to a new allegation?

Claim: Meantime, we'll continue to give all sides their say -- and to report the facts, whatever they are, unvarnished.

Reality: It is hard to avoid the impression that the Free Press deployed its facts selectively in order to create the most damning possible impression. It implied that Michigan's practices are unique, unlike other major newspapers to investigate the subject, which have found similar practices nationwide. It quoted an (anonymous) allegation that workouts hurt players' academic performance, without even mentioning Michigan's claim that its team had in the last semester compiled the highest grade point average in 20 years. Some facts, clearly, did not interest the Free Press.



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