The Sports Page

Why I Hate Oversigning

I don’t hate oversigning because it seems to be a staple of SEC recruiting strategies — I mean, Tennessee … 34? Really?

I hate it because it is the worst example of how college football subverts and overwhelms the purpose of a university — for the goal of winning.

Every CFB coach faces this.  Combine the limit of 25 scholarships per year and 85 overall with the frequent redshirting that extends possible player tenures to five years, and even the worst math student can see that the number will shoot past 85.

Even with all the sources of attrition — disabling injuries, academic casualties, discipline decisions, transfers in search of more playing time, early NFL exits and, oh yes, exhausted eligibility — coaches frequently end up with potentially more players than they have slots for.  What to do?

Many coaches avoid the issue by recruiting to 85, even if it means not bringing in a full cohort of 25 per year, to stress their commitment to the players.  Any scholarship attrition between National Signing Day and fall practice is used to reward walk-ons.

Others, like Saban, recruit to the full limit, throw in a couple of “grayshirts” whose scholarships are delayed, and then reduce the scholarship roster through a variety of tactics — including those listed above, regardless of whether they apply appropriately.  Some years it’s not needed; other years it’s needed a lot.  As one Bama fan pointed out, this is definitely one of those years for Saban.

To a sports media pack protecting a narrative, the result tidily fits the “relentless success machine.”  As is too often the case, they ignore the process (Yes, I see what I did there) and the students it affects.

But this is not the NFL.  Football has chosen to locate its developmental league on college campuses, and both the media and the colleges promote every possible dollar out of the arrangement.  So pull away from the fruit-bearing trees and see the forest here: A college/university.

Once a college football or basketball program needs to chase away excess human capital by a variety of explicit and implicit means, it diminishes the educational institution that hosts its facilities.

Some use the analogy of how academic scholarships require that students maintain a certain grade-point average.  But that is not an accurate analogy.

It would be more like our journalism faculty meeting every year to decide which junior and senior majors to ease out, so that we can accept a more promising crop of newcomers.  (Don’t worry, students. We don’t.)

Of course, we allow all of our majors who maintain a graduation-level GPA to remain in the program, and we do our part to teach and develop them — and hope to God the light comes on, in some cases.

College football and basketball programs should do the same.  They owe it not only to the athletes who lack a coach’s options after they sign a scholarship, but also to the universities that educate thousands of students besides those who compete.

Others point out that, particularly at Alabama, hardly any football players publicly protest after being eased out.  But a system is not right because the student-athletes do not complain about it.

Colleges often do things that diminish their mission, and students don’t complain about it.  The over-reliance on poorly paid and protected part-time instructors comes to mind.  Just because students don’t notice or complain does not make the practice right.

As a former faculty athletics committee member, I do recognize that other sports function under different scholarship levels — they cannot provide full scholarships to an entire roster — so the management of scholarships is handled differently.

But let’s not allow the deluge-ional revenue available through football and basketball to cloud the mission of a university.  I cheer these athletes from the stands, but I also teach them and others from the classroom.  It happens.

I hope that Gus Malzahn does not oversign.  If he does, I will speak out against the practice, regardless of how many championships or bazillions of simoleons he brings to the university.

But our mission as university faculty is to add to the base of knowledge through research and to pass this knowledge along to the next generations.  Call me corny, but to me, that is the treasure of the university — the students who fill our campuses.

Let’s not reduce some to the means to an end, just because they profit a coach, a campus, its fans and the sports media.

John Carvalho is an associate professor of journalism at Auburn University.  A former sports magazine editor, he summoned enough focus to complete a Ph.D. at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He tweets about sports media issues at johncarvalhoau.  While he does not believe in oversigning, his students believe he over-grades.

To Write or To Root?

Last week, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy laid it down for Boston sports fans in a column titled, "Your Sports Columnist Is Here to Write, Not to Root." (Read it quick; Globe links have a shorter life than fruit flies.)

In the column, Shaughnessy makes the following statement about Boston sports teams: “I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose. I love sports. … I love the story.”

It’s a good opportunity to talk about what Auburn fans should expect from their sports journalists, especially their columnists — and maybe to call Shaughnessy on his statement above, though just a little.

What Shaughnessy is stating might be an idealistic standard more than daily practice for columnists, of whom Shaughnessy is definitely one of the best.  When times are bad, particularly, that statement is their North Star.

What prompted Shaughnessy’s column, clearly, is Globe readers’ anger that he has been so critical of the New England Patriots recently, during what has been a difficult season for them.  So he issued his declaration of principles above.

But I would also argue that Shaughnessy and his colleagues do care if the home teams win or lose. And, I would add, that’s OK.

While it’s possible and commendable for a columnist to be objective, it is also undoubtedly true that even an objective columnist recognizes that a home team doing well is a good thing for the community, and he or she (too often he) can reflect that in columns.

State opinion on Auburn’s miraculous run has been positive, especially as it relates to the state’s BCS streak.  You didn’t see post-Georgia columns with the headline “Disastrous 4th-Q Collapse” or post-Iron Bowl columns decrying, “Embarrassing 2nd Q!”

The same is true of Shaughnessy’s columns, especially during Boston’s pro sports teams’ recent run of good results.  And Shaughnessy’s extensive bibliography of Boston sports books are not filled with angry venom, either.

When Boston won the World Series, he didn’t grouse about poor trades or roster moves.  But you can also be sure that during the Bobby Valentine season of chaos, he was just as critical.

Side issue: I should warn you that reading Shaughnessy’s past columns could cost you all of 99 cents for four weeks.  The Globe has its archives shut up tighter than a college football practice session.  Even academic sources on Auburn’s library site do not offer the Globe.  At a time when news outlets are struggling to generate revenue, I say good for them. But back to the topic.

In my Sports Reporting class, I give three standards for a good column — and to Spring 2014 class members: You are still required to show up for this lecture.

A column informs. The columnist introduces new information and reporting, along with intelligent analysis of info and stats.  It should not be merely a rehash of fan comments or pushing of buttons.

A column engages.  A good columnist develops a long-term relationship with his readers — not just by angering or reinforcing them, but by establishing an interactive, intelligent (on the columnist’s side) and sometimes emotional discussion. Shaughnessy is an expert at this.

A column upholds.  Much like good political commentary should look out for the voters (not just one political party), good sports commentary looks out for the fans and for the purity of sport — to give them the best for their valuable attention and financial investment.

But Shaughnessy is correct that sometimes that means taking the fans on — to challenge them to consider information that is not 100 percent positive about the teams they cheer for.

When all three of the above standards are met, the readers develop a trust in the columnist to look out for them — even when the home team, by performance or by policy, does not.

I will leave it to readers to discuss whether columnists on the local, state, regional and national level do that.  To see Shaughnessy’s philosophy in action, why not spend 99 cents and see how he does it?  You’ll be helping out a media outlet whose work during the Boston Marathon bombings shows a continued commitment to bring together the best of journalism.

And you’ll get a good take on a columnist who knows when (and how) to write and when to root — even if just a little.

Iron Bowl Sports Writing, Part 2: The Bad

Thank goodness there was not as much bad there was good, in my opinion.  I will present only two examples — because they are examples of not only bad journalism (in my opinion), but also bad trends.

Here is the obvious disclaimer of being an Auburn fan and faculty member.  I am at least equally as passionate about professional journalism practices.  But you can factor that into these comments and judge for yourself.

Kevin Scarbinsky’s column on Tre Mason — in which he called Mason’s confidence in Auburn’s running game “foolishness” — was a definite turkey, as well as a bad prediction on his part.  

Mason responded to Scarbinsky’s click-inducing trolling with class (as Ryan Black noted in my column yesterday).  But Scarbinsky compounded the misstep by appearing to take partial credit for Mason’s performance: He tweeted, “Who lit a fire under Tre Mason?”

Even in Scarbinsky’s follow-up column, he shrugged his shoulders, noting that he never used the specific words “trash talk.”  No, but his point was clear.

He proudly noted his courage in introducing himself to Mason after the game.  Scarbinsky does not pick up, however, that the friendly and gregarious Mason responded to his greeting with two words.  If you know Mason at all, that is telling.

Besides the obvious missteps, Scarbinsky is also reflecting the attitude that seemed to have crept into the articles and tweets of many Alabama beat writers: a smug inevitability about Alabama’s success.  Some writers buck the trend: Marc Torrence of the Crimson White is an exception that might surprise you.  Aaron Suttles of the Tuscaloosa News is another.

I don’t want to go into too much detail.  I don’t want the orange and blue to obscure the page, and it’s true that Alabama provided a lot of success to be smug about.  But there seemed to be such a grasping for a dynasty narrative — both locally and nationally — that it seemed to creep into the tone of the articles.

Pete Thamel on Texas and Gus Malzahn — This was amateur hour on so many levels.  It’s no wonder that it produced a mere blip on the radar, soon forgotten.  First, let’s start with Thamel’s gem: the one piece of information that seemed to qualify as reporting.

According to a source, Malzahn has told friends privately that coaching the Longhorns is his dream job.” 

That’s it. Thamel fills the rest with his opinions.  The article is titled “Viewpoint,” so it can be expected to reflect opinion.  But as I tell my sports reporting students, a column is supposed to be a reporting exercise.  The best columns give readers information, not just shallow analysis.

On that count, this article fails.  Let’s look at how.

First, note that Malzahn did not say that to Thamel’s source directly.  The source knows that Malzahn has told this to other people.  Not firsthand. Not secondhand. Thirdhand. 

Thamel stops at that one sentence.  No further background or information from this source on why Malzahn feels that way.  No poignant descriptions of seeing Texas play as a kid.  Just one sentence to run with.

Second, Thamel does no other reporting on this.  Just out of casual interest, my curiosity piqued, I did a Google search.  Typed in “Gus Malzahn” and Texas.

Guess what I found out on Wikipedia?  Malzahn was born in Irving, Texas.  (If that induces irrational panic, seek help.)  I’m not presenting that as any big revelation.  By his high school years, he had moved to Arkansas, where he would go to school, work and live for at least the next 22 years.

My point is that Thamel could not even be troubled to look up or include that fact or anything else in his column.  He took one thirdhand, anonymously sourced quote and made it into a column. 

As I told my students walking into class, “You guys know what I do when you pull a stunt like that in one of your assignments.”  Sometimes they will drop an interesting morsel into an article and then abandon it because, at this point in their journalism development, they get distracted or maybe a little lazy.  

That fact is usually circled, with a comment in the margin: “You opened this door. Now you gotta walk through it and do the work. Don’t leave your reader hanging.”

But Thamel is supposed to be a seasoned, well-paid pro, not a college junior trying to juggle school, work, and a football team that produces Internet obsession-worthy content.

The writing and, yes, even the YouTubes have enhanced the memorable week that it is.  A late addition from a TWER reader — a column in the Stanford Daily — was a Thursday treat for us.

In a week of memorable sports journalism that showed what can be when event and writing combine, Scarbinsky and Thamel sadly showed also how bad it can be.

 

Iron Bowl Journalism: Who Scored and Who Missed the Play

When Chris Davis turned the corner and found open field, he not only ran his way into college football history.  He also set off a media rave that extended nationwide.  

For those of us who were at the Iron Bowl on either side, the result is only half the stun.  Almost as amazing is the attention this has received — Diane Sawyer on ABC World News Tonight, Brian Williams on NBC Evening News, Hoda and Kathie Lee on NBC Today … Heck, even The View folks almost (almost) stopped talking at the same time in discussing it.

But much more important than that (my other bias showing) is what was written about the event.  Most of it was pretty good, but hey, they were working from great material, right?

Here then is the best of the Iron Bowl articles and columns, but only in my opinion.  And we are talking writing here.  No YouTubes, as much as they bring allergy-blamed tears.  I will present the worst of the post-Iron Bowl articles tomorrow.

Share your own links and suggestions below.  Good writing extends and deepens the joy of the moment for Auburn fans, but hey — it’s what journalists do:

First, by way of shout-out, as a 57-year-old dinosaur, I would recognize the six-headed monster that is the Auburn beat writers — those who represent the traditional media and labor daily and well, 3-9 or 11-1.  

They wrote a lot. Some of it was repetitive.  I saw at least five different versions of “Five Things Auburn Must Do to Beat Alabama.”  But most of it was darn good.  Here is the best of each, in alphabetical order:

Ryan Black, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: The youngest newest members of the crew.  He wrote one of the few reports on Kevin Scarbinsky’s criticism of Tre Mason (more on that tomorrow) and Mason’s response.  Not everyone confronted the issue, but Black did and also provided insights on social media and team policies.

Alex Byington, Opelika-Auburn News: The other new member, he took a unique and local semi-social media take on Corey Grant receiving congratulatory text messages from Alabama fans.  A brief, but a well-conceived and creative one.

James Crepea, Montgomery Advertiser: Crepea churns out the unique story angles quickly and well.  His public records-fueled reports on Auburn hiring security personnel to monitor curfew was textbook reporting.  This week, he stayed on top of the Gus Malzahn contract renegotiations, way before any false rumors could be planted.

Joel Erickson, al.com: The only state sports journalist to choose Auburn to win, Erickson wrote one of the better game stories.  That’s tough to do under normal deadline pressure, but imagine trying to wade through the Auburn student body to do it.

Brandon Marcello, al.com: Marcello and Erickson are a tough combo to stay ahead of, as evidenced by Marcello’s Monday article on cremated remains being discovered on the field.  Marcello’s previous experience in Arkansas work generated an insightful look at Malzahn’s time there.

Mike Szvetitz, Opelika-Auburn News: For Szvetitz, the obvious choice is his Iron Bowl Sunday column. Same style as always. Short sentences. Great analysis. A feel for his topic. Oh, mercy. Good instructor too.

As you read over these folks’ stuff, consider subscribing to their parent newspapers or to their websites.  This stuff doesn’t come cheap, and we need to do what we can to help keep these folks and their organizations in well-funded business.

I don’t subscribe to any of the fan sites (I’m too cheap), so I cannot make choices from there — which is also fortunate from length considerations.  But I will note a few of the better nationwide articles.  If you haven’t read them, I would suggest you check these out.

Perhaps the best national gamer that I read came from Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports.  I know that Auburn fans have issues with him, but I read articles, not bylines, and his words have a flow that capture the emotion and satisfy those seeking a quality read.

After Rachel Bachman begged Auburn to end Alabama’s dominance, it’s only right that we should also mention her game report.  Her musings on whether Auburn’s win would end the SEC’s BCS streak were on point, though depressing.

I’m a big fan of Richard Sandomir’s sports media reporting in the New York Times, and his article on Rod Bramblett’s calls of the two winning touchdowns silenced critics who thought Rod was too emotional.  I will own up and say I used to be one of them, but Rich-Rod convinced me otherwise.

I’m including Spencer Hall’s piece in the SB Nation “Every Day Should be Saturday” website.  I’ll be honest; I didn’t 100 percent track with it.  But Hall was pushing for a different tone in describing the end of the game, and a lot of folks got it.  I’ll give anyone credit for swinging for the fence.

As I said, you readers can extend the experience down below, with your recommendations.

 It wasn’t all good, of course.  But I’ll save the worst for tomorrow.

May You Always BIRG and Never CORF

The day before the Georgia game, ironically, I delivered the GameDay lecture for the Auburn Office of Communications and Marketing.  My topic was “This Is Loyalty,” and I presented some research on fan behavior, particularly in rivalries.

After the game, I related some of the content — particularly the concepts of BIRGing and CORFing — on Twitter.  The retweets and replies showed interest, perhaps because they sound like gross things that would happen at post-game keg parties.

So after getting a grad student through a tight and chaotic thesis deadline (mission accomplished), I could turn my attention to some of the more fun aspects of academic research on fan loyalty.

We’ll blitz through the basics of social identity theory (finding groups that share our interests give our life balance, blah blah blah) and in-group/out-group conflicts (Robbers Cave experiment, yadda yadda yadda), to get to the more current stuff — disposition theory.

Giving credit where credit is due — and defying the cheap-click rivalry attitude of “professional” journalists — I would point out that two researchers from Alabama, Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant, have done some of the best work on this.  Type them into a Google Scholar search and party hearty.

But before they did the bulk of their research (including a 20-year trend study of the Iron Bowl rivalry), Robert Cialdini of Arizona State came up with the concepts of BIRGing and CORFing.  BIRGing means “Basking In Reflected Glory” and CORFing means “Cutting Off Reflected Failure.”

First, the B word.  This obviously refers to the way in which fans share a certain joy in their team’s victory, even though they might not have directly participated in it.  I know, I know, the coach always says that the crowd helps, but we’re talking about throwing something down besides nachos.

It goes beyond wearing team apparel to the office on Monday (as Toronto Mayor Rob Ford demonstrates in the photo above) or talking about the game around the water cooler.  The winning team’s fans also report an enhanced self-image and more confidence in making decisions.  This is serious stuff! And when your rival team loses, it increases the BIRG.

CORFing is not the opposite, because fans deal with losses in a different but not opposite way.  Rather than hide from it, they blame it on external factors: “The refs were not going to reverse their call even though Murray did not cross the goal line,” or “Robinson was holding on that last pass.” (Yes, the end of the Georgia game produced quite the CORF-fest on both sides at some point.)

That is because losses often do not diminish a fan’s loyalty to the team, but often strengthens their resolve.  Yes, research does show that fans often show less immediate outward support.  But we don’t abandon our in-groups quite that easily — even when the rival team wins and our team loses.  They provide us too much social identity to be dumped that easily.

So after the trash talking and the blog commenting and the flag waving, I hope you BIRG to your heart’s content this weekend. Wear the sweatshirt on Monday. Talk about the game. Feel better about yourself and your decisions.

Unless you cheer for my rival.

Then, as one of the attendees at the aforementioned lecture said, “They can go CORF themselves.”

Nothing like statistically significant smack talk.

The Shuler Case: The ACLU Intervenes

The Shelby County judge who issued an order banning a blogger from writing about a former governor’s son has accepted a friend of the court brief from the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the ACLU’s legal director for Alabama.

The ACLU submitted the brief Thursday on behalf of blogger Roger Shuler, who was jailed after violating the order by Judge Claud Neilson.

Neilson gave Riley and his attorneys a week to respond to the ACLU’s brief, said Randall Marshall of the ACLU.  He cautioned that the judge gave no indication that he would rule further on his order at that time.

Marshall said the ACLU had submitted the brief to address two objections to the judge’s ruling: the order’s violation of Shuler’s First Amendment rights and the sealing of all records related to the case.

The ACLU has no interest in the underlying libel-related issues in the case, Marshall added. That includes whether the information reported by Shuler is true or false, and whether Riley is a public figure under libel law.

According to Marshall, the ruling to seal the records is just as much of a First Amendment issue as Neilson’s order barring Shuler from writing about Bob Riley Jr., son of the former Alabama governor.

"The sealed records violate the public’s right to access," he said.  Sealing all records prevents news organizations from reporting on the case.

As Marshall told Kyle Whitmire of al.com, “There is a secret docket. That is not common in American courts.”  While judges might seal records in cases related to children, this almost never happens in a case like the one involving Shuler, he said.

For background on what caused Riley’s attorneys to seek such an injunction from Neilson against Shuler, check out this link to an earlier article on al.com.

No Defense for the First Amendment

The news media of Alabama — particularly the Alabama Media Group/al.com — shamed itself by not defending the First Amendment against its assault by a Shelby County judge.

Granted, the case is as bizarre as the behavior of the blogger involved.  But First Amendment cases are a matter of principle, regardless of the individual whose rights are attacked.  It is not up to the courts — nor the news media — to determine who deserves First Amendment protection.  Freedom of the press is a right of the people, not the news media.

When acting Shelby County Circuit Judge Claud Neilson issued an injunction preventing Legal Schnauzer blogger Roger Shuler from writing about an alleged affair between a former governor’s son and a Republican lobbyist, that was unconstitutional and the state’s news media should have responded quickly.

The injunction was issued before Oct. 3, when Shuler said he was served with the order, and he was arrested on Wednesday, Oct. 23, for violating it.  The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press wrote about it on Friday, Oct. 25.

But where were the “leading” news sites of Alabama when all this was going on?  Absent and silent.  The RCFP (a respected media rights watchdog group) reported it, and other bloggers expressed outrage, but a Google News search for four days after the RCFP report turned up nothing else.

Finally, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Alabama Media Group posted a story about the case.  It was well reported and included the constitutional controversy, but that was as far as it went.  No editorial opposition or further comment.  AMG, which includes three of the biggest and most distinguished newspapers in the state — the Birmingham NewsMobile Press-Register and Huntsville Times — has allowed this story to die along with Shuler’s First Amendment rights.

(Note: Daily visits to the al.com search page for “Shuler” produced nothing until the Oct. 29 article.  A more recent search referred to an article under “Clay, AL community news” on Oct. 28, and one under “Pelham local impact” on Oct. 25.  However, both articles share the heading used by the Oct. 29 article, and a link to those pages does not show an article on the day in question, so I am taking that for a glitch.)

Other state newspapers do not fare well, either.  Neither the Montgomery Advertiser nor the Tuscaloosa News have reported or commented on this.  Even the Shelby County Reporter, a lively community newspaper that covers Neilson’s court, did not post an article until Oct. 29.

This silence by the state’s newspapers is deplorable and sets a poor example for the next generation of journalists.  The political motivations of Judge Neilson’s actions — granting an unconstitutional prior restraint to Bob Riley Jr., the former governor’s son — are apparent.

In a state like Alabama, where political dirty tricks and insider networks poison state politics, it’s even more scary.  When shady state political leaders see something like this happening, with no legal or media response, you wonder if they consider this another trick to add to the bag in dealing with critics and opponents.

People argue that Shuler’s actions in flaunting a judge’s order deserve arrest and imprisonment, but that misses the point.  The restraining order that created this circus should not have been issued, period.

The traditional recourse for someone like Riley Jr. is to sue Shuler for libel.  If Shuler is the journalistic disaster he claims, Riley can sue him and add financial bankruptcy to the ethical bankruptcy he alleges concerning Shuler.

That is the correct remedy, not issuing restraining orders before things are written.  Such judicial overreach creates a “chilling effect” on public debate that certainly is convenient for state politicians, but defies decades of Supreme Court precedent.  You blew it, Judge Neilson.

And until the state’s newspapers step forward and do their part to defend the First Amendment that protects their right to publish, they are just as complicit by their silence.  

In an Internet age, where the speed of news transmission and the breadth of news contributors have both exploded, all journalists must hold on to such enduring foundational treasures against all threats.  It is our duty.

Matters of Conscience v. Matters of Law

It seems that as soon as the first part of Sports Illustrated’s series on the Oklahoma State football program was released, the criticism began.

And quickly following the criticism were the SI defenders. In defending SI, they assured everyone that the articles were well-vetted and legally in the clear.

In today’s media climate, the SI approach to defending its series, much like the series itself, reflects a dated approach.

As many have pointed out, the article itself is fast food — a tired menu served repeatedly.  The “gotcha” articles on NCAA violations have been criticized for ignoring the larger systemic problems while distracting everyone’s attention with hard-to-prove allegations.

SI can make much of its legal vetting and discussions.  But I wonder if, early in the planning process, anyone at the decision-making level sighed and said, “Do we really have to do another of these?  Do they perform a public service in 2013?”

As such, the articles seem to be causing more of a yawn than SI could have anticipated.  Given the struggles facing SI and other magazines, it might not have been the best strategy.

But just as outmoded is SI’s “it’s legal!” strategy.  Maybe back in the day of fewer media outlets, that might have worked.  Considering the multiple outlets fans can choose from today, SI might be again miscalculating.

Perhaps Thayer Evans once again actually did keep just to this side of legal and nonactionable behavior.  Good for him.

But Evans’ approach to ethics has been clear from his actions in the past.  There, it is obvious that his goal is professional success, and anyone involved — sources or subjects — is a means to that end.  And that approach might cost SI more readers than the results would generate.

From his embellished reporting of Texas recruit Jamarkus McFarland to his encouragement of the breaking of federal privacy law in his reporting of Cam Newton at Florida (saved only by Florida’s lack of interest in prosecuting the case) to the cultural bigotry that he and Pete Thamel showed in their reporting on Tyrann Mathieu, Evans has portrayed few of the tenets of ethical journalism.

And in this situation, Evans has practiced his specialty of carpet-bomb interviews.  He approaches a slew of sources with no warning, neglects to say he is conducting an interview (though I always warn anyone that when you are talking to a journalist, you are being interviewed), and slaps the results together with zero concern for the interview subject.

(Disclosure: I am a faculty member at Auburn University.  I will claim my concern is based on ethics, not content.  But that is for the reader to judge.)

 Today, when a writer’s past is transparent, regardless of his own ethics, Evans’ record is there to judge.  So that when sources claim that he deceived, or did not fully disclose, or misquoted, readers have a lot of evidence at their disposal.

For some reason, Thayer Evans is a sports journalism Lane Kiffin, falling upward after consistent ethical fumbles.  Apparently SI likes him because he “gets the story;” I almost expect his SI editors to be wearing green eyeshades in smoke-filled rooms.  A former SI staffer had his own theories as to why Evans and Pete Thamel were hired, along with concerns.

And maybe they paired him with George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to add a respectable veneer to his reporting tactics.  Like expecting a clean dog to scare the fleas off its mangy companion.

The Oklahoma State series might not result in any successful lawsuits.  But the journalism being practiced and endorsed — in both its ethics and its perspective — belongs to another age.  Its statute of limitations has long run out.

To my students and other journalism students, a reminder: The subjects you interview and write about are human beings, not objects.

And you are a human being as well.  Act like one.

Identifying the Source of ESPN’s Problem

When ESPN’s Joe Schad reported on the Johnny Manziel autograph allegations Tuesday, those who follow me on Twitter (shameless plug — johncarvalhoau), you saw me tweeting a lot of questions.

These questions reflect the kind of issues we talk about in journalism as it relates to such issues as source credibility and anonymous sources.  So here, with more than 140 characters, are some of these issues.

First, a complaint about reality.  I recognize that ESPN is in a rush to stay ahead on this story.  I am not suggesting that they gaze at their navels for days, meditating on principle while the story passes them by.  But some additional steps would enhance their credibility and maybe help the reader understand the story better and trust the reporting more.

Now, on to the problems:

Problem #1: Source credibility.  I do not know much about autograph brokers, but they don’t seem to rate high on the respect scale.  They seem to prey on the naivete of both athletes and sports fans.

Journalists deal with this all the time.  Perhaps a paragraph of discussion in the article, along with a link to a sidebar on these brokers, would enlighten the audience as to ESPN’s awareness of whom they are dealing with.

Source credibility was a big issue in an important libel case, Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967).  You’ll have to do your own Google search for the case details; it does involve allegations of cheating against Bear Bryant, to whet your appetite.  One thing that worked against the Saturday Evening Post was that the main source for the article had served jail time for fraud.

Problem #2: Granting anonymity.  Perhaps no ethical decision is abused more than this.  Journalists recognize that granting anonymity immediately causes the audience to doubt the source, so we try to make sure the source has a good reason for requesting anonymity.

This source would claim a valid reason for requesting anonymity.  He (Schad identifies him as a male) could lose business if he is identified as the source for the video.  But when a source in a shady business (see Problem #1) seeks protection, the cringe factor increases.  Granting anonymity to the wrong source can make the reporter look like a dupe.  

The responsible thing to do is, within the article, include a paragraph or two explaining the decision and explaining how the source fits in to the story and the situation.  In other stories (granted, involving more credible sources), you frequently see a sentence like, “The sources requested to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to release information on the case.”

Another responsible action, which I would wager Schad did, would be to identify the anonymous source to a superior.  This is SOP for any journalist.  Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee knew the identity of “Deep Throat” in All the President’s Men.  Which relates to the next problem.

Problem #3: Selling videos.  While the cell phone video has what would be explosive content, if true, ESPN was correct in not paying the autograph broker for it.  While some tabloid publications/websites might, most traditional media outlets do not pay for interviews or documents.

In essence, the autograph broker was damaging his own credibility here.  Schad’s story does not specifically say that the revelation of the video’s existence set off some kind of bidding war, though I can imagine the broker got at least a few offers.  In offering it for sale, he seems to be out for personal gain more than anything.

What is confusing, however, is who actually saw the cellphone video.  Did Schad alone see it?  Or did someone else see it?  The story is unclear here, because it uses the terms “Schad” and “ESPN” interchangeably.  (In these situations, I usually write a comment in the margin that says something like, “Networks don’t view videos; people do,” and have my student clarify.)

As with the anonymous source, it would be safest for two people — Schad and someone else, preferably a peer or superior — to view the video.  That not only increases the story’s credibility, but demonstrates ESPN’s commitment to cover its bases.

I’m not claiming that these are situations where ESPN and Schad failed.  I am saying that these are potential pitfalls that should be addressed in the presentation of such reports.  

It’s one reason investigative reporting is such an arduous and costly enterprise.  In the classroom, we teach our students not simply to take such situations and run with them, but to evaluate and appraise and ask and decide, and then to communicate those decisions.

(Side note: Critics always claim that college students should not major in journalism.  This is an example of why it is a good reason to do so.  Better to cover this stuff in the classroom, before it runs you over in a job-related situaton)

I doubt ESPN reps or Joe Schad will answer these questions because of what I write here.  Let’s hope they answer these questions in their articles because it represents solid, responsible investigative journalism. 

Auburn is Writing its Own Story

The Auburn Athletic Department’s hiring of former Birmingham News sportswriter Charles Goldberg and former Huntsville Times/AuburnUndercover writer Phillip Marshall was a surprise.

The trend, however, is nothing new.  Many major college athletic departments are doing the same thing.  Having relied on newspapers and Web sites in the past, they are taking their messages straight to their publics.

That adds a lot of new wrinkles at every point of the relationship between fans, athletic programs and media.  The term “media” might be derived from the Latin for “between,” but the World Wide Web and social media are empowering organizations to shoulder the traditional media out of the way and speak directly to audiences effectively.

For the Auburn Athletic Department, that means using Facebook and Twitter to direct fans to its website, AuburnTigers.com.  Jack Smith, senior associate athletic director for communications, oversees the project.

Smith said about 20 FBS-level schools have hired popular, experienced beat writers for that purpose, following the lead of NFL teams.  He points to the University of Florida, which hired Chris Harry, who covered the Gators for 13 years with the Orlando Sentinel, to be senior staff writer for GatorZone.com.

And the University of Oregon just announced the hiring of Rob Moseley, who covered Ducks football for the Eugene Register-Guard for the past six years, as editor-in-chief of goducks.com.

The goal, Smith said, is to engage the Auburn community — fans, alumni, students and donors — on all platforms.  That includes the above strategies and a new project, Tiger Roar Digital, an online version of the quarterly magazine sent to Tigers Unlimited donors.  The online magazine will launch in mid-August, featuring articles by Goldberg and Marshall, photos by Todd Van Emst, and embedded videos, Smith said.

It’s a recent project, but it has been in the works for a while.  Marshall, long-time Auburn beat writer for the Huntsville Times (1994-2008) and AuburnUndercover.com (2008-2013), said Smith originally approached him last summer, long before the Selena Roberts article on Mike McNeil and the ESPN report on Dakota Mosley, in case you were wondering.

Marshall, however, declined the opportunity.  Earlier this year, the Athletic Department hired Goldberg.  When they approached Marshall again in June, he was ready for the change.

"The move to 24/7 was really good," he said, referring to the parent company of the AuburnUndercover site.  The site had grown in his time there, fueled by the 2010 national championship and two coaching transitions.

Two aspects of the job, however, grew difficult.  The first was administration of message boards and answering fan questions.  ”For a long time I didn’t mind it, but it was wearing on me at the time,” he said.

The second was the increased emphasis on recruiting.  Fan sites like AuburnUndercover draw and keep their subscribers with aggressive recruiting news, and while Bryan Matthews does excellent work for AuburnUndercover, Marshall said he won’t mind leaving that behind.

Because it is affiliated with the Athletic Department, AuburnTigers.com is not allowed to report on the recruiting of specific athletes.  So at least from that perspective, the other sports media retain at least one advantage, besides editorial independence.

The audience is there.  Auburn’s official Facebook page has more than 256,000 likes.  Marshall has almost 10,000 Twitter followers (though he admits to mainly linking and retweeting).  Goldberg — also a retweeter and linker — has 18,000 followers and the Auburn football has about 64,000.  Even counting for overlap, that is a lot of potential eyes for Marshall’s and Goldberg’s articles.

Fans familiar with Goldberg and Marshall know what to expect.  They channel Grantland Rice more than Deadspin, and while they are reliable information sources — an Auburn football news tip, good or bad, was not considered solid until one of them confirmed it — they are well-suited to the articles intended for the site.

Marshall said the most attractive part of the job is “telling stories of Auburn athletes and coaches.  I like doing those kind of in-depth profile stories.”  

Smith said that Goldberg and Marshall are expected to write objective stories.  At the same time, Smith, avoiding references to current sports, said, “If we had a cricket team, and it were to get destroyed in a game, and the coach says, ‘That’s as bad as my team has played all year,’ they are going to quote the coach.  At the same time, they are not going to write a column that the cricket coach should be fired.”

Marshall concurred with Smith’s example.  ”I’m not going to write a column that’s saying someone ought to be fired,” he said, “but the truth of the matter is, I’ve never done that anyway.”

So where does that leave the traditional media folks and relatively newer fan sites? Piece of cake. The AuburnTigers.com strategy might take some attention and media time from the audience, but as we’re finding, the saturation point is a constant speck on the horizon.  This ain’t the 1970s, when the market was driven by scarcity.

The main advantage — and it’s neither small nor minor — for Goldberg and Marshall is access. The Athletic Department can have them break news on official announcements, embargoing the external news sources.  That would also enhance the AuburnTigers.com site, making it seem more useful as a news source.

That’s a tough head start for their colleagues to overcome.  Still, the Jay Tates and Brandon Marcellos will have plenty of opportunities to provide the kind of information fans won’t find on the AuburnTigers.com site, and they are definitely up to the challenge.

Sports fans are information-hungry and information-savvy — whether the information comes from the media or from the organization itself.  They know what kind of info they like and they know where to get it and how to find new sources.  In that sense, there is still plenty of attention to go around.