The Sports Page

The Cruel End of Dreams

As Auburn students begin another school year, and Auburn fans look ahead to football season, the sad reality of Philip Lutzenkirchen’s untimely death will hit home even more.

His death was a jolt to the Auburn community, even as it happened over the summer, with many of our students gone.  Social media connected the Auburn family in its mutual grief, while also demonstrating just what Philip meant to the campus and the greater community.

For many Auburn students, the first experience with peer loss is a jolt — a dose of the reality that youthful invincibility is ultimately an illusion.  

For us faculty and staff — many of whom already are guaranteed decades more than these lives lost too soon — it is a jolt as well a reminder of an uncomfortable truth: Young people, current and recent students, die.

The odds turn on them with cruel randomness, and they die in car wrecks or as crime victims.

Their struggle with terminal illness lacks the ultimate triumph.

An undiagnosed condition steals in and steals life.

The substance abuse they thought they could control proves otherwise.

And some mistakenly decide that ending their own lives is preferable to living with the pain.

As faculty and staff members find ourselves within a grieving community, it is our responsibility to help the students grapple, even as we struggle in our own way.  It doesn’t get easier with practice.

In 1997, while I was at Campbell University, a freshman wrestler, Billy Saylor, 19, died while trying to cut weight for a tournament.  He was one of three wrestlers who would die that way within a month.  It led to stricter weight-cutting guidelines from the NCAA.

As word of his death spread across campus that Friday (it had happened late the previous evening), life also seemed to stop at the small campus.  It was a day of talking to students, worrying about the teammate who was there when Billy died, facing the Raleigh, N.C., media barrage.

As I watched the 6 o’clock news, it struck me.  The worst thing that happened was that Billy’s dreams had died with him.  Becoming a champion wrestler, marrying his high school girlfriend, whatever career he was aiming for — the dreams were gone too.

I remember verbalizing a question to myself: Why did God give me and not Billy Saylor November 7, 1997 (and about 6,000 more days after that)?  It seemed unfair.

The answer that came back — we could debate the source — was that I could find the answer to that question in each day that followed.  That also became my vow, and it has continued through my 11 years on the faculty at Auburn.

But more than that, the experience changed how I looked at my students.  No longer were they 85 percent fun, 15 percent why-don’t-you-listen-to-what-I’m-trying-to teach you? (with the 15 percent dominating).

Instead, they became conveyors of something precious — their dreams and goals.  My vocation, besides getting them to look up spellings and AP style rules and gather and structure information, was to bring them closer to those dreams, by whatever means. Even a change to a new major, if necessary.

Over the past 17 years, I’ve tried to keep that thought before me.  Yes, sometimes students make it difficult, when they don’t seem to have many dreams beyond the next Wednesday night Toomers Corner pub crawl.  Sometimes they have to be reminded that unlike animals who eat, sleep, breed, and annoy other animals, they have the capacity to aspire to make their lives better and to simply be better.

I also know that each student is a treasure to someone, even one parent or a sibling or an aunt/uncle.  And that treasure is committed to Auburn University — with fear and trust, but mostly fear — for the next 4-plus years.  Our job is to return that treasure with something valuable, increased knowledge, so that society can benefit as well.

In spring of 2007, after the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech, I attended an on-campus vigil Auburn students conducted in front of Samford Hall.  I saw one of my students, Megan, there.  I wondered how her parents felt after realizing that twenty-seven families had lost the students they had sent to Virginia Tech.

After the vigil, I put my arm around Megan and said, “For all that we (faculty) give you guys a hard time, it would devastate me if anything like this happened to you.”

In the seven years since, students have died.  A suicide in February brought two of his fellow students to my office with questions of whether they could have done more.  We couldn’t know.  All we knew was that his pain overrode everything else in his life, including his dreams for his life and his parents who considered him their treasure.

And when a 23-year-old recent Auburn football player dies in a wreck on a rural Georgia road, it brings it home again.  Why did God give me and not Philip Lutzenkirchen July 30, 2014, and the days that followed?

As I said, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I will find it in each day that follows.  And I know that a big part of that answer involves my students, and their dreams.

Q-School vs. Tour finals: Which Worked Better?

When PGA Tour official announced they were ditching the PGA Qualifying School in favor of a four-tournament tour qualifying process, the Tour Finals, many fans were skeptical.

There was something about six all-or-nothing rounds that seemed so golf.  Some unknown players would catch fire and gain their playing privileges out of nowhere.  The constantly moving bubble produced drama for both emerging rookies and veterans trying to make it back.

But the question is, was the Q-School an adequate indicator of future success on the PGA Tour?  To tour officials, the tour was both better preparation and a better predictor, so a four-tournament series would seem to work better.

What do the numbers say?  They agree with the Tour officials. Sort of.

I looked at the 26 who players qualified for the tour at the last Q-School in 2012 and the top 26 finishers in the 2013 four-tournament tour qualifier and .  I compared where they finished on the money list rather than FedEx points, because the money list determines exemption for the next season.

Here is what the raw numbers say: Of the 26 2012 Q-School qualifiers, 8 made the Top 125 on the money list the next year.  Of the 26 top earners in last year’s four-tournament qualifier, 11 made the Top 125 on the money list.

Also, the 2012 Q-School qualifiers averaged a finish of 142.3 on the 2013 money list.  The Top 26 2013 series finalists averaged a finish of 124.5 on the 2014 money list.

(I did not incorporate the tour performance into the formula, as the PGA Tour does — not only because it is so complex, but because I was comparing performance in a limited qualifying event rather than performance over an entire tour season.)

As usual, there is more to the numbers than just that, so here are some added stats to consider:

—> The 2012 graduating class included Kris Blanks, who needed shoulder surgery soon after and missed almost the entire season.  He tied for second in the Q-School despite the injury.  So actually, only 25 of the qualifiers played the season.

If you remove the 26th-ranked player from the 2013 Tour qualifiers (Billy Hurley III), you would end up with 10 on the Top 125 money list.  But there is no valid reason to remove Hurley.  

Switching to percentages would create a more valid comparison.  Using that, 32 percent (8 of 25) 2012 Q-Schoolers made the next year’s Top 125 money list, compared 42 percent (11 of 26) of the 2013 qualifiers.

—> The 2012 graduating class could easily have had a better percentage.  It is obviously a statistical anomaly, but also fun numbers: Of the 2012 graduates, three barely missed making the Top 125.  Chez Reavie finished 126th, Scott Langley finished 127th, and Fabian Gomez finished 128th.  With a putt here and a better bounce there, the numbers between the two groups could have been a lot closer.

—> One of the great stories of Q-School is how young talent has a chance to run the table at the school and then make a splash on tour.  That definitely happened with the Class of 2012, which provided Billy Horschel (who made an immediate impact with his performance and his octopus pants) and Patrick Reed and his three wins.

The best money list finish for the 2013 qualifiers was Brendon Todd, who won the Byron Nelson championship this year and is 15th on the money list.  Besides that Will MacKenzie and Seung-Yul Noh are in the Top 50 in earnings with solid years, but nothing close to what Horschel or Reed did.

—> The 2012 Q-School class included two players — Donald Constable and Si Woo Kim, who did not make a single cut in 2013.  (They did not appear among the 253 names on the money list, so I ranked each 254th in earnings.) Their performance adds anecdotal evidence to the PGA Tour officials’ claim about the Q-School’s reliability in predicting tour success.  The 2013 Tour Finals class had no such players.

The Kim story is particularly indicative.  He made it through the 2012 Q-School, including pre-qualifiers, though he was only 17.  Thus, he could not be a PGA Tour member, because he would not reach his 18th birthday until July.  As the results show, he ended up digging himself a pretty deep hole.

—> Finally, one of the concerns was whether the new wraparound season and new eligibility rules would give the graduates enough opportunities to break the Top 125 in earnings.

At least for this year, the numbers seem to hold up, though most of the non-exempt players have a point in the difficulty of establishing a rhythm within a sporadic playing schedule.

It’s just been one year for the new system, so it’s unwise to draw too many conclusions.  But at least at the outset, the system seems to be doing a better job of making sure the players it sends on Tour are not only qualified, but also prepared.

Here are the two lists below of players, their respective qualifying rankings, and where they finished on the money list the next year in parentheses:

2012 Q-School
1. Dong-hwan Lee (95)
T2. Ross Fisher (161)
T2. Steve LeBrun (158) 
T2. Kris Blanks (DNP) 
T5. Richard H. Lee (89)
T5. Billy Horschel (13)
T7. Erik Compton (122)
T7. Brad Fritsch (142)
T7. Jin Park (195)
T10. Fabian Gomez (128)
T10. Michael Letzig (220)
T10. Jeff Gove (215)
T10. Steven Bowditch (118)
T14. Matt Jones (48)
T14. Robert Karlsson (143)
T14. Eric Meierdierks (212)
T17. Scott Langley (127)
T17. Aaron Watkins (179)
T17. Derek Ernst (66)
T20. Si Woo Kim (254) 
T20. Tag Ridings (147) 
T22. Donald Constable (254) 
T22. Bobby Gates (159)
T22. Patrick Reed (35) 
T22. Henrik Norlander (151)
T22. Chez Reavie (126)  

2013 Tour Finals
1. John Peterson (179)
2. Chesson Hadley (71)
3. Seung-Yul Noh (43)
4. Andrew Svoboda (81)
5. Trevor Immelman (153)
6. Will MacKenzie (42)
7. Scott Gardiner (183)
8. Edward Loar (233)
9. Ben Martin (61)
10. Patrick Cantlay (212)
11. Brendon Todd (15)
12. Ryu Ishikawa (77)
13. Brad Fritsch (140)
14. Michael Putnam (114)
15. Kevin Kisner (94)
16. Sean O’Hair (156)
17. Troy Matteson (159)
18. Bud Cauley (129)
19. Heath Slocum (141)
20. Russell Knox (67)
21. Hudson Swafford (146)
22. Will Claxton (219)
23. Brice Garnett (132)
24. Tyrone von Aswegen (151)
25. Chad Collins (157)
26. Billy Hurley III 83

Face WHOSE Music?

Disclosure: Auburn journalism faculty member and season ticket holder here. You can judge from this and other writing if I live up to my claim of promoting responsible journalism over fandom.

Coach Gus Malzahn’s decision to remove quarterback Nick Marshall from Auburn’s SEC Media Days roster for today met with much disappointment.

The decision came after Marshall was cited on Friday in Georgia for marijuana possession. (“Cited, not arrested” became something of a mantra.)

Those who criticized claimed that it would be more appropriate for Marshall to “face the music” from the media in attendance today and that his appearance would “clear the air.”  Now, they say, the story will not go away.

This concept of the media as some kind of required ordeal for a college athlete to endure troubles me.  No doubt it derives from the media’s traditional role as a watchdog.

A public official might need to “face the music” of a press conference after investigative reporting or government inquiry reveals misdeeds that demand response.  A watchdog press is representing the citizenry in asking tough questions that need to be asked.

In other cases, however, the demand for someone to “face the music” also presumes a lot.  Here, most of that presumption comes from the media members who demand it who are demanding a go at Marshall.

With this story, there is no dogged investigative reporting.  The information might be entertaining to the audience, and First Amendment-protected.  But for many (but not all, I stress) of those who will be in attendance, this is an easy story that dropped in their laps and will give them the opportunity to hound a young athlete.  A textbook Media Days circus.

That circus dominates at a situation like this.  The serious questions of a young man who allowed what could be a storybook season to devolve into preseason drama?

Too weighty for an unethical credentialed amateur wishing to make a name for himself/herself with a condescending question sure to get meme’d, GIF’ed, and Vined.

The preseason drama beast demands fresh meat, and if Auburn will not feed Marshall to the beast, it’s more convenient to blame the school than to turn and address that annoying beast.

Some have compared this to the Jameis Winston story (the sexual assault accusations, NOT the crab legs caper).  The two don’t match up.

First, the Winston story has grown beyond FSU, though crucial questions still remain, to address a nationwide culture in which colleges mishandle sexual assault allegations, particularly where athletes are involved.

Second, Winston has not been charged in the incident, so any questions of his own involvement would be futile, given the competent legal advice he and anyone in a similar situation would receive.  If the story had broken three days of head of ACC’s media days, a similar decision would have been wise.

(Though I would add here that I supported Heather Cox’s questioning of Winston on ESPN after the ACC championship game.  Her questions were relevant, and he was handling them well until whisked away.)

Would an appearance by Marshall have defused the story?  Will the story continue from here, as many claim?  That question will be answered by the sports media members from here.

In the absence of new information, the story survives only if the media continue to serve it up under the pretense of new angles.

Nick Marshall will speak to these accusations, and he certainly should.  But at a venue like Media Days (too much) a mere three days after (too soon), not a wise decision.

And if it deprives some in the media of an easy target for a quick take — that’s not a problem worth solving.

I Used to Think That it was So Easy

See if you can guess which ESPN personality made the following statement:

"[The] principles and the integrity associated with [print journalism] serve as the backbone for all that I’m about and hope to be professionally."

Anyone guess Stephen A. Smith?  Granted, the quote is from way back in 2007, in a textbook, Strategic Sport Communication.  Even so, my students are always amused to hear that.

Smith can still shows his reporting chops.  He beat everyone (including his fellow ESPN-er Chris Broussard) on the Dwight Howard-to-Houston story.  But that’s not what he is known for today

But Stephen A. is not that bad.  Even he has to suffer through First Take with Skip Bayless.  Smith gets more substantial offerings from the chunks that plunge through the ceiling in his Oberto Beef Jerky commercials than he gets from Bayless.

No doubt, Bayless (who also started in newspapers) and Smith have found a profitable shtick. Apparently ESPN has.  But where does that leave sports journalism, particularly for the generation that will practice it in the next few decades?

We have been told that journalists must learn a variety of multimedia skills to survive.  Do we also need to bring a variety of writing styles — news, opinion and everything in between, often in the same article?  To what extent are we expected to sound like a smarter version of Bayless?

With social media, talk radio and traditional media, your favorite sportswriter has a lot thrown at him/her.  It creates a professional minefield, where words written quickly under deadline pressure, then taken out of context, can easily come back to haunt.

When I joined Twitter and started blogging, I did so as an extension of my teaching and research, which centers on sports journalism, particularly its history.

My blogs address issues in sports journalism, often to criticize, it might seem, but more to instruct.  I try not to drop random, pointless bombs, even when I’m harsh.

I could declare that on Twitter I do not troll, but given the response I got from some Auburn beat writers when I said that in class, I’ll amend it to, I do not intend to sound like an ESPN pundit, and I certainly don’t offer it as constant fare.  Sometimes my wording fails me, and yes, rarely I will just drop something because I find it amusing.

What some might assume to be trolling is often a sincere criticism of something I’ve read.  Often I’ll follow up by praising the writer the next time around, and folks will respond, “I thought you hated him/her.”  My response to them is that I criticize content, not individuals.

Overall my guiding principle is, “Don’t be that guy,” and I commend the same philosophy to my students and anyone who asks.  Even within the context of the previous grafs, I feel that I have upheld that principle.  And I feel no motivation to move into Trollville, just to get more followers and clicks.

I want the same from my students and every other future sports journalist.  I will always be a future sports journalism reader, and I want the content to be informative and analytical, without the rhetorical level of an Around the Horn fool-fest.

But those students coming up are getting mixed messages.  And they are writing to audiences that include those who cache their columns and scan their LinkedIn profiles for shriek fodder.

In my 1970s student days, it was easier. You either wanted to be a sports cultural essayist like Paul Hemphill, a columnist like Furman Bisher, or a beat reporter like the ones you grew up reading.  Now, students can aspire to be all three the same day.

And they do so serving a dangerously empowered audience.  Readers/viewers have more choices.  They know it, and the media outlets know it — particularly the local ones.  Offend readers with basic shoe-leather journalism, and they will cry “hater” and find another site.

Fans always have somewhere else to turn, more than in the past. And it’s just another complexity that today’s sports journalists must face.

It would seem glib and useless to say that each sports journalist must simply set his or her moral compass and stay true to it, but even that is more difficult today.  All of the choices were simpler back in the day, the moral options were clearer, and the profession — whether through ethics codes or our fellow professionals — helped keep us in line.

In that sense, Twitter has provided an unintended benefit.  As Ty Duffy noted in his musings a couple of weeks ago, Twitter has brought journalists (perhaps more than other groups) together into a community that shares jokes, true, but also discusses issues.  Sometimes it’s by direct message, sometimes readers join in for better or worse, but at least the open discussions are there.

Even so, the Venn Diagram has so many circles that I don’t envy the coming generation.  They definitely have the technical skills to navigate the new media landscape.  Will the way be as sure for them ethically as it was for my generation?

Probably not. But good writing will continue and readers will read.  With that foundation, the craziness of everything else will have a harder time taking hold, as the long-term value of “that guy” and his drivel becomes clearer.  

Real Professors of Auburn University

The origins of those national headlines about A.J. McCarron and Katherine Webb’s wedding being a reality show?  My 2 p.m. Reporting class, I suspect.

First, some background.

This semester, Laurie Webb, Katherine’s sister, has been in the above class.  To avoid sounding like Brent Musberger, I will limit my comments to saying she is competent, talented, and diligent.  The equal of most of our PR and journalism students.  (I mean, she and they all got past our Journalism 1100 class, right?)

The first time she talked with me after class was about a student friend of hers, a fellow yoga instructor, who had apparently committed suicide.  We talked about knowing when a friend was struggling, what can be done to help — I had more than one such conversation that week.  The student’s death was a jolt.

Side note: It was either during that, or a conversation soon after, that we were talking football, and Laurie said, “It’s crazy. My sister dates a guy from the University of Alabama, and … ”  I basically replied, We know, Laurie; we know.

Right after spring break, I got an e-mail from Laurie in which she told me that she would be missing class that Friday, because A.J. had invited the family down to Gulf Shores.  He would be asking Katherine to marry him, and he wanted both families.

I suppose I could have broken the story and tweeted the news, but I held off for a couple of reasons.  One is that Laurie asked me to keep it a secret, because it was going to be a surprise.  Second is that I use my Twitter for sports media discussion and updates on journalism (and other topics) at Auburn.  A breathless note of rumored nuptials between A.J. and K-Webb — not me.

The Monday after the engagement news broke, I will confess a moment of weakness.  I asked Laurie to talk a little about the engagement.  After all, it was Reporting class, and she had witnessed a news event.  While talking about it, she mentioned that the engagement had been filmed as part of a planned reality show.

That bit of info elicited a collective groan from the class, to be honest.  But it also got the attention of the Auburn Plainsman staff members in the class.

After class, I thanked Laurie for being a good sport about it.  She accepted my appreciation with typically casual grace, adding that it had definitely been a crazy year for the family. Understatement No. 2.

The next Tuesday, I had walked over to the Plainsman office to eat lunch, as I do from time to time.  The staff members there told me they had interviewed Laurie and her family about the reality show.

They posted the story on their Web site the next day, and, of course, the fan was hit and 100 percent of a certain nether region broke loose.

The situation left me with a sinking feeling.  Had I let a student down?  Did my prodding cause her to let slip information that she would later regret?  Even if she did so willingly, the reflection of a gracious attitude, I would not blame her before I blamed myself.

It’s one of the complicating factors of being a journalism professor — when the conversations with students trickle over into the pond of interesting news.  Yes, I know news when I hear it.  But as a professor, often I have to keep that news to myself.

Not just student news.  I served as a faculty member on Auburn’s Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics (yes, CIA) for three years.  During that time, I heard things that were interesting — though never earth-shattering and certainly never scandalous.

We got Auburn’s APR numbers and drug testing statistics a few weeks ahead of the general public.  And we were briefed on ESPN the Magazine’s story highlighting Dakota Mosley’s allegations that Auburn did not respond adequately to his drug problem.

In all cases, I kept quiet about what I heard, as requested (though I did talk a lot about how impressed I was with Cassie Arner, who served as Auburn’s contact with Shaun Assael of ESPN).

In this situation, Laurie caught grief for her part in the story, as did The Plainsman, because the producers were not ready to release the news. So as I walked into Reporting the next day, I wondered if it would be awkward. 

But it wasn’t. Laurie attended, and in talking about it afterward, she seemed quite relaxed, despite the drama.  I agreed with her.  To me, this wasn’t Survivor; we know the ending. No reason to keep everything a secret.

At the same time, I felt compelled to apologize to Laurie for putting her in the middle of the story.  She shrugged it off, and seemed sincere.  But the situation still bothers me.

Is my line drawn in the right place? Does it still give too much ground to the journalism side of me?  Is it better to keep the line there and deal with the occasional doubts, instead of instinctively hiding what should be reported?

It’s yet another teaching moment — the kind that the news media provide on a daily basis — and I have talked to my students about it.  Sometimes, however, the most important, and sometimes uncomfortable lessons, are for me.

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, 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, 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.