Monday, August 31, 2009

My Two Cents on L'Affaire Rosenberg

So that was an eventful day, huh? The winningest program in college football, a program that has never been placed on probation, was accused of NCAA violations with respect to players practicing too long. A million words flowed forth in cyberspace. Rich Rodriguez choked up at the podium. At the start of the day, I worried that my one fear regarding Rodriguez - that a swirling storm of fan and media discontent would railroad his efforts to build his program at Michigan before the project could bear fruit - would come true. By the end of the day, I have decided that the Michigan fan base is now going to coalesce around Rodriguez, the players are going to thrive off of the "us against the world" dynamic that a hatchet job of a story has created, and Michael Rosenberg is going to meet the sports media equivalent of another Rosenberg. What's that? I proved Godwin's Law again? Don't worry, there's more coming.

I have lots of thoughts. You read.

1. "Let's put our heads together, let's put old matters to an end."

The Michigan fan base is not noted for being uniform or religious in its fervor for the program. Years ago, I wrote a comparison between the crowds at an Alabama home game and a Michigan home game as I went to both within the space of two weeks. The chief difference is that Michigan fans take a detached, ironic, sometimes pessimistic view of the team. They are as likely to joke about play calls as they are to cheer with gusto. For Alabama fans, a game is a religious revival. There is good and there is evil; the role of the fan is to scream his head off so that good may prevail or the earth will open up and swallow him whole. If you want to play cheap political psychologist, the Michigan fan base tends to be blue politically and thus sees everything in shades of gray, while the Alabama fan base is red and sees things a little differently.

This is a very long way of saying that Michigan fans tend not to be a unified bunch. Some fans liked Lloyd, others didn't. Some think that Bo should be on Mount Rushmore; others point out his record in Pasadena. Some think that Michigan State is the arch-rival; others think that Ohio State is. Some love the Fab Five; others think that they brought dishonor upon the school. Today was one of those rare instances where the entire fan base was united. Between message boards, e-mails, and calls, it was damn near impossible to find anyone who was expressing anything other than contempt for the Detroit Free Press, Michael Rosenberg, and Mark Snyder. The Michigan fan base can be criticized in many ways: arrogant, spoiled, not especially loud at games, etc. However, it cannot be said that the fan base will not be critical of its programs when criticism is not deserved. It is not a fan base that circles the wagons and defends its coaches and players, right or wrong. So, it's a fairly significant fact that I was unable to detect any support for the Freep's desperate grab for clicks over the past two days.

2. "Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press."

Why are Michigan fans so uniform in their support for the program? I'll give you two links. Here is Jon Chait on the article. Jon is an actual, respectable journalist, so these words come with a bit more punch than they would from the average blogger in his mom's basement:

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

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

And here is MGoBlog's Brian Cook, sticking in the knife as only he can:

The Free Press systematically overstated their case by omitting contextual information and misrepresenting quotes about voluntary workout programs. They have repeatedly raised the specter of major, program crippling sanctions. They took a side, and if that side turns out to be wrong the people responsible for the story should be held responsible for their errors in judgment.

They won't, of course. If and when Michigan releases the results of its internal probe and announces they've come up with either nothing or a pu-pu platter of secondary violations, people will laugh at NCAA enforcement, cite the Jerry Tarkanian quote, and laud the journalistic effort that went into proving football players play a lot of football.

In a nutshell, Rosenberg and Snyder presented quotes from a number of former players to show that Michigan players spend a lot of time on football. They then reach the conclusion that the program must have violated NCAA regulations because the players devoted more than 20 hours per week. Rosenberg and Snyder never make the slightest attempt to address whether the hours spent by Michigan players count towards the 20 hour limit. There are numerous categories of exceptions, but G-d forbid that they actually discuss the rules that Michigan supposedly violated.

3. "You think you'd like to play ball with the law?"

There have been a number of legal analogies thrown around today. Several lawyers have commented that the article reads like a plaintiff's complaint rather than a proper piece of reporting. Others have noted that if the article were a complaint, it would be subject to an immediate motion to dismiss because one can accept everything in the complaint as true and it still doesn't state a cause of action because it does not properly allege that the hours spent by the players count towards the 20 allowed per week.

I'm going to chime in with one more analogy just to lawyer this matter up further. In employment discrimination law, a plaintiff alleging that he was fired because of his race has to show a prima facie case of discrimination, namely that he is a member of a protected class, he suffered an adverse employment action, and the action was taken because of his race. At that point, the employer has to show that the action was taken for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. If the employer does so, then the employee has to show that that reason was pretextual. This is where all the fun begins. Let's say an employer claims that it fired an employee for failing to submit expense reports in a timely manner. The employee is going to have a field day with that explanation if he can show that dozens of co-workers of different races didn't turn in their expense reports and no action was taken against them.

Rosenberg and Snyder are the inept employer offering pretext to cover a discriminatory motive. They are trying to attack Michigan for conduct that is routinely accepted when done by other programs. A simple Google search returns a bounty of articles where coaches and players openly talk about how much time they spend on football-related activities and how the players aren't going to see the field if they do not attend "voluntary" workouts. If it is so easy to show that Michigan engaged in a practice that is wholly common for every major college program, then where does the Free Press get off alleging that this behavior when done by Michigan is a major violation? Its motive is laid absolutely bare when it attacks Michigan for conduct that is routine in major college football.

4. "To memorizing politics of ancient history."

I'm of two minds on Tony Barnhart's piece in the AJC this morning. Here is his key point:

But here is my real concern if I’m a Michigan fan. What does it say about the state of a program when your own players, albeit a small number of them, will rat you out to the media in a story that runs one week before your first game? It could turn out that these players are simply lying in order to be vindictive. A certain number of players always balk and complain when a new staff comes in. But it could also be that they are telling the truth. An internal investigation will have to determine if that is the case.
On the one hand, the Freep article's use of anonymous sources makes it impossible to determine how many current players are providing this information. It's fair to say that the majority of their sources are former players, players who do not need to remain anonymous. It's also fair to say that two of the sources are freshmen who unwittingly provided the squibs that Rosenberg and Snyder pretend are live ammo when they talked about how hard the team has been working. It's possible (likely?) that the grand total of current players who are intentional sources is one. And that's before we get to the fact that there's a real possibility that Rosenberg and Snyder obtained evidence in a misleading way by telling interviewees that they are supposed to work for only 20 hours per week, while omitting the fact that a great many hours worked do not count towards that limit.

On the other hand, it's impossible to deny that there was dissension last year and there may be some residual dissension this season. The explanation, I think, lies in the way that Rodriguez came into the program. I have a pet theory that the best way to end a war is to march to the enemy's capital and plant your flag. The Allies did not do that in World War I and as a result, the Germans never felt as if they were truly beaten, hence the popular Dolchstoss myth that sprung up in later years. The Allies did do that in World War II, thus convincing the Germans and Japanese that they needed to behave after the war. (One counter: the fear of the Soviets is what really forced the Germans and Japanese to stay in line. I digress.)

When a coach gets fired, the remaining players typically realize the flaws in the prior regime. I doubt that many Alabama players were pining for Mike Shula and viewing Nick Saban as an illegitimate leader. When a coach resigns, however, the feelings have to be different. There would be far more skepticism directed towards the new coach. This is especially true when the retiring coach is as popular as Lloyd Carr was amongst his players. Thus, it's easy to see how Rodriguez met resistance from his new players, especially when year one went so poorly. It cannot be fun to bust one's ass and go 3-9. I have a good feeling that Rodriguez has the team pulling in the same direction in year two, but Barnhart's point does illustrate an issue that he faces.

5. "The words to say I'm sorry, I haven't found yet."

Although the Rosenberg/Snyder article is flawed in a host of ways, it does highlight one uncomfortable fact for all college football fans. Major programs like Michigan bring in a number of players every year who would never be admitted on their academic records alone. Many players come from failing schools that do not come close to preparing them for college. Those players then play a physically demanding sport that has the time demands of a full-time job. We often like to tell ourselves that college football players are paid by receiving expensive educations that working stiffs like myself will spend the better part of our careers to give to our children. How much can they really take advantage of that education when they are working 45 hours per week on blocking and tackling? If I weren't using the Dylan theme tonight, Michael Corleone's "we're both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator" line would be a good way to conclude.


chg said...

I am absolutely shocked that anyone in the MSM would allow personal beliefs or vendettas to alter news reporting. Good thing we have someone from the New Republic to speak up for the importance of keeping editorial opinions out of the news. I bet the NYT has the same strict policy. :-)

I think the charges of coaches watching and recording attendance are somewhat serious and much more difficult to explain. I certainly don't believe anything THAT blatant happened on Carr's watch. It will be interesting to see if the influential boosters truly value the concept of the "Michigan Man" enough to press for the coach's ouster.

I think he's completely safe, but only because I'm cynical enough to believe the talk from some quarters of Michigan being special and different was never more than talk - something to salve wounds and possibly salvage some pride after a bitter defeat, but not a pretext worth preserving at the expense of actual wins and losses.

Caelus said...

Excellent blog Grits. I especially agree with the final paragraph of the post talking about these student athletes being deprived of time to make it through the academic side of the college experience. I know that many are pure jocks that could care less about the academics and are there only for the football but there are also many more that find it extremely difficult to get enough study time in after the long grueling hours of practice. This is not just a Michigan problem but virtually universal.

Ryno said...


Belated congrats on Barca's commanding win over Lisbon yesterday.

Watched the game while jogging at the YMCA and was impressed by the squad.