Think About Jalen

jalenLast night, I got into a Twitter back-and-forth with Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News after I tweeted my disapproval of reporting related to Alabama QB Jalen Hurts’ registering with the NCAA Transfer Portal.

I won’t go into debate details. Hurt was defending his and others’ reporting; I was showing my usual insufferable self-righteousness. By the end of the discussion, some were praising our restraint in debate, though both of us might confess to being more ticked off with the other than we were showing, at least early on.

In retrospect, I wish I had not focused on myself and my actions as much. I wish that I had talked more about Jalen Hurts–because that’s the point. In this case, Jalen Hurts as a 20-year-old college student seems to be forgotten.

Ironically, Hurts’ problems started when his name entered the NCAA Transfer Portal. The NCAA set up the portal to give student-athletes more control over the transfer process and to prevent schools from blocking student-athlete transfers, according to this NCAA handout.

The student-athlete contacts the athletics department compliance office, and a staff member there enters the name into the portal. The portal is not a public database; it is an NCAA resource.

College coaches and administrative staff are encouraged by the NCAA to keep portal information confidential. It’s not just a matter of academic privacy. Given the recent legalization of sports betting, such information can be valuable, financially speaking, so it’s another area of possible abuse.

After Hurts’ name was entered, at least one person–either an administrator or a coach–ignored the NCAA’s cautions and leaked Hurts’ name to the media. Former Georgia QB Justin Fields faced similar treatment when he registered to the portal in mid-December.

Back to Hurts. Unlike other CFB players, he did not announce his intention to transfer; I would infer that his preference was to not publicly discuss it. The individuals who leaked it were not identified by name, though some sports journalists (such as Cecil Hurt himself) did report that the individual was a source with administrative access to the database, which is helpful background.

That way, we knew that it was not Hurts himself or a family member/friend who leaked the info. That reinforced the inference that Hurts desired privacy for his decision.

John Infante, who tweets frequently on NCAA-related issues, wondered on Twitter whether an attorney would “start a cottage practice of aggressively going after these leakers for FERPA violations, just to stop these stories.” He was commenting specifically on a tweet about Hurts.

Given the media attention given to the transfer portal (along with numerous sci-fi memes), I had thought the portal was public knowledge. Thanks to Infante, I realize that the portal is in fact an internal NCAA database created to help the athletes.

I don’t know if leaking transfer portal information would rise to the level of a FERPA offense. In practice, however, the result is the same. An academic process for a student-athlete becomes public information, because someone leaks it.

And once again, yet another aspect of student-athlete involvement is misused by NCAA coaches and administrators, hurting student-athletes in the process.

True, a transfer is an athletic issue, but it is also an academic process, despite condescending skepticism toward student-athletes–particularly college football players–where academics are concerned.

No doubt Jalen Hurts was disappointed in how his athletic career was working out at Alabama. He had dreams and hopes yet to attain. He didn’t publicly complain; instead he started looking elsewhere using an NCAA database intended to be private.

Because he is a former starting quarterback at a CFB dynasty, instead of a typical student looking to move, open season is declared on his privacy. Fans want to know, and sports media professionals would love to tell them.

And when an athletics coach or staff member, with whatever motivation, leaks the information, it becomes another problem for Hurts to deal with as he makes an important decision.

As a journalism faculty member, I get it. As a journalism faculty member, I look out for students, athlete or non-athlete.

I spent three years as a faculty representative on Auburn’s athletics committee, roughly from Cam to Kick Six. I saw aggregate drug test results and annual APR numbers and heard about upcoming news. I never told any sports journalist friend about what I learned.

In a similar vein, when I see a student-athlete treated as a means to an end, the end being reader interest, rather than an end in himself, I should say something regardless of the school involved.

As with any leak, in Washington or on the NCAA Transfer Portal, it’s not the media’s responsibility to stop the leaks. In this case, it’s the NCAA’s responsibility. But as I stated earlier, the NCAA seems more interested in restricting student-athletes and less interested in curbing anything related to coaches and staff members.

Am I saying media outlets should decline to pursue such news out of respect for Hurts’ privacy? On one level, it sounds great to think that an outlet would let others do the dirty work and announce Hurts’ transfer only when he did.

But that’s anathema to any journalist. And what about the readers? They pay lip service to lofty principles, but would they support a media outlet that publicly stated its unwillingness to print such information?

Expect the process to continue. Some leak. Others then report. Many others then read or view. And somewhere in that process is a 20-year-old young man, whose athletic talent has cost him his privacy as he navigates life’s tough decisions, academic and personal.

At least think about him.

 

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Give Auburn Students a Break!

Expect a pretty empty student section at the Auburn-Tennessee game. And, sadly, expect the media to blame student apathy.

Give the students a break. Blame lies with the Southeastern Conference.

This weekend is fall break; Auburn does not have class on Thursday or Friday. It’s a fairly recent schedule addition–previously, students, and faculty, endured a long journey from the early-semester Labor Day holiday to the late-semester Thanksgiving break. It was a grind for everyone.

In 2015, Auburn instituted a two-day fall break, to much rejoicing. The football schedule included either off weeks or away games (and an off week next year as well).

This year, however, the SEC scheduled Auburn-Tennessee for that weekend. More recently, Auburn basketball added the Tip-Off at Toomer’s, which filled the Thursday of the break and gave students an attractive distraction.  That has been canceled by Hurricane Michael-related concerns.

So now, students who have just completed midterms (all the time knowing that a rapidly developing hurricane will pass through the neighboring states and affect southeastern Alabama) will likely prefer to go home for the four-day.

As we look ahead, we can expect broadcasters and sportswriters alike to decry the emptier-than-normal student section and draw conclusions that blame student apathy and disappointment with the team’s performance.

You won’t even have to wait until Saturday. SEC Nation is planning to broadcast from the site, in part drawn by the now-canceled Tip-Off at Toomer’s.

I wonder how many within the media will lay blame not with the students, but with the SEC for forcing students into a choice with a false level of significance. Given the first three letters in their names, I would not expect much criticism from either Network or Nation.

We are in a time when context is an annoyance and Millennials a favorite target for whatever they’re blamed with killing, so I expect the hot-take artists to be in attack mode. The students deserve better.

They deserve a two-day break following midterms, and the SEC should have respected that in setting the schedule. Moving the break back a week to accommodate the Tennessee game ignores its timing, immediately after exams.

Beyond that, the students deserve to be more than a convenient means to a click-baiting media end. They have reasons for missing the game that relate more to decisions out of their control, and media members who gloss over their own slacker days should remember that before laying on the “when I was in college” revisionism.

One small mercy is that blame will in part focus on the team’s bad loss to Mississippi State, so that the students themselves will not be the only target. Still it won’t eliminate it.

Perhaps more students than expected will turn out on Saturday. If so, I hope that is acknowledged.

But on Saturday, even if the media members don’t, give the students a break. And SEC, please do the same for all conference university students.

For Love of the Game … and Auburn

A few years ago, our season tickets were near the top row of the northern end zone. As one OOC easy victory winded down, we started to leave.

The stands were quickly clearing out, but I saw a father and son still in their seats, in Auburn jerseys and hats. As they watched, the father was explaining the game to his son.

To many of us, this was a rest stop between important games and an excuse for an early escape. My guess was that for these two Auburn fans, it was their best chance to get affordable tickets, and a moment that they were going to share until 0:00.

Now, during at least one of those games, I like to wander our section and see if I can find some fans like that. College football has become a high-ticket juggernaut all around, pricing itself out of reach of many fans.

But these fans came to watch Alabama State, and they shared a moment. I’d like to introduce you to a few of them.

(Before I do, I promise to put to rest the “sidewalk alumni” snobbery from here on out. A lot of these folks did not go to Auburn, but they are still fans. They are family.)

This is Burt from Leeds and his three kids. Mom is at home; No. 4 is a month away.

Burt has been coming to Auburn games since he was 7, during the Pat Dye era. His father worked with coach Rodney Garner’s father.

(And check out his son’s Auburn socks.)

Burt and his kids also brought good luck. I was walking to the game as I met him, and we scored a ride on a cart. That also meant they got there in time to see the eagle fly.

This is Tony (right), his brother, Devin, and their niece, Shay, from Notasulga.

Tony sat in front of us and had a great time talking football during the game. He got his tickets through a friend who was working the game.

That is a Notasulga jersey Devin is wearing. He told me that he is a fan of both Auburn and Alabama. Good luck with that.

This is John and his son, Max, from Prattville.

John got his tickets through his boss. They might have moved down from the upper level to these seats.

Note the matching Auburn t-shirt/sunglasses combo. Sharing Auburn style to go with their Auburn fandom.

This is Chris, from Canton, Georgia. He brought four young ladies with him.

His daughters are on the outside; his nieces are the two on the inside. Chris had just made a major investment in cotton candy.

It was the nieces’ first Auburn game. When the older one heard I taught journalism, we talked writing for a while. We might have recruited an English major. Make that two — his daughter sitting between us is a reading fanatic.

This is Daniel and his son, Dawson, from Heflin. Daniel also got his tickets through his boss.

Daniel is an Auburn fan, but his sport is basketball, so we also talked Bryce Brown and Austin Wiley.

While I was talking to them, Auburn fumbled a punt that led to Alabama State’s only touchdown.

I feared my project was bringing bad luck, but Daniel assured me that the game was well in hand.

One father did decline to participate, which is totally acceptable, of course. I approached them because his son was taking a selfie of them with the game behind them. Dad explained, “That was for Mom.”

I also talked to a mother and son who sat next to me in empty seats early in the game. It turned out they have season tickets, but they gave them to other fans so they could help a friend with her food booth. They were sneaking out for a break to watch part of the first quarter. Hash tag Busted.

Disclosure: Given the late starting time and long drive home, not all of these folks made it to the alma mater. But they were able to spend a day together, sharing in the Auburn football experience and its memorable moments.