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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2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator and the BCS

Originally published on Medium.com.  Click here

Hal

Why did college football fans hate the BCS?  Look no further than the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a stop at the Terminator series.  Then glance at Google, Facebook and Amazon.

It might be hard for Millennials to realize, but there was a time when society was pretty scared of computers.  And that fear has morphed into a different kind of suspicion today.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Actually, even before 1968 and the release of 2001, we could go all the way back to the 19th century.  Advances in science began to unravel the mysteries of the universe, undermining religious faith.  A book like Darwin’s Origin of the Species sought to take God even further out of the equation.

Anxiety transitioned from the anti-evolution fundamentalists to the greater society coming out of World War II, as science demonstrated its ability to incinerate entire cities.  The emergence of huge, powerful supercomputers fed off this anxiety as well.

Now we’re ready to revisit Kubrick’s 2001, the film version of Arthur Clarke’s sci-fi short story, “The Sentinel.”  Its climactic tale (spoiler alert) of a computer that learns to kill on its own initiative resonated with a society that was suspicious of the room-filling, soulless supercomputers that were gaining power.

The theme remained popular, even into the 1980s.  The Terminator played off that fear with its dystopic tale of technology having taken over a future society.  A particularly nasty robot, portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, travels back in time to kill the woman who would bear the future human rebellion’s leader.

About the time that movie came out, however, Apple had begun to roll out its original Macintosh personal computers, with IBM close behind.  Suddenly a computer was not some military-industrial complex storm trooper; it was a cute contraption on a desk or table — producing documents, playing games.  Their developers were portrayed less as mad scientists and more as harmless nerds.

Eventually even the Terminator found a heart.  By the second film in 1991, Arnold was as helpful as a desktop, and actually came back from the future to protect the future rebel leader his robot model had tried to kill just a few years before.

But then, those computers were networked together, and again, a fear of their power began to emerge.  As technology progressed, a certain ambivalence set in. We feared that the “ghost in the machine” had the power to travel from terminal to terminal. But we also loved the features of cyber-life.

You had The Net, where Sandra Bullock faces perhaps the first identity theft ever, but you also had You’ve Got Mail, where AOL helped Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan find love in a way they never could face-to-face — or at least since their last romcom.

And along came Google. And its algorithms.

The formula for life decisions changed.  As Google successfully couched its searches in complex formulas related to Web surfing, and other companies applied the process to other areas, that Hal-based uneasiness began to creep in again.

What (or more precisely, who) were these computers that were taking so much control of my life.  When Amazon suggested I check out this book, or Facebook suggested that friend for me, how did they know?  We could reassure ourselves that for every nine rational matches suggested, that tenth would show a cluelessness that only the human touch could rectify.

It was all fine as far as our day-to-day lives and relationships were concerned.  But when it infected college football, well, that did it.

(At this point I should stop and give credit to an excellent panel at the IACS’s 2015 Summit on Communication and Sport.  The panelists — Marcus Paroske, Michigan-Flint; Paul Johnson, Pittsburgh; and Ron Burg, Wake Forest — sparked the thinking here.)

The BCS did something more disruptive than drag that face from our junior high past into our Facebook consciousness.  Its network of computer rankings and human polls played with the dreams and hopes of college football fan bases.  And with only two happy fan bases per season, it was doomed.

A variety of disasters — the 2003 split title, the 2004 Auburn snub, the seemingly annual exclusion of hopeful undefeated teams — enhanced the anger.  The minor tweaks satisfied nobody.

To bring the human element back in (along with bazillions of simoleons in new revenue), the BCS and its computers were declared obsolete. In 2014, the College Football Playoff replaced it, with a selection committee that would meet weekly starting midseason and would issue rankings — but mainly, would be human.

Did they ever act human, in its messiest sense. Sure, there were conflicts of interest, with former coaches and athletic directors rating their own teams, but that’s what happens with people. Per chairman Jeff Long’s descriptions, the system seemed to change from week to week, but hey, they’re not some computer you can program. They’re people. Like us.

In the end, it all seemed to work — and not just because the three games generated huge ratings and massive narratives.  So maybe the four teams that made the playoff also would have been the top four teams using BCS’s formula.  Still, this time, humans had made the decision.  So that made all the difference.

With college football thus secured, and our relationship with technology once more renegotiated, life was better. We could return to our Google searches, and our Facebook relationships, and our Amazon purchases

And let algorithms make the rest of our decisions for us.

Confidence in a Process, Not a President

First published by al.com.  You can link to that here.

As the UAB Faculty Senate Tuesday announced a no-confidence motion in President Ray Watts to be debated at a special meeting in January, my mind went back to a similar mess at Auburn my first year on faculty: the 2003 Jetgate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President William Walker (among others) — and a no-confidence vote from the faculty.

For Watts, trouble emerged from his decision to eliminate the UAB football program — a decision made without faculty input and based on a flimsy consultant’s report that seemed to confirm a decision already made.

For Walker, trouble emerged when he led a November 2003 secret trip to Louisville to talk to then-head coach Bobby Petrino about replacing then-head coach Tommy Tuberville.  The story on the trip was broken by Jay Tate of the Montgomery Advertiser, and likewise shattered Walker’s presidency.

Much has been written about the Jetgate situation.  One parallel between Auburn and the UAB situation is that in both cases, the Faculty Senate would convene to consider a vote of no-confidence against the president.

The Auburn faculty senate met fairly quickly, on Thursday, Dec. 11, to debate a motion demanding Walker’s resignation in view of the embarrassing news reports.  In this case, the meeting was open to the public and the media, and Walker answered questions publicly. Complete minutes for the Dec. 11, 2003 meeting are still available — yet another testament to the openness of the process.

Watts, on the other hand, has been spared a public Faculty Senate grilling so far — instead, he apparently met with faculty members Monday in an “impromptu” meeting that was closed to the public.  My hope is that the meeting in January will be open to all interested members of the UAB community.

I still remember hanging out in the sound room in December 2003; it was about the only place left.  Faculty, students, and staff, in questioning Walker, would make statements, often savage, in advance of their questions.

In some cases, the speakers would return to their seats even as Walker was answering, as if the statement and not the question was the focus.

Two days before the meeting, Auburn’s accrediting agency, SACS, had placed the school on probation for excessive trustee influence in day-to-day university matters, particularly athletics.  Many felt that Walker had forfeited moral authority in leading the university through such a crucial process.

In the end, urged by Faculty Senate chairman John Mouton, the faculty voted 42-27 against calling for Walker’s resignation.  They did, however, vote in favor of a no-confidence motion by a 37-31 vote (a move Mouton also spoke out against), with five abstentions.  A motion to censure passed unanimously.

By the next month, however, Walker would resign on Jan. 16, 2004, two days after meeting with Gov. Bob Riley, who also acted as chairman of the Auburn Board of Trustees. Dr. Ed Richardson, former state superintendent of education, would come in on an interim basis until a presidential search could be conducted.

Granted, what happened at UAB is far more tragic: the loss of a football program and the effects it has on not only the university community, but also the individual athletes and coaches who find their lives turned upside down.

That a university president like Watts would make the decision in the way that he did — Faculty Athletics Representative Frank Mussina was not even consulted — is truly an indictment of his leadership style and deserves more than the glossing-over apology he offered in his statement.  No university president should ever make such an important decision in such a unilateral manner.

It would seem insincere and definitely appear glib and flippant to assure the UAB community that everything will turn out OK by using Auburn as a parallel.

Things did get better for Auburn: Less than a year after almost being fired, Tuberville led his team to an undefeated season, though Auburn was deprived of a chance for a national championship.

However, in late 2003 we did not face the elimination of our football program, and that is a huge difference.  If the football team cannot be restored, perhaps faith in UAB’s leadership can.

Whether this can happen under Watts — whose actions in this process show decision making skill far below his position and pay grade — is doubtful.

Still, the process of debating this needs to happen in a more open and candid manner than Watts provided UAB with his football decision.  Let’s hope this happens in January, as it did in Auburn in December 2003.