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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When to Panic

When the recent ESPN report on Auburn came out, it was quickly accompanied by the usual wailing and gnashing and harbinging of doom.

The article did catch my attention, I’ll admit. But before I reacted, I decided to read through it. Then I read through it again.

My response?

At least for now, that restraint was justified, as no new developments emerged to increase the need for panic.

But rather than go deep on one article, I’ll explain the info standards I follow before inducing panic using several examples. Yes, some stories have sent me into a funk. Others pass without justifying much beyond a shrug and a shake of the head.

So here is a guide on when to panic and when to shrug.

I. Single anonymous source: Attention only

This applies both to this week’s story and to Kevin Scarbinsky’s story about a conference call to fire Jay Jacobs.  Anonymous sourcing is allowed within ethical journalism, but the accepted standard is two anonymous sources.

Scarbinsky’s article relied on one anonymous source. Regardless of how credible that source might be, it’s safer to get two, even if one merely confirms the information without adding to it.

So while I found the Scarbinsky article interesting, if objectionable on other grounds, I adopted the wait and see attitude.  What we saw was a denial from Auburn President Dr. Steven Leath and nothing further.

Similarly, the ESPN report included one anonymous source. I did note that Auburn itself served as the other source, confirming the situation, but that’s an unusual case.

That Auburn would confirm it, rather than offer the “personnel issues” perceived stonewall, was also a source of assurance on the story for Auburn fans, but that’s another interesting side to it.

It seems that the Auburn athletics department has followed a strategy of “aggressive transparency” on certain stories, similar to their response when Shawn Assael of ESPN focused on Dakota Mosley, in his article on the 2011 arrest of four Auburn players.

When they have nothing to hide, they don’t act like they do.  They seem to realize that in such cases, openness solves more problems than a stonewalling approach avoids.

II. Named source/AU beat involvement: Moderate concern

Now, when a source is willing to openly attach his/her name to information, that takes it to a different level (and a single credible named source is acceptable in such cases).

The individual might have an unfair ax to grind, but when they grind the ax publicly, it takes the concern to a higher level.

I think about the 2006 NY Times report about the misuse of sociology independent studies.  Jim Gundlach, a sociology professor, was credited as the source of the information.  And ultimately it was worth worrying about.

This was an important story, and for all the grief he received, I give Dr. Gundlach a lot of credit for bringing it to light.  It was a UNC-level academic problem that needed to be addressed, and it was appropriately problematic for Auburn’s academic reputation. (Yes, I will die on this hill.)

So when that story came out, yes, it deserved our attention. It was bad. As I recall, I first heard about it on the WSFA evening news (this was 2006, after all), and I realized I was eventually standing in front of the TV and yelling at it.

Another consideration: take note of how the Auburn beat writers follow up on the story. Auburn is blessed with some top-notch journalism pros covering the athletics programs.

I know fans wish they would be as passive as the beat writers covering other CFB programs.  But given their aggressiveness (which ultimately is a positive), their response to such stories will let you know if something is there.

When such stories come out, regardless, all of the Auburn outlets will link to it and summarize it. They’re expected to, even if the process seems like a waste of time.

They might add an official reply from Athletics or Auburn University, but beyond that, they don’t consider the juice worth the squeeze.  That is an indication of how far the story could go and could allay your fears.

Now, if their reporting starts to uncover their own layers to the story, you might want to pay attention.  The concern level is likely to rise from moderate and approach panic.

III. Indictments/arrests: Panic

When the U.S. Attorney’s office in NYC announced that Chuck Person was indicted on a variety of charges, yeah, it was bad.  I won’t go much beyond that in discussing this case, since much is yet to be revealed.

No one knows where that case is going to end up, but yeah–when it reaches that stage, it’s bad. It’s for real.

So how to respond?

I did see a lot of anger and frustration once the ESPN report published. As time went on, and the first wave was the only wave, it was replaced by indignation and anger directed at the writers, particularly Mark Schlabach (some of it justified, but not all of it fair).

My main concern is when we assign face value to such journalistic transactions, and it overvalues the information given.

If it doesn’t involve federal or state charges or a named source, it might be worth waiting on.  That way, if it goes no further, you’ll ride a straight line from mellow to mellow, with no frantic, unnecessary up-then-down detour in between.

Seeing Through the Players Tribune

As a recent Mashable article noted, there’s a lot to admire and enjoy about the Players Tribune.

Derek Jeter’s sports website has become a powerhouse, attracting audiences and investors with its promise of content produced by an impressive roster of superstar athletes.

The website’s concept, however, is nothing new.  It has merely refined the ethically iffy practice of ghostwriting.

Since the late 19th century, newspapers realized that articles “written” by athletes would attract readers eager to get closer to superstar athletes and their thoughts.

As the United States left World War I behind and plunged into the Jazz Age, Christy Walsh–probably the first true sports agent–took ghostwriting to a new level, matching sportswriters with the iconic sports celebrities of the age (Babe Ruth, Knute Rockne) to generate copy and lots of money.

Jeter’s site certainly takes the athletes’ contribution more seriously than did Walsh, who bragged about the deceptiveness of his practice. (Sometimes his athletes never saw what went out under their “bylines.”)

However, Walsh and Jeter do share one practice in common:  The professional(s) providing the help for the athletes get zero credit.

Players Tribune gives the impression that the contribution is 100 percent the players’ words–unfiltered, as Jeter is fond of saying.

Of course, no one 100 percent believes that. Nor did they back in the early days of ghostwriting.

It’s nothing against the athletes themselves. Writing, like anything, is a craft that takes practice and a little skill. It’s no shame to need help with it.

A good editor can identify a lead and make a written piece flow better. All those Web pages and videos don’t create themselves.

Why, then, won’t Players Tribune give those trained professionals the “as told to” credit they deserve, for the work everyone knows they are doing?

Note: Don’t go telling me that this is not true journalism, that it’s a form of public relations, and that PR staff don’t get credit. Jeter promotes this as a form of journalism, with the same benefits to a trusting audience.

And since Jeter and his staff are practicing a form of journalism, they should be aware of the rules of that game, and the fair play that is expected.

The ethical concept of “transparency” is a fairly recent addition to the canons of journalism, the result of the changes wrought to the profession and industry by the Internet, and of the same decline in respect for journalism that fueled projects like Players Tribune.

As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics describes the concept, transparency involves explaining processes and decisions to the public, particularly as they relate to ethics.

As it relates to The Players Tribune, everyone knows the process requires the involvement of a professional staff, so give them credit, Derek.

They’ve taken steps in that direction.  Last year, the Players Tribune added a staff page, titled, “The Team” (and isn’t it awesome to see Walter Iooss Jr. listed as a “photographer-at-large” there).

But it’s up to Jeter and his site to raise their game. They need to credit the individual contributions of these professionals who help create the memorable stories of The Players Tribune.

When Sports Illustrated got the exclusive to LeBron James’ 2014 announcement, “I’m Coming Home,” James and SI also credited Lee Jenkins, who helped James write it.

Such credit recognizes that journalism is also a team sport, with its superstars and its role players, its coaches and trainers.

So be a team player, Derek; give your teammates all the credit they deserve.