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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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.

Why I Hate Oversigning

First published in the Crystal Ball Run blog. Link to it here.

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.