NCAA enforcement follies and the commentariat

Stewart Mandel recently wrote a piece on NCAA enforcement incoherence. It’s a good piece and gives a nice overview of the problems built right into the system’s framework, and how the NCAA arrived at the recent Ohio State ruling:

We've come a long way

[I]f you’re just a general college football fan, you have every reason to be puzzled, outraged and perhaps even despondent that the NCAA came down harder on Ohio State players for selling rings than it did on Heisman winner Cam Newton, whose father shopped Newton’s signature for $180,000.

Just nine days away from the New Year, this Ohio State mess marks the latest chapter in an unusually busy year for the NCAA’s enforcement division. From the USC/Reggie Bush sanctions to the North Carolina agent suspensions to Bruce Pearl, Tom Izzo and Newton, the headlines have been never-ending.

In the heavily layered NCAA bureaucracy, however, different personnel groups handle infractions cases (USC, Tennessee basketball), agent issues (Georgia, UNC), Basketball Focus Group (Izzo) and athlete eligibility reinstatement (Newton, Ohio State).

It’s no wonder the rules and the punishments seem so wildly inconsistent.

Yet, given the byzantine, inconsistent and incoherent nature of our actual criminal sentencing system — which actually puts people to death, in jail or doles out other, unique punishments — I’m not convinced that everything can be solved by blaming or even reducing “bureaucracy.” “Bureaucracy” has a very negative connotation, but it also is a simple description, meaning “government characterized by specialization of functions, adherence to fixed rules, and a hierarchy of authority” — a definition that describes any government or regulatory body or really any large organization, from the U.S. military to Apple Computer, Inc. or Google Inc. You can’t wish this stuff away; different penalties and judgments will come from different parts of the NCAA. Mandel’s column is good and it helpfully dispels the popular fan notion of NCAA as monolithic entity (with this perception awkwardly reinforced by the fact that the NFL (a far smaller organization than the NCAA) is ruled by fiat by them whims an imperial Commissioner). There are real problems with the NCAA’s rulemaking and enforcement system, but no one has yet systematically identified what they are and how they can be fixed.

Relatedly, Dan Wetzel’s recent paean to Cam Newton and his Dad as some kind of modern day Robin Hoods — “And yet we demand that Cecil Newton respect [the NCAA] and th[eir] rules?” — is just bizarre. This isn’t Correy Surrency disqualified from athletics on the basis of an overly narrow conception of what it means to be an amateur, but instead someone shopping their kid. Now, I am not saying that Cam should have been ruled ineligible. For purely selfish reasons — i.e. that I love watching him play in Malzahn’s offense — I am happy he’s still playing. And I also endorse anyone who, rightly in my view, criticizes systemic problems with NCAA enforcement, which, while it doesn’t have the effect of distorted criminal sentences that are alternatively too harsh or too lenient, can have seriously deleterious effects on individual student athletes, their families and their communities. But it’s another thing to make the leap Wetzel does from finding fault with the NCAA to absolving the Newtons and essentially encouraging future athletes to break the rules. Wetzel: “Yet Cecil Newton is the bad guy for asking for something close to what the market would bear? [Ed Note: The "market" in illegal payments for student-athletes?] Meanwhile all of the suits who run the game can sip cocktails and enjoy the Heisman ceremony? Why, because one dad did not respect the NCAA, its wobbly rule book and situational ethics? Why, for considering it all a sham and asking for a share?”

The answer of course is that Wetzel simply cannot be serious. Wetzel surely knows that it’s possible to critique one side without condoning the other. To use an extremely overdone analogy, in the past century, you could critique U.S. foreign policy without being an apologist for Stalin or Mao (again: this is just an analogy; Cecil Newton is neither Stalin nor Mao, but you get the idea). But Wetzel also prefers to kick up dirt rather than engage in serious argument. This is, of course, the generous reading of the article. If Wetzel is serious, well, I’m not sure what to say.

Gregg Easterbrook spread offense fail

Braves & Birds does an excellent job demolishing Gregg Easterbrook’s incompetent attempt to explain the Oregon offense. Easterbrook is a bright guy, but he’s incapable of seeing what is perfectly obvious on the field. I don’t know if it’s from watching too many years of NFL football that he cannot see things common to college and high school football, or what. It’s bizarre because he’s trying to be up to speed on the new trends but just has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s like he’s heard the words midline option, no-huddle, pistol, and fly pattern and he put them into a random number generator and produced an article.

Braves and Birds does a nice job with the details, to which I’ll only add that the entire premise of Easterbrook’s “blur offense” article is off-kilter — you can’t be called the “blur offense” as doing something new if it is not, in fact, new. The idea of a no-huddle spread offense is rather old (people may remember that the first iteration of Smart Football was called “The No-Huddle Spread Offense site,” and it came out in 1999 — and it wasn’t new then, either). And of course, Gus Malzahn (who wrote a book about the no-huddle) of Auburn and formerly of Tulsa (which leads the nation in total plays run) has been doing this at least as long as Chip Kelly.

Writing about sports in 2010: Four points about two (or three) articles

Ben McGrath’s profile of Gawker Media’s head-honcho, Nick Denton, in this week’s New Yorker, is a fascinating window into the world of professional blogging, where the pageview is king. (Gawker owns the sports site Deadspin, along with, in order of popularity, Gizmodo, Gawker, Lifehacker, Kotaku (video games), Jezebel, io9 (science fiction), Jalopnik (cars), and Fleshbot. In this list Deadspin would rank behind Kotaku and ahead of Jezebel.) Less informative but equally entertaining is Bill Simmons’s most recent column, which recounts the circumstances that led to his “accidental” tweeting of “moss Vikings” roughly thirty minutes before Fox Sports’s Jay Glazer formally broke the story of Randy Moss’s potential trade to the Minnesota Vikings. These pieces form the backdrop for my points below.

1. Pageviews, hits, unique visitors — these will drive the news and what articles get written, and not just for blogs.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
- Samuel Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell.

It’s often said that the internet is the most democratic of all technologies, which may be true, but it is certainly true that it is the most capitalistic of technologies — products will be designed to meet the public’s tastes. One reason for that is that the internet reduces transaction costs, as exhibited by the ability of sites like eBay and Craigslist to connect buyers and sellers for really any products at all. But this is also because the internet allows the measuring of such tastes like never before, whether it’s products recommended by Amazon or movies by Netflix. And online writing is no different:

Paying bonuses for traffic meant not only keeping statistics about what readers did and didn’t like but sharing that information with writers—a supreme journalistic taboo, as it could easily lead to pandering. Pandering was precisely Denton’s aim, and he took it one step further when he started publishing his traffic data alongside the stories themselves. It almost felt like a sociological experiment designed to prove the obvious: that readers are herd animals, that heat begets heat. A photograph of an unidentifiable mammalian carcass on a beach, cleverly dubbed the Montauk Monster, is viewed two million times: go figure. “I think people are sort of waking up to it now, how probably the biggest change in Internet media isn’t the immediacy of it, or the low costs, but the measurability,” Denton told me. “Which is actually terrifying if you’re a traditional journalist, and used to pushing what people ought to like, or what you think they ought to like.”

It is terrifying. Most good bloggers I know try to have a kind of code duello, where although pageviews (which, at least on some level, especially for full-time internet writers), has to be the goal, there is still room for “ethics” in the sense that things won’t be done gratuitously or without sufficient support. But this line is hardly a clear one, and it’s difficult to compete when the other side unabashedly will do anything for digital eyeballs.

Denton’s receptionist sits beneath a large digital screen known as the Big Board, which lists the ten best-performing posts across the company network; these are determined by the number of new readers—as opposed to returning obsessives—in the previous hour. Denton says that the primary purpose of the Big Board is to encourage competition among his writers. A few months ago, he told the Times, “Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith.”

And make no mistake, Gawker is taking not only eyeballs but advertising revenue from traditional media, who have increasingly gone online — where their content is measurable. Can they resist the temptation to pander? Are they supposed to?

2. “Sources” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The internet has done some interesting things to how stories are “broken.” If something is released by press release, wire service, tweet, or other official medium of the sender, no website, media company, or blog can lay any claim to having broken it — it just happens too quickly. Organizations that want to keep credibility tend to break information this way — when have you ever heard of a Supreme Court decision being leaked early? Of course, most stories are not broken in this way, and that’s because if you have an inside tip you now have power. I’ll let Bill Simmons explain:

With every media company unabashedly playing the “We Had It First!” game, reporters’ salary and credibility hinges directly on how many stories they break. That entices reporters to become enslaved to certain sources (almost always agents or general managers), push transparent agendas (almost always from those same agents or GMs) and “break” news before there’s anything to officially break. It also swings the source/reporter dynamic heavily toward the source. Take care of me and I will take care of you.

[...]

So that’s how it works — not all the time but occasionally, and only because of everyone’s obsession to be first. On the surface, this annoys me to no end. Who cares? It’s not like we have some giant scoreboard keeping track of everything. But my reporter friends all say the same thing: It’s not about one scoop but the entire body of scoops (not just for the reporter, but the company that employs them). Think of Ichiro grinding out 200 hits every season. Yeah, most of them are mundane singles … but they add up. For readers, that volume turns it into a “feel” thing….

So yeah, there’s no official scoreboard for scoops. We just subconsciously keep score. As do editors. As do media companies. Some will do whatever it takes to pad their stats, whether it’s pimping every decision someone makes to get repaid with information later, playing the odds by reporting something they hope is true (and if it is, they look like a stud), spinning every angle against someone who once butted heads with a favored source, whatever. The best reporters maintain relationships, avoid agendas, craft good narratives, never stop cultivating new sources and — occasionally — break news simply because it’s an outcome of being good at their jobs. That’s what should matter. And that’s how they should be judged. I wish that were always the case.

Of course, “payment” doesn’t always come in the form of leaking certain stories in the future or spinning a column a particular way. Sometimes payment means, well, payment:

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Smart Notes 8/30/09

In his discussion of the Michigan fracas, Dr Saturday steps back:

But the broader implication isn’t about the changing culture at Michigan as much as it is the longstanding culture at all big football schools, where the notion of “voluntary” workouts and hourly limits have been met with winks for years. A survey of Division I athletes last year revealed the reality: Time limits or not, big-time football everywhere is a full-time job that consumes vastly more hours than the NCAA officially sanctions — and has to be, if the competition is putting in the same work. That players will “voluntarily” go above and beyond the proscribed limits is taken for granted. (It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.) Coaches follow the letter of the law at the peril of their records and their jobs.

In that sense, assuming that Carr’s staff really were the sticklers they’re widely reputed to be (an assumption backed up by the Free Press’ reports), the exuberance of their successors is just another case of Rodriguez and Barwis bringing the program into the 21st Century. The fact that they’re being singled out may only be because they’re doing it at one of the very few places that knows the difference.

In other words, there is a degree of hypocrisy in singling out Rodriguez, but it is only in the fact that this has become normal, and even expected. It is, in modern big-time football, the cost of winning. Maybe Rodriguez went too far (or maybe not), but it makes little sense to single out Rodriguez and Michigan, at least for most of the allegations. (The Sunday stuff, if true, does seem excessive.)

There is also little point in the NCAA having rules no one can be expected to comply with. The NCAA practice limits are quite stringent, and there are obvious reasons why a school would want their players to practice more than the NCAA limits would allow. Besides improving their overall conditioning and fitness, or their football skills, the large amounts of downtime for student-athletes who only practice about four hours a day and are, in many cases at least, barely even students can lead to a lot of time to get in trouble off-the-field. I’m not singling out football players as miscreants, but instead just pointing out that many 19 year-old males do stupid things, and scholarship football players are given a lot of freedom and privilege — a lot of rope to hang themselves with. Call it the Cesar Millan/Dog whisperer strategy: if you make kids work harder they are less likely to have the time (or energy) to get into trouble. (In high school, many teams schedule an early morning Saturday morning practice where the focus is on the younger guys; for the varsity players, the point is to make them get up early and thus deter them from staying out late after football games on Friday night.)

In any event, the point of the rule seems to be, among other things, to protect the image of players as “student athletes” — they don’t treat their sport as a full-time job. This is of course a classic case of image versus reality, and a conflict that will not go away. For every scholarship football player who spends extra time pursuing their degree, there are countless others for whom it is just a full-time job. And it is not like fans, if they are honest, would have it another way. I have never heard a player come off the field and say, “You know, I’m sorry I didn’t play well this week. I’m taking a lot of really interesting classes and I stayed up late to work on them and I skipped some extra film study so I could go to my professor’s office hours — man it was fascinating. I promise to refocus next week.” The NFL has no such identity crisis, but it’s just another symptom of college football’s dual role as a business that puts out a sports product where the employees are “student athletes” paid (primarily) with a free education. This tension won’t go away.

- Thanatos and football. As the Doc also noted, practicing football has become increasingly deadly. He says,  “It hardly seems like a coincidence that at least 20 college players have collapsed and died following offseason workouts in the last decade, which was practically unheard of even under old school sadists like Bear Bryant.”

Why football players are dying is a tricky question, and theories abound. Are they the same and they were just underreported previously? Are workouts tougher? Are kids less able to handle these workouts because they spend the rest of their time inside, playing video games, etc? Is it the supplement industry, with creatine-influenced cramping, reduced water retention, and sports/redbull/caffeine drink induced increased heart rates causing the injuries? It’s very hard to say.

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Fall from grace: the Charles Rogers story

Reporting by Jemele Hill, hat tip to TNC. Video after the jump.

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