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Practicegate: Allegations, Agendas and the Michigan Football Fanbase Doesn't Trust What It Reads

You've read the article. Chances are, you've read most of the responses, too (Freep Reactions, Practical Matters, Mike Forcier and Mike Schofield, Toney Clemons and countable hours, and Stop bringing up Andrew Maxwell). On the off chance that if you've missed anything, here it is in summary. Mike Rosenberg of the Detroit Free Press has alleged, on the basis of several anonymous sources and players, that the University of Michigan under Rich Rodriguez intentionally violated NCAA practice rules, vastly exceeding the allowable mandatory practice time for student athletes. As you can imagine when allegations of this magnitude are leveled against a program with a fanbase the size of Michigan's, reaction was strong (see above). Perhaps the best summation of reactions by the Michigan faithful has been penned by Shawn Windsor of the Free Press, which I highly encourage you to read because of its objectivity. But Here at Maize n Brew, we're not happy. As much as we'd like to, we're not going to descend into name calling or insults. But we are going to make a short statement on this before we move on.

At best, Rosenberg's article is a superficial, one-sided take on how much time players are putting in during off and in season workouts. And even at it's best, the article is openly hostile toward Rodriguez and the Michigan Football team. At its worst, it's as if someone took out a hit on the program and the Free Press answered the call. It contains quotes and nameless allegations that cannot be verified independently. It says it interviewd 10 players, but only sites six of those players that apparently agreed with Rosenberg's thesis. It implies, without support, that Rodriguez and Barwis have been violating NCAA rules since they were at West Virginia. It does not contain a single quote from a current player supporting the program, even though two competing papers had them within 24 hours of the article's publication

This was a piece not designed to inform or persuade. It was a piece designed to take someone out.

(more after the jump...)

I'd be lying if I said there wasn't resentment and anger about the Free Press article. SCM was and is livid about this. When I first read the piece, I was so mad that I went all lawyer on it, taking it apart word by word. Beauford took the level headed approach, but is seething about portions of the article.

That said, all three of us agree on one thing: if there are NCAA violations, we want them stopped and punishment doled out. If something's wrong, we want to know. We don't want to bury our head in the sand and wake up one morning to find out that all of sudden Michigan has become the Oklahoma of the Mid-80's. This is Michigan after all.

But this is all smoke and no fire. There is no examination of what the alleged broken rules actually say. No examination of previous violations to give us an idea of what constitutes breaking the rules. There's nothing to support the contention that Rodriguez and his staff have been intentionally and knowingly been doubling or tripling the mandatory workout allowances since he was a coach at West Virginia. You'd think an opponent might have pointed that out before Rosenberg "stumbled" across it. But that's just window dressing.

What troubles me the most is that the article routinely takes the quotes of Michigan players out of context to support its flimsy contention. The fact that the quotes of Brandin Hawthorne and Je'Ron Stokes were taken out of context and manipulated to imply that they supported Rosenberg's contention is inexcusable. Manipulating the words of two 18 year-old kids who were not asked about voluntary or involuntary workouts, but were excitedly answering questions about their transition to the college level, is beyond reprehensible.  The article takes quotes from Terrence Taylor in 2008 who was bragging about the work the team had put in preparing for a game, and twists them to imply the team broke rules. There isn't a single named quote in the article that isn't taken out of context. Frankly, this article was as dishonest a piece as I've read in a long, long time. This was exactly what the Ann Arbor News did with their "academic scandal" series. And this is the exact same reaction.

To me, the allegations leveled by the Free Press go against everything I've seen, heard, and know about the program that Rich Rodriguez is building. Maybe we've been duped. We're not so proud as to say it's not a possibility. But there's also the possibility that the Titanic will rise from the sea floor and make port in New York a century after its scheduled arrival time. Rodriguez knows the rules. Rodriguez has been doing this for 25 years. He's a Trustee of the American Football Coaches Association. Michigan's compliance office was present at off-season camps and training sessions, sometimes unannounced. As Rodriguez said at his press conference this morning, "I didn't leave my brains behind when I came to Michigan."

I've met Rodriguez. Sat with him. Talked with him. Both as press and as Alumni. He's a good guy. He cares about his players. He cares about doing things the right way. The results are there if you care to look. The allegation in the Free Press Article that players were being called out of class to attend practice, is contrary to the fact the team posted it's highest GPA ever last season. It's hard to succeed academically if you're not in class.

There is the potential that we could be shooting the messenger here. I won't deny that. But when the messenger sets your house on fire then pees on your foot, it's hard to take what he says at face value.

Unfortunately what this comes down to is that this story is not a referendum on Rodriguez, it's a referendum on opinion columnists such as Rosenberg. Put bluntly, people do not trust columnists anymore. We're tired of the personal agendas. We're tired of every columnists seeming desire to be the next Woodward or Bernstein. We're tired of the vendettas. But we keep getting more of the same. And that's why we don't trust them anymore.

Had this piece been even keeled, named names, contained even a single quote contrary to Rosenberg's thesis, and examined what the NCAA actually means be "voluntary", perhaps our reaction would not have been so resoundingly negative toward the paper. If you have critical information on potential violations, don't bury it under layers of resentment and innuendo. Give us honesty. Give us analysis. Give us both sides of the argument and think enough of us to allow us to come to the proper conclusion. Pieces like this are why we do not trust sports columnists when they do their investigations.

Perhaps the best article on the whole subject was penned by Jonathan Chait at The Wolverine. Mr. Chait is the senior editor of the New Republic Magazine.

In an article like the one he wrote, the readers have to place a lot of trust in the author. We have to trust that he interviewed the sources fairly, and didn't solicit answers that confirmed his prejudices. We have to trust that he granted his sources anonymity for good reason - not because they had an axe to grind. And we have to trust that he looked for evidence to undermine his thesis, and if it didn't appear in his article, it's because none could be found.

Rosenberg, with his deep connections to the anti-Rodriguez community, would be a good source of leads for an enterprising reporter to follow up on. Letting him write and report the article himself is journalistic malpractice.

This is why Rosenberg's article matters. Not because Rosenberg found something potentially violating NCAA rules. It matters because for sports columns to survive, let alone be relevant, pieces like this must cease. They should never see print if they are this one sided, this incomplete. The word "trust" appears over and over again in Chait's piece, and it is the one thing we just can't do when article's like this routinely find their way into print.