On Michigan and the Free Press

I want to weigh in on some not-so-breaking news: The Detroit Free Press ran a story Sunday outlining NCAA rules violations by Michigan’s football program under Rich Rodriguez. The allegations are related to overwork: that Michigan’s players are required to devote many more hours to football than the NCAA permits.

I know this is a Spartans blog, but I’m not really writing about Michigan here. This is about the Free Press’ reporting and college football generally.

In the hours after the story broke, predictably, commenters of all stripes went wild—opining, sometimes reasonably, sometimes venomously, with everyone from the reporters to the Wolverine coaches and players in their crosshairs. Our friends at MGoBlog get both high and low marks: high marks because they quickly posted the relevant NCAA rules so readers could learn that there are mile-wide loopholes between the specifics of the rulebook and its theoretical intent. The rules are aimed at limiting the number of hours players devote to football, but leave room for a lot of exceptions that may make Rich Rodriguez’ denials stand up.

But MGoBlog also loses big points for running a poll asking readers whether they planned to cancel their Freep subscriptions. That’s because I think that Rosenberg and Snyder did college football a great service with their reporting.

It may be true that every school flouts these rules. If so, it’s Michigan’s bad luck that the reporters who are digging on this happen to work at the local paper—after all, the real culprit here may be the NCAA, not the Wolverines’ staff. But Rosenberg and Snyder have pointed out that there’s a gulf between the NCAA’s student-athlete-focused ideal and the way its rules play out at at least one of its premier programs.

That’s good reporting. That’s what journalism is supposed to do, bring those inconsistencies to light.

It’s also understandable that Michigan fans feel singled out. That’s why the most important next step has nothing to do with Michigan’s internal investigation or any potential sanctions, but instead involves journalists in other BCS markets. They should follow the Freep’s lead and conduct similar investigations on their campuses.

If lots of BCS programs are functioning like Michigan’s, then the problem will be exposed as a systemic one and the NCAA will have to change its rules or acknowledge that big-time college football requires a time commitment from players that’s on par with an exceptionally demanding full-time job. (Either course is fine by me; the problem is if the image doesn’t match the reality.)

If Michigan’s program is unique, then we’ll know that, too. Even if that’s the case (which would be shocking), the rules are written such that this discussion should be more focused on the NCAA and BCS culture than on Michigan’s program.

Anyhow, I admire these journalists’ reporting. I understand why Michigan fans feel unfairly stung by this, but implicit in that sentiment is the idea that this overwork is common practice, and that are serious gaps between the intent of the NCAA rulebook and college football culture. And it’s a good thing to point those out.

Lastly, as a college sports blogger, I want to acknowledge the important role that beat writers play in providing bloggers and fans with information ranging from training camp quotes to dramatic investigations. We bloggers do not have the proximity, access or resources to conduct an investigation like this, and thus I am grateful that traditional media organizations like the Free Press exist and are doing this kind of work. If newspapers are dying, then I don’t know how we will survive without them.

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