Monday, August 21, 2006

Premature Confabulation | by Jay

Dear Michael Rothstein,

We linked your blog a couple weeks ago because you were doing some good day-to-day practice reports from campus. We even sent a few emails back and forth. I feel like I can talk to you on the level here. So excuse my bluntness when I say, what the hell were you thinking?

Here's the scene. I'm out of town for a family get-together, and yesterday morning over my Cheerios I open the Sunday St. Louis Post-Dispatch to see this blurb:

Possible Violations at Notre Dame?
Football players and other sports checked
Followed by a short AP slug. Looked a lot like this.

Sirens. Alarms. Intruder Alert. Holy crap! What the hell is happening? Violations? Investigations? My mind starts racing with all manner of worst-case scenarios. Jarrett. Sanchez. Ting. Bomar. I chucked my cereal across the table and raced to a computer. It's on the front page of Yahoo News. It's on ESPN. MSNBC had the full AP story, written by Tom Coyne, but even there, details are sketchy. There's a mention of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette as the source, so I head there. Sure enough, there's your original piece which ignited the whole mess.
Notre Dame is investigating a possible NCAA violation involving a football player and two men’s basketball players after an inquiry by The Journal Gazette on Friday.

Irish senior safety and captain Tom Zbikowski and sophomore men’s basketball players Luke Zeller and Kyle McAlarney all appeared on the South Bend-based WSBT-TV show “Sports Dogz” in the past year.

That, itself, is not a violation. But in the course of their appearance, they did promotional spots for the show, which may be a violation of NCAA Bylaw 12.5.3.

The bylaw states that while athletes can appear on shows, “the student-athlete shall not make any endorsement, expressed or implied, of any commercial product or service.”
Not as bad as I imagined. "Possible Violations" blaring in an AP slug actually appears to be a few players running afoul of a "media endorsement" bylaw. But then you end with this doozy:
Should the three Notre Dame athletes be deemed ineligible, the school would have to then apply for their reinstatement.
Crap. Are we going to lose Zibby? What's ND response? And what did the NCAA have to say about it?

Here's where you lost me. Your article raises questions on whether these are violations. This is a good start. But nobody you contacted actually gave any answers just yet.

NCAA rep: "I do know of situations in the past and the student-athlete didn’t know it was a violation and it was deemed secondary".

Heisler: I'm not sure what you're talking about.

Karowski (ND's compliance officer): Looking into it.

WSBT: No idea, it's the first time it's been brought up. Shocked to hear it was a problem.

Goddammit, Rothstein. You're killing me. You wrote half a story, and you don't have the ending yet. Your original piece was a puff of speculation -- a lead worthy of tracking down, I guess -- but the sources you tried to follow up with offered no insight. Maybe that's because you sprung it on them without warning (see Heisler's comment), and didn't wait for any concrete response from ND or the NCAA before rushing to print it. "We just heard about it, I'll get back to you" is not a concrete response.

A speculation was raised, but no answer was given. Then the AP picks it up, and all over the country people are choking on their breakfast cereal as they open the morning sports page. Did you ever consider waiting until you had a substantial response from the relevant parties before rushing the story out there? Obviously not.

Okay, so how did you get onto this story in the first place, I wondered. SBT had the dirt:
The NCAA became involved when Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reporter Michael Rothstein witnessed a WSBT sports reporter filming Irish running back Darius Walker doing a bump for the new "Irish Sports Report'' TV show after practice earlier this week. "Irish Sports Report'' debuts Sunday in the old 11:30 p.m. Sunday time slot of "Sports Dogz.''

Tribune sports reporters will be regular guests on "Irish Sports Report'' as they had been on "Sports Dogz.'' The Tribune and WSBT-TV are both owned by Schurz Communications.

After witnessing the bump and talking to WSBT's Todd Bella, Rothstein then called the NCAA to see if it was a violation.
You followed up with some further explanation in an entry on your blog:
When I discovered a potential issue – found out when someone mentioned to me a Darius Walker spot being shot for the new show "Irish Sports Report" after Wednesday’s practice – I went and spoke with Todd Bella, the host of “Sports Dogz.” We chatted and I felt there was more there so I continued to investigate. I left messages with both Notre Dame compliance officer Mike Karwoski and the NCAA to ask them about the potential violation. Karwoski, actually, got back to me before the NCAA did. I spoke with both of them and explained the situation.
(Hold up. Did you witness the Walker spot, or did you hear about it second-hand? And how do you get from hearing about a Darius Walker interview last week to focusing in on a piece with Zeller and McAlarney that ran back in January, and a segment with Zibby that ran back in June? How did this go from Walker to Zbikowski? Did this turn into a fishing expedition?)

In any case, you knew this was a hot-button story, and anything with "ND" and "NCAA violation" is going to make national headlines. Knowing that, your story should have been solid before going to press. A commenter on your blog put it succinctly, I think:
The fact that something "might" be a violation is not news. It's potential news. I understand the pressure to break stories, and I understand the importance of trying to appear independent when covering an institution like Notre Dame in its home state. But if you want to have anyone respect you as a journalist, you need to apply journalistic rigor to your job. First rule: make sure it's a story first. This stuff you reported may yet prove to be a violation. But this doesn't make your article right. You should have waited until you had something definitive to say before pulling the trigger.
Imagine running down a local government story about corruption at city hall. Wouldn't you get city hall's response before saying that the attorney general MIGHT bring charges IF it's a crime? It should have gone like this:

Mike Rothstein: Hello, John Heisler? This is MR of the FWJG.

MR: I had something brought to my attention about an interview that Walker did with WSBT. It reminded me of something that happened with Leinart and ESPN last year.

JH: I don't know anything about that.

MR: Okay. Can you get back to me on whether any other ND players have done this type of thing and give me your understanding of how it fits within bylaw x-y-z? I asked the NCAA generally how something like this would be a potential infraction, and they're getting back to me too.

JH: Sure, Mike. Let me get back to you.

MR: Thanks, John. We're going to run with this next week so please get back to me as soon as you can.

Your job is to get ND on the record, and then run what you know. THAT would be a story.

In any case, after reading the NCAA bylaws it looks like this is all much ado about nothing and I expect a resolution to that effect shortly. What a waste of a good bowl of Cheerios.