Wednesday, Jacob Thorpe of the Spokesman-Review announced that he would be changing the way he covered WSU's football practices because the program is now mandating that reporters refrain from reporting on any kind of injuries and position or depth chart changes in their practice reports.
We have thoughts.
Jeff: My gut reaction is that this is silly. As a journalist, I'm always going to think more information is good, and I'm generally going to believe that those who want to withhold that information aren't really accomplishing as much as they think they are by doing that. Fans want to know what's going on. I have a hard time believing this sort of information can decide the outcome of a game.
Britton: My initial reaction to this was somewhat of the same. I don't think withholding this kind of information greatly benefits the program, and the bad press from doing so, however long that lingers, certainly doesn't help either. However, this is information that's being scoured over by opposing coaching staffs. Having published a subscription-based website for a few years, I can tell you that graduate assistants, coaches and other athletic department personnel will use whatever advantage they can get when preparing for an opponent. Do I think anything in the S-R practice reports is beneficial to an opponent from an outcome standpoint? Not necessarily, but in the current college football landscape, coaches are going to take every precaution necessary to win football games.
Jeff: That's sort of the crazy part for me - you choose to do this now? When people want to read about your program because they're excited?
Britton: While the timing is odd, especially after two huge wins and entering the biggest game the Cougars have played in nearly two years, the excitement factor is always going to come down to winning football games. It's a weird parallel, though, because now you're now limiting the information being delivered to your fans, primarily in Spokane, a city you desperately need to own.
I found it a little interesting that Thorpe's report singled out the defensive coaches as the one's who requested the change. I suppose it's because the offense already has an established identity regardless of who's plugged in where on the depth chart.
BA: This seemed like a last straw sort of move didn't it? Where some information about limited players was discussed after coaches had clearly expressed, on multiple occasions, what they wanted to remain behind closed doors?
There's a give in take with this sort of thing, Britton and I both have some limited first hand knowledge that GAs for some staffs do, in fact, search out anything they can find. That's fairly common, and has been forever. They wouldn't invest that time if there wasn't an advantage of some kind. Is it the ultimate end all be all -- knowing a player is dinged up, or that another is getting beat on certain routes -- that decides who wins and loses? Probably not, if a guy is getting beaten in practice the odds are good he's put that on film on Saturdays too, but there is some advantage there regarding injuries and personnel packages. Why give an opponent any advantage when you don't have to?
So the question is, how much is really gained, by the program, in letting fans know this information in the first place? Closed practices and not disclosing injuries are extremely common in college football, like the majority of programs, common.
Jeff: Thing is, as Vince Grippi notes, the information generally gets out anyway if it's enough to provide a significant advantage. It honestly just feels like a charade - anyone can walk by and see it, but you're telling media not to report on it because you have some leverage with their credentials?
The NCAA could never do it because it's too big to manage it, but I don't see any reason why the conference couldn't just move to a mandated injury report the way the NFL does.
BA: So if information will get out why not make it as easy as possible for them and put it in a major metropolitan newspaper they will definitely find?
I think a uniform policy would certainly make things simpler for reporters and coaching staffs but my main issue is with regulation, in particular addressing these questions; who will be in charge of checking the veracity of an injury report? How will they do that? What will be the punishment if they are found out to not be truthful or accurate within the parameters established by the regulators? How does this jive with the HIPAA rights of players?
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In the end, what will keep a coach from listing every player as "Questionable" or whatever the designated terminology is? What would even be the point of doing this if the coaches could just lie and blur the lines?
Britton: The main issue Mike Leach has always contested when pressed on the issue of NFL style injury reports in college football, which Brian noted, is the HIPAA laws. He believes it violates federal law, which takes this thing to a whole new level - amateurism in college sports.
I think David Shaw and others in the Pac-12 also have the same concerns, given they're not professional athletes, so until that changes for good, we'll continue to see an opposition to this kind of weekly reporting. It'll take something drastic for a change, and since the Pac-12 has already met on this issue in 2012 and nothing came of it, we're stuck with the what's already in place, coaches dictating this kind of reporting with the leverage of credentials.
Jeff: But lots of coaches do talk about injuries. Are they all committing HIPAA violations? My understanding is that student-athletes waive those HIPAA rights when they sign their scholarship papers. That could be incorrect, but let's assume it is correct -- that coaches can talk about medical issues related to football. Wouldn't everyone benefit from more transparency?
The NFL has its policy -- which honestly is really simple and related mostly to practice participation; the days of listing everyone as "questionable" are long gone -- to prevent against insider gambling. The Pac-12 should be concerned about the exact same things, especially as daily fantasy grows. It seems like a conference would want to be proactive on that front, but obviously they haven't been. I fear it's going to take a gambling scandal of some kind to force change.
BA: The HIPAA stuff isn't all that easy to figure out, I've spent a little time today reading through some literature on it and still have no clue. This is probably the easiest read that illustrates how complicated that situation is.
So, how about we say that coaches are able to disclose to the media both football and non-football related injuries suffered by players during the season ... is there any way this happens without the players forming a union to protect themselves? I wouldn't think so. Which of course tips the dominos on a path toward redefining amateurism.
And I think you're shifting burden of proof. Wouldn't everyone benefit from more transparency? I would be more interested in hearing who you think benefits from knowing an athlete is injured and why it's important they know.
Britton: Any NFL-style injury report would result in coaches refusing to answer questions regarding a player's health, much like Rich Rodriguez does at Arizona. He releases an injury report every week on Thursday, and refers to that report when asked about injuries. Now it's an honor code, and you can't assume every coach is going to uphold the sportsmanship of it, especially Mike Leach, who has maintained he would still refuse to release any kind of report despite a uniform code, again citing federal law.
So, say a gambling scandal ends up forcing an injury policy. Great, now you have a policy that's more of an umbrella that continues the same charade as before -- bogus injury reports that compromise the player, their parents and other individuals involved, because there's no way to enforce this kind of thing until amateurism is truly defined.
And while I would be in favor of said policy, I would constantly question the validity of it.
Jeff: The NFL actually guards against this, though -- teams are required to list how much a player participated in practice, and the player's designation of out/doubtful/questionable/probable has to follow that. If there seems to be a discrepancy between the injury report and whether a player actually appears in a game, there's an investigation. There are loads of examples of this. Teams know not to dork around with this too much, because there are fines attached if they're intentionally misleading.
But back to Brian's question. Who benefits? Before I get to that, let's flip it around and say "who doesn't it hurt if everyone's on the same page?" The coaches. As long as everyone is being forced to play by the same rules, there's no competitive advantage. So coaches really shouldn't have a problem with a uniform injury (and media access) rule. As for who it benefits? That's easy. Fans get what they want - information to consume and discuss. Media get what they want - the same thing.
I guess you could try and make the case that it doesn't benefit the players. But I don't think it harms them, either. And when you sign up to become a public figure ... well, you've signed up to become a public figure, with all the inconveniences that go along with that.