Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Free Press loves a good Michigan controversy

This wasn't how I intended to begin my weekend, but alas:

... yikes. The Detroit Free Press put together an extremely lengthy and detailed report regarding Michigan's offseason and in-season training programs, coming to the conclusion that UM goes far beyond the allowed time limits for mandatory workouts.

It includes a lot of quotes from anonymous "former or current players," as well as a general description of the players' workout regimen from a couple of freshmen who weren't enrolled until fall and thus wouldn't have known about the offseason workouts, but the alleged violations can basically be whittled down to this section:
"It was mandatory," one player said. "They'd tell you it wasn't, but it really was. If you didn't show up, there was punishment. I just felt for the guys that did miss a workout and had to go through the personal hell they would go through."

In addition, the players cited these practices within the program: Players spent at least nine hours on football activities on Sundays after games last fall. NCAA rules mandate a daily 4-hour limit. The Wolverines also exceeded the weekly limit of 20 hours, the athletes said.

Players said members of Rodriguez's quality-control staff often watched seven-on-seven off-season scrimmages. The non-contact drills, in which an offense runs plays against a defense, are supposed to be voluntary and player-run. They are held at U-M's football facilities. NCAA rules allow only training staff -- not quality-control staffers -- to attend as a safety precaution. Quality-control staffers provide administrative and other support for the coaches but are not allowed to interact directly with players during games, practices or workouts.
In summary:
  • Workouts that were supposed to be voluntary were actually mandatory, and "there was punishment" for non-participation.
  • More than four hours (the NCAA daily limit) were spent on "mandatory" activities on Sundays during the season.
  • Weekly "mandatory" workouts constituted more than 20 total hours.
  • Quality-control staffers (which I'll explain momentarily) observed drills that were considered voluntary and therefore must be run by players.

First of all, let's state the obvious: "Voluntary" workouts that aren't really voluntary happen everywhere, and everyone knows it. The article even includes a saying used by the Michigan coaching staff: "Workouts aren't mandatory, but neither is playing time." It's not like the players aren't aware of this:

"Every team does that, more or less," said another former Michigan player. "Everyone knows voluntary workouts you don't have to be there, but you have to be there. A lot of guys don't even know about the rule, but everybody signed the sheets (indicating you kept to the 20-hour rule). It was never a big deal."

And if you're looking for a specific numerical comparison, USA Today provides it:

"Football players in the NCAA's Division I Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) said they spent an average of 44.8 hours a week on their sport — playing games, practicing, training and in the training room — compared with a little less than 40 hours on academics."

So there you go.

Also, the claim early in the workout story that "the Wolverines were expected to spend two to three times more" hours than the NCAA allows is obviously an exaggeration. Both the anonymous players and the coaches point out that a chunk of the time they're referring to is not considered "required" by the NCAA, and the story seems to base its time estimates partially on in-season numbers (with a 20-hour weekly limit) and partially on offseason numbers (with an eight-hour weekly limit).

As always, Brian at Mgoblog has the situation thoroughly and accurately covered, and he points to the following calculations from the Free Press story in relation to the 20-hour weekly maximum ...

With three hours on Saturday and a full day on Sunday, players tallied about 12 hours on those two days. They were off Monday. Players said they would spend an additional three to four hours with the team on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday
afternoons, bringing the weekly total to 21- 24 hours.

... and realizes that "if any section of any of those days fit the definition of voluntary, that's not a violation." Again, the Free Press numbers are clearly exaggerated, and even if most UM players are spending another 21-24 additional hours each week on football-related things that are only quasi-voluntary, that would only put them near the NCAA average cited by USA Today.

The time aspect (to me, anyway) is a non-issue. It might be more of a concern if any of the players' quotes actually contained some specifics that would implicate Rodriguez or UM in knowingly breaking the rules, but they're so so incredibly vague that there's no way to know exactly what they're referring to. Let me repeat the quote from above:

"It was mandatory," one player said. "They'd tell you it wasn't, but it really was. If you didn't show up, there was punishment."

If the coaches tell you it isn't mandatory, what is it that makes it mandatory? The "punishment"? If so, why are no details about the punishment provided? What was the punishment, and was it actually required or was it just considered make-up work to get back in good graces with the coaches for not working hard when they weren't around?

This is a problem with the story in general. It comes to a lot of conclusions about time alottment, but it uses generalities taken from various quoutes without actually gathering any specific, informative details.

As for the quality-control staffers' oversight of voluntary seven-on-seven drills (note that the Free Press story says "quality-control staffers provide administrative and other support for the coaches"), the NCAA rule is pretty gray in this area:

Institutional staff members involved in noncoaching activities (e.g., administrative assistants, academic counselors) do not count in the institution’s coaching limitations, provided such individuals are not identified as coaches, do not engage in any on- or off-field coaching activities (e.g., attending meetings involving coaching activities, analyzing video involving the institution’s or an opponent’s team), and are not involved in any off-campus recruitment of prospective student-athletes or scouting of opponents.

The rule does not limit oversight to training staff, but it's not entirely clear if quality-control personnel fall into the "administrative assistants" exemption or not. I could give the Free Press the benefit of the doubt, but based on some of the other assumptions in the story, I'm not sure that'd be a reasonable thing to do.

I'm more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to Rich Rodriguez, who has been an NCAA head coach for 17 years and probably has a pretty thorough understanding of the rule book. Considering that he has no record of NCAA violations and that no previous players have complained about the workload -- many have even been documented as returning to noted strength-and-conditioning monster Mike Barwis to prepare for the NFL -- it seems unlikely that he's suddenly gone off his rocker and demanded a completely absurd and unreasonable level of training while breaking rules left and right now that he's at Michigan.

On top of that, Barwis and Rodriguez both stated that the team's training program has been approved by the NCAA, and while Rodriguez obviously is a biased voice in this discussion, the school's compliance office immediately came out and disputed the report:

Michigan compliance officer Judy Van Horn said her department conducts "in-person spot checks of practice during the academic year and summer. We have not had any reason to self-report any violations in this area with any of our sports."

The best way to avoid any NCAA punishment these days is to self-report everything and administer meaningless minor penalties, so the fact that the school issued the above statement tells me two things:

  1. UM is confident that no rules are being broken (at least not blatantly enough to warrant reporting).
  2. The compliance department has documentation to back that up.

It should also be noted that Van Horn is the elected president of the National Association for Athletics Compliance. She knows what she's doing.

Are there some violations occurring? Technically, I'm sure that there are. But they're of the "voluntary workouts that aren't really voluntary" variety, and it appears that the school can document that everything it's doing is by the rules (even if those rules are being distorted).

What this all means is that any worrying over possible NCAA penalties is unnecessary. Back to Mgoblog, a quick review of the recent Southeast Missouri State investigation shows that after some similar allegations there as well as an impermissible recruiting trip, coaches or boosters paying for some players' tuition and the head coach lying about the whole thing to NCAA investigators, the resulting punishment "added up to three years of probation and one scholarship taken away for one year, AKA nothing whatsoever."

Any punishment for Michigan -- in the event that any violations are actually revealed -- would be in the form of a meaningless year of probation or something. The only real damage would be the negative publicity, which UM has already received plenty of in the last year.

There are a couple things that have me worried and frustrated, though, mostly relating to the fact that some current players (it's unclear how many) came out with statements like these the week before the start of the season. The former players obviously have an axe to grind, and some of them are probably the same ones who publicly criticized the program's "family values" (Justin Boren) or "type of crowd" (Kurt Wermers) on their way out. Their accusations mean nothing to me.

But I don't understand why a player on the team right now would get involved in this, even if they think that the training program goes above and beyond what's technically allowed. None of them were worried enough to go to the school's compliance office, according to the Free Press (which brings into question the validity of their concerns), so why speak out now, just a week before the season opener?

Former Michigan QB Chad Henne said what we're all thinking today in an interview with

“I really think whoever’s saying it really doesn’t want to be there,” Henne said. “If they’re saying that then they’re not really worried about the team, they’re not worried about what they’re going to do during their season and they’re kind of just giving themselves up. That’s just negative talk right there. So whoever it is just really doesn’t care about the team, I would say.

“If they’re complaining about that, then they don’t want to be the best they can be, and that’s their own fault.”

The fact that this type of tension exists, though, is a legitimate concern. Some uncertainty is to be expected after a coaching change, and we've already seen that with the departures mentioned above. But I would hope that anyone still stuck in the 17th-century methods of the Lloyd Carr regime would have either bought into the new program or moved on, and that doesn't appear to be the case.

My hope is that the players making these comments are backups who are frustrated with the amount of work they're putting in for the minimal playing time they're receiving, and if that's the case, this probably will have no real effect on Michigan's season. I guess we'll never know unless someone comes out and acknowledges their anonymous remarks.

But considering that the chance of meaningful NCAA sanctions is virtually zero, there are only two possible scenarios for Rodriguez and UM:

  1. Michigan shows significant improvement, beats one of its rivals to get to seven or eight victories and plays in a solid bowl game, at which point this all will have been forgotten.
  2. Michigan again disappoints, losing at least one of its first two games, finishing below .500 and missing a bowl, at which point this will be just another log on the "fire RichRod" blaze. The consecutive losing seasons, on the other hand, will be the gasoline.

All I can do is hope for scenario No. 1, which I obviously was already doing anyway.


Justin said...

Great read. I love how you broke it all down, using your own thoughts as well as quotes from Brian.

So many people are so quickly jumping on this story and making a huge deal out of it without really looking into the facts like you and Brian did.

I've been wanting to put out an article just like this one, but struggled all day yesterday with finding credible information that goes further than what the Freep wrote. It's frustrating to read every other article piling it on Michigan and Rich Rodriguez, so thanks for writing this.

mike cochran said...

Great read!

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