Perils of College Football’s Incessant Need for Sovereignty


On Thursday, news broke that Idaho head football coach Paul Petrino had to be restrained while dealing with a reporter at practice on Wednesday. For many in the business, the particulars of the story are all too familiar. Petrino was reportedly upset with something printed by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and confronted the reporter about the comments. Things got out of hand and Petrino had to be restrained by his staff from, presumably, physically assaulting a reporter over something they wrote.

Getting objectivity and fairness out of the way, there is most certainly an aspect to this story that Petrino will feel is misrepresented. He is also going to have his version of events and they’re going to differ from those of the reporter. There are two sides to every story and the nature of this one almost guarantees that Petrino will have to explain his.

But regardless of how this particular dust-up plays out, Petrino’s actions are part of a growing trend of college coaches and sports information departments (SIDs) believing the media should serve as an extension of the school’s PR department. The resulting effect has seen many schools turn to “in-house” journalism in an attempt to solve this problem.

Some have dismissed Petrino’s actions as nothing more than emotion, but this is just a cop out. There’s no excuse for what Petrino did and dismissing them as just an emotional reaction does a great disservice to the actual purpose of going to college.

At the end of the day, whether he recognizes it or not, Petrino doesn’t work for a Fortune 500 company. Petrino coaches football at a school.

Let me say that again: Petrino coaches at a school.

To quote the great USC football coach John McKay: “Emotion is highly overrated in football. My wife Corky is emotional as hell but she can’t play football worth a damn.”

McKay was known for dropping a quip or two during his day and most of them would be considered funny by today’s standards — hell, they were funny by the standards of the day, too. But aside from the humor that McKay used to break the ice during stressful situations, there were always a deep-seeded truths to be found in those quips.

Plenty of people are emotional. Football players don’t own a monopoly on emotion, nor do athletes in general. It’s a pretty common problem in society, but sports are given a pass because sports.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that video games are linked to aggression. What the researchers discovered wasn’t really a surprise to those of us who grew up in the era of Street Fighter, FIFA, and Donkey Kong Country. People tend to get pissy when they play video games and that can lead to increased aggressive behavior, also lessening empathy and sensitivity toward aggression. In other words, you got really pissed, broke your controller, and likely unleashed a profanity-laced tired that got you grounded or slapped across the face by your mom.

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What’s the point? Well, there’s clinical evidence that video game players are also emotional but we still hold them accountable for their actions when they act like a jackass and throw violent temper tantrums. You know, like the one Petrino threw Wednesday over something a journalist wrote.

What Petrino did was the real life equivalent of throwing your controller against a wall and angrily screaming “you killed me” because your buddy was talking to you during a game and it led to a mistake. Remember when you used to do that? It wasn’t any more attractive back then.

The what and why of Petrino’s outburst is probably more important than the outburst itself, however. As mentioned earlier, Petrino coaches at a university.

One of the many functions of a university is to encourage thoughtful discussions and narratives. As long as they are handled maturely, disagreements should actually be seen as an opportunity for growth. A chance to see things from another perspective and consider an alternate point of view. This very concept is at the heart of so many collegiate mission statements.

Yet for whatever reason, this concept seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to journalism and college football. Perhaps some of this stems out of the fact that the 24-hour news cycle encourages more content. More content inevitably leads to more coverage and more opinions. Social media ensures that these articles circulate the web faster than any print paper could imagine, and it’s not too far of a leap to assume that coaches are reading more of them as a result. Perhaps they always read them, but there sure weren’t as many of them.

Whatever the reason, it has certainly resulted in more publicized blowups and disagreements. Sometimes the coaches strike back at the media where it hurts them most by denying their credentials or closing off coverage opportunities. The reasons given for such acts are often as rich as the stripping of the credentials, but the point is to send a message to the reporter that anything other than rosy analysis will not fly in their house. In many senses they’re discouraging any thoughtful discussion about the direction of their team.

These are the same men who tell their players not to worry about what’s in the press.

Petrino is far from the only coach to do something like this and he’s certainly not the worst offender. All things considered, this seems to be a relatively tame incident, if a little profanity doesn’t bother you. This situation had the potential to end much differently than it did and all three parties — Idaho, Petrino, and the Daily News — could have had a much larger circus on their hands. The Mexican Football Federation had to fire Miguel Herrera for punching a reporter, so at least that didn’t happen.

There have been several other high-profile examples of coaches and their SIDs taking action against reporters for what they perceived to be negative profiling of their program.

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier replaced a reporter with his own “superfan” back in 2013 when he disagreed with him. The Miami Herald had their entire staff’s credentials revoked from FIU in 2014 without being given a reason, but it was understood that they didn’t like the way the program was covered. Who could forget Lane Kiffin’s 29-second press conference because he didn’t like the questions he was being asked?

The idea that coaches believe they have the right to mess with someone’s income because they don’t like what is being said is abhorrent and extremely unprofessional.

But as we have seen, many of them don’t even think twice about doing it. They’re so entrenched in the culture of football that they somehow rationalize this as being good for the program. In some cases, perhaps that may end up actually being true. There are plenty of poisonous people out there looking for a story at the expense of anyone. That’s some cases and the aforementioned examples would not fall into that category. In those cases, the reporter(s) in question appear to be on the up and up. Ron Morris had covered the program since before Spurrier ever took the job. The Miami Herald’s David Neal had covered FIU since 2011 without incident and Lindsey Thiry is among the most respected sports journalists in the Los Angeles area.

Just think about this for a second: this happened to them, what do you think has happened to budding journalists and lesser-knowns? How many of them have had an opportunity ripped from their hands?

America loves to speak of entitlement and an entitled culture, but nowhere is this more evident than among college coaches.

Not only are they the highest-paid employees in the vast majority of their states, but the money made those at the highest level of collegiate coaching is enough to give a Bond villain penis envy. That doesn’t even account for the jealousy said Bond villain would feel when he sees the power many of those men are wielding. The cream of the crop want total control, minimum oversight, and maximum investment. The scary part is that many of them will get it.

Historically speaking, coughing up that control to a coach has led to a significant amount of winning. Pete Carroll is a perfect example of this. Carroll earned the right to gain total control over the Trojan program and wouldn’t leave for the NFL until franchise gave him similar control.

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The Seahawks were eventually able to give Carroll said control and he has taken them to previously unseen heights, winning the Super Bowl. While at USC, Carroll rewarded the Trojans with one of the most dominant teams to ever take the field in college football, winning two national titles and bringing home a lot of other hardware.

But a funny thing happened along the way. USC became entangled in a web of NCAA investigations that ultimately led to the stripping of their BCS title, the loss of many scholarships, the vacating of many wins, and the permanent ineligibility of Reggie Bush. 

The fact that Carroll claimed to have no idea what was going on and has never been proven to have any connection to these events isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of complete control. Whether you believe Carroll did or didn’t know about Bush is immaterial to the argument that he should have known.

It was his job to know, and he was certainly being compensated fairly enough to do better by the program.

There’s a reason he didn’t, and that’s because winning has become more important than the truth in college. But Carroll can hardly be blamed for the fact that it is more important. Expectations of greatness at USC didn’t start with Carroll and they won’t end with him. It’s the same with Saban and Alabama, they won long before and they will win long after.

It’s impossible to argue with the results achieved by Carroll, but isn’t it the slightest bit concerning that Carroll had complete control over everything, including academics?

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The idea that football can control academics at a university ought to be unsettling to anyone with a pulse on education. Educational standards are already being called into question at universities across the nation, but how much of this is a direct result of people with a vested interested in the sporting side having total say over the academic side? The two sides have already proven that they do not exist to serve the same master.

Not much changed for Carroll at Seattle. The team did a lot of winning, but the whole aspect of “not really caring what’s going on at the expense of winning” hasn’t changed too much.

The Seahawks were the center of a large media discussion on performance-enhancing substances and the fact that they had more of them than any team in the NFL.

You can make the argument that the players need to be responsible for what they put into their bodies — and that argument would be completely correct and fair — but that same argument should logically extend to Carroll’s need to be aware of what his players are doing and it doesn’t take a statistician to realize this was a problem Carroll should have addressed far sooner.

A point worth stressing is that Carroll isn’t the problem. The total control with an inability to effectively monitor things is the problem.

The same could be said for the Baylor football program in light of the recent controversy surrounding defensive end Sam Ukwuachu, a player who transferred from Boise State after a penchant for sexual assaults. Baylor’s interest was more about his ability to tackle than being on the up and up, because football always rules in these instances.

The result? A turned head and another incident for which Ukwuachu was found guilty for, years after the fact.

Again, a college football using their power to clearly ignore the issue and focus on football.

As mentioned earlier, the trend of sporting teams turning to in-house journalism is growing and it runs counter to the exploration of ideas.

By limiting access and controlling the flow of information, these universities are working against the very spirit upon which most of these schools were founded.

The idea of disseminating information and encouraging different points of view are tossed out in favor of censorship and suffocation of thought.

What should be a collegiate environment has become a corporate environment and corporate policy must be followed or people will be shown the door in favor of someone who will take up the team mantle.

Whether this control is employed in force by the coach or the SID, the fact remains that it is a major problem in sports.

Too many people see sports teams as though they are a sovereign nation. In their eyes, the football team is Monaco and the university is France.

Some SIDs and coaches reinforce this idea every chance they get, but there are many — USC included, despite the botched Josh Shaw story highlighting the perils of in-house journalism — who generally do a great job of providing access, even if there are limitations. To be sure, limitations are needed but those limitations cannot include censorship and the imminent threat of physical violence.

It would be unfair to completely dismiss journalism’s role in all of this. The increase in access and ability to blog from a distance has created nightmarish situations for SIDs and coaches.

The rush for reporters to be first rather than right has resulted in erroneous and irresponsible reporting on more than one occasion, so it is definitely understandable when those in charge take control of a situation and freeze out reporters focused more on sensation than substance.

Understanding that, we must make a distinction between a reporter doing their job and a reporter trying to harm the school. A negative story and a negative reporter are two different things.

When schools fail to make that distinction, they help reinforce the idea that their version of events is somehow more important than the truth. The fact that they don’t want the information in the public should not supercede the public’s right to know.

The NCAA has proven time and time again that this sport needs more transparency, not less. Censorship at a university should not exist like it does in college football.

It goes completely against everything people were taught growing up.

Go to college and you can be anything you want to be. As long as what you want to be doesn’t disagree with coach’s scheme. The price of that education could be your job.