Thursday, December 20, 2018

December 20, 2018

Covering recruiting is a tricky business. It is also a business ripe for dismantling if we are not careful.

When I first started covering recruiting for Duck Sports Authority, the contacts I had made were through a lifetime in the city, several media contacts and some fortune in people having reached out to me thanks mostly to my coverage of a recruiting scandal.

After all of that died down, the mundane nature of writing on a regular basis; talking to recruits; talking to parents; talking to other writers; settled me into a routine. It is somewhat easy to get complacent in that routine and allow yourself to slip into bad habits.

What helped keep me grounded, though, is that this is not my livelihood. I do not depend on covering recruiting to pay my bills. If the industry entirely implodes tomorrow, I will still have a good job and my bills will be taken care of. I am fortunate in that I have never really sought fame or notoriety; only to help my friend out and to get as much accurate information as I can – and to pass that along to our readers.

Unfortunately, during that time, I have also seen a lot of things that have become more and more sickening. Too many of our sites – and this goes beyond Oregon sites – have sunk to TMZ and National Enquirer level coverage. In the never-ending quest to ‘win’ battles for information; to be the first to report something; too many feel it critical to divulge what can best be described as dirty laundry.

The time has come to hold ourselves to higher standards.

Recruiting is often turbulent. Young men in pursuit of their dreams share a lot of information; we treat them almost as celebrities; and there are plenty of recruits who enjoy the process. Honestly, there is nothing really wrong with that; they are 17-years old (or younger) with their world still firmly ahead of them. They are blessed with tremendous athletic talent, but most importantly, they work hard at the sport and earn their accolades.

For some reason, people feel that this gives them some mythical right to know everything in the process. Much of what we share is not dirty laundry. But those things we discover that might be too personal have a different standard.

When I wrote about Spencer Webb and Stephan Blaylock last year, both had expressly consented to sharing what I wrote. Those were very intimate stories and some of those details were not well known at the time. But there are some things that should remain off the record; even if not expressly requested as off the record.

I have seen too many instances in the last 12 months of ‘reporters’ intentionally stealing a moment for the scoop. If that weren’t bad enough, writers everywhere are putting out information that has zero value other than self-congratulatory proof of inside information.

There is enough innuendo by fans surrounding recruits and the many variants of ‘we didn’t want him anyway’ line. I expect fans to react as such; they are fans. Being a fanatic means you are filled with excessive and single-minded zeal. In that zeal, many fans will say or do anything to convince themselves that their team is best. So, when they get spurned by a recruit, they come up with answers.

And some of those answers are typical – like he got ‘paid’ by the other school, or that he was not a good fit for the scheme – others not so nice. Though I find it bad enough that fans act in such a manner, I expect fans to come out and say all manner of deplorable things about players who choose another school. Too often being a fan removes the decency filter.

That’s bad enough, but I expect more from those of us who cover the recruits. We should be better than fans. It is not our responsibility to tell people some of those excuses. To intimate that players are lying to coaches or failing all their classes is unnecessary.

We are not Woodward and Bernstein exposing a criminal. We are writers telling our readers about 17-year old athletes and where they want to go to school. They will have a whole lifetime of getting torn down for all their mistakes, our responsibility should be to something higher than the aspiration of proving our insights.

If a student may struggle to qualify, we don’t need to out him publicly; time and grades will take care of themselves. Even if a prospect lies to a coach; exactly what value does it provide to tell everyone else he lied to the coach? To make them feel better about a miss? If that is the goal, there are plenty of manners in which it can be done without insinuating to everyone that he is a liar.

It may not even be true that he lied. Even if it is, again, there is no value to telling people that part of the story. Some things are simply better left unsaid. An adult should know the difference.

What I discovered along this last nearly eight years of covering recruiting is that football prospects hear from a lot of coaches and they talk a lot about their plans. This process can really be a struggle; our job is to tell you things about where the recruit is going and why; but it is not to tell you all his dirty laundry. It is unfair to the prospects, unfair to the team you cover and unfair to the fans. We have the power to create good with our work; conversely, we have the power to create bad. We can build up these young men or we can tear them down. What do you want to do? Build good or build your persona?

There is a sort of ‘power’ that we have when we talk to insiders; with that power comes an immense responsibility. The obsession with ‘winning’ in the battle for readership is where I lay the blame. In this era of instantaneous information, we all have access to information much quicker than in the past. There is no longer value in trying to be the first to report an offer to a prospect – because the prospect tweeted it out long before any insider could give us a scoop.

We have found many different ways in which we attempt to differentiate ourselves. And it is in that differentiation where our flaws lay. We become so desperate to have that little tidbit someone else may not have that we allow the potential for our own filters to fail.

Fear of not being the best is a good thing; it is what drives innovation. But when that fear is self-doubt disguised with false bravado, it is dangerous. That inferiority complex drives us toward a cliff over which we will eventually fall. It’s the little moments.

What I have always tried to consider – though admittedly not always perfect – is whether I would want anyone to disclose such information about my own child’s life choices. I get that the recruiting world is a bit different; but put your own son or daughter in that exact position. Torn between two schools. Calls both coaches and tells them a similar story. Would you want some stranger to go out and publicly say that your child lied to the coach just because that is what fans of that team want to hear?

Highly doubtful.

Would you feel some stranger justified in telling people that your son or daughter was failing all classes and not able to get in? If so, maybe that person and I have a different version of what we consider callous.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I think that this year has been particularly ugly in our world. Competition can bring out the best or worst in every one of us; we need to accept the challenge to get better.

But I think without verbalizing it, we will never get better. There are more and more organizations entering the recruiting news business. Newspapers have joined us and we must recognize where the value we provide our customers lay. I am fortunate to write for a site with a strong network of teams; Rivals does some really good work and there is a plethora of information at my fingertips every day. I took the challenge upon myself to use that resource to provide more information this year.

I write this looking at myself in a metaphorical mirror. If you see yourself in this essay, then that is your challenge. Don’t do those things that are offensive and oppressive. Remember: families, friends, and coaches are reading some of this information and they are our resources. If we offend them, word will get out.

I am reminded of a verse from a song:

Regrets are better left unspoken
For all we know this void will grow
And everything's in vain

Rise above the vanity. Rise above the need to prove yourself. Rise above the negativity. Be better.

I am making that my motto for 2019 and challenge every recruiting writer and fan that reads this to challenge themselves to honor this motto as well.