Last night, ESPN ran an AP article on its main page discussing Michigan football that could hardly be considered newsworthy. The theme of the article was the origin of Denard Robinson's nickname. It was a run-of-the mill human interest story devoid of any actual "news." At no point in the article was Rich Rodriguez or any other Michigan coach quoted as saying anything even remotely revealing about a QB race that is still two weeks away from being decided. The problem is that an article that vanilla doesn't interest anyone outside of the Michigan fanbase. The obvious solution is to trick people into reading the article with a misleading headline.
ESPN went the provocative route and titled the article, “Michigan plans for 3-QB shuffle in opener.” I'm pretty in tune with the happenings of the Michigan football program and this would've been huge news in the "M" community if it were true. Rodriguez is not the kind of coach who would reveal something like that even if it were true. When I saw the link on ESPN's main page, I nearly spit out the imaginary glass of Sam Adams Oktoberfest that I was drinking. I quickly clicked on the link only to find that the article included nothing supporting the headline. Shortly thereafter, ESPN’s TV ticker read, “Rich Rodriguez says he will play three quarterbacks in Michigan’s season opener against Western Michigan.” Where was all of this coming from? It turns out that Rodriguez said on Sunday that "it looks like" all three quarterbacks could play in the opener but that quote isn't even included in the AP article. The reason it's not in the AP article is because Rodriguez goes on to caution that this is as of two weeks out and that "There's a lot that's going to happen in the next two weeks." There is certainly nothing definitive there and anyone familiar with coachspeak knows it was just that. All you get from the AP article are two random quotes conveniently tucked into the end of a human interest piece:
Rodriguez has seen his quarterbacks compete for a couple weeks and yet he isn't ready to say who is even the front-runner in the race.
"If there was, I wouldn't tell you," he said.
Rodriguez insisted the player who takes the first snaps will not necessarily be the No. 1 QB for the rest of the season.
"Maybe we'll have three starting quarterbacks," Rodriguez said. "That would be neat."
There isn’t a less definitive word in the English language than “maybe.” Rodriguez doesn’t even come close to saying that he will play three quarterbacks in the opener. He clearly states that he "wouldn't tell" even if there was something to tell. How much more clear could he have been? That doesn’t stop ESPN from turning a non-story into a front page bombshell.
ESPN isn’t stupid. It knows that Rodriguez didn’t say what it attributes to him. That’s why the article originally had a different title that reflected the actual contents of the story. Apologies, I do not remember the exact wording but when I clicked on the link from the ESPN main page, the actual article had a title referencing Denard Robinson. If what ESPN was reporting in this article was so newsworthy, wouldn’t you think that it would begin with that information instead of mundane filler about the origin of Robinson’s nickname? ESPN fabricated a headline to get readership and then took it a step further by taking that fabricated headline and making it into fabricated story via the ticker. Not surprisingly, Jim Rome took that fabricated story and burned on it today. Congratulations to ESPN for a job well done. News made--not reported.
Rodriguez didn’t just not say he would play three quarterbacks. He hasn’t said anything remotely revealing about the QB race at any point this summer. Unfortunately, that doesn't matter. This isn't about honesty; it's about interest via readership and viewership. Rodriguez—and subsequently the Michigan football program—has been a whipping boy of the press ever since he left WVU not because ESPN or anyone else dislikes him but because sports fans eat it up. Villains are huge in sports. Whether they're real or imagined doesn't really matter.
If Michigan shows signs of life this season as most expect, then ESPN won't be able to harp on last season's 3-9 debacle anymore. Rodriguez is rapidly changing the makeup of his roster to better adapt to the demands of his offense. It is only a matter of time before the wins start piling up again. At that point, you can expect ESPN to lead the praise on the return to prominence of a great program. Rodriguez will again be one of the best coaches in America and all will be forgotten. The fabricated stories about Michigan will be over but, by that time, ESPN will be on to fabricating stories about something or someone else. The take-home here is a first cousin to "You can't judge a book by its cover." Misleading headlines to attract "hits" and "buzz" are en vogue. If you're used to browsing headlines for news, you might want to reconsider that approach. Otherwise, you might pull a Jim Rome and burn on a report that isn't even true.