BON was supposed to have more Pundit Roundup columns this year. There were even several e-mail discussions about it. So, yeah, it hasn't exactly worked out that way. People got busy. And then more people got busy. And then everyone got even busier. Plus, the entire time, Texas kept losing. To Iowa State. To Baylor. It was bad enough that people--and especially one certain coordinator--might even get fired.
Naturally, despite our relative silence, other people kept writing about college football. Primarily, they have written about Cam Newton and Auburn, which has become the story of the year. Pundits from every possible forum have covered the Cam Newton story from every possible angle. And, as you have probably noticed by now, there are many, many angles to this story, especially as it has further evolved over the last few days. Which, for this column, is pretty much exactly the point. By now, I'm sure everyone is sick of reading about the nitty-gritty details of the case, so I want to instead cover the coverage of the Newton saga and highlight the real need for long-form journalism to analyze this case.
After the jump, Pundit Roundup is back, but don't call it a comeback.
Before we get started, a few disclaimers. While I've read quite a few articles about the Cam Newton saga--especially the past few days--I haven't read every single piece written about the issue. So please feel free to highlight some of the better pieces in the comments. Additionally, I don't mean to give a solution over how to "solve" the Cam Newton problem. Similarly, I don't want to go into too much concrete analysis over the larger issues the case presents.
The goal here is much less ambitious, but it fits more in line with the tone and purpose of Pundit Roundup. I want to walk through the coverage gaps in the individual stories over the Cam Newton case, while also explaining how these gaps are being exacerbated by the inherent problems of deadlines, word limits, and rushes to judgment. Unfortunately, while the nuances involved make this story best suited for long-form journalism, the sheer amount of angles and issues has also made it obnoxiously well suited for cheap and easy articles that simply highlight one or two issues at the expense of all the others. I don't think I need to tell you which format has been more popular with national writers.
The Problem of Coverage Gaps
While coverage gaps are both common and expected, I think these gaps have become far more meaningful--and somewhat harmful--within the context of the Cam Newton coverage. As mentioned above, there is no shortage of angles in covering the Cam Newton story. Anyone can cherry-pick any one of the numerous issues or positions associated with the case to write a column. This is especially true as new pieces of information keep filtering out. To highlight this point, take a look at the archive of the columns written by our good buddy Thayer Evans over the last month; he's written eleven columns, eight of which are about Cam Newton or Auburn. Yet, despite all these columns, I'd argue that Evans has largely avoided covering many of the key issues associated with this story. I'm not saying that the Heisman vote isn't important, or that the alleged cheating scandal at Florida isn't important, or even that Cam Newton's media silence isn't important, but I don't think that columns over these issues should come at the expense of covering some of the other issues involved. I don't mean to dog-pile on Evans, who has come under a vicious assault from Auburn fans. In fact, his coverage of the issue is the perfect stepping stone for the larger point here, which is that the amount of angles for this story has been an overall hindrance to its coverage.
Put more simply, instead of being the strength of the coverage, the countless number of angles for this story has instead allowed columns to essentially talk past each other. This can be highlighted by simply listing some of the types of articles we've seen over the last six weeks. The "scooping" articles don't address the larger context of this story, which is the alleged S-E-C (!!!) cheating involved everywhere. However, the "everyone cheats, so who cares" perspective ignores the fact that some schools actually follow the rules. The "media is conducting a silly witch hunt" articles--which have basically disappeared--either avoided admitting there was a lot of smoke to this story or said they didn't care. In such a column, one writer even said "I'm not getting into whether Newton is guilty of any of the things he's been accused of."
It's easy to keep going. The "Should Cam Win the Heisman" or "Cam wont talk to the media" articles are extremely self-limiting in their scope. The "system is broken" articles rarely try to offer comprehensive solutions. Conversely, the "here's the solution" articles largely avoid discussing the situation at hand, primarily using Cam Newton as a platform to discuss larger issues; essentially, some of them say "dont hate the player, hate the game," yet never actually concretely discuss whether or not Cam Newton should still be eligible. And, from what I can tell, that's especially the tone when the solution merely involves authorizing or encouraging the types of alleged payments at the heart of this story. One writer even declared "I don't give a damn whether he took money or not." Most recently, many of the "NCAA is gutless, unfair, and feckless" articles are using false equilibrium when trying to compare this case to previous precedents. Cam Newton isn't Albert Means, he isn't Damon Stoudemire, he isn't AJ Green, and, as Dr. Saturday explained, he also isn't Reggie Bush. Additionally, these articles also tend to avoid considering the possibility--however remote--that Cam Newton and Auburn might actually be telling the truth.
The Potential Effect of the Information Vacuum
In discussing this topic with resident BON author "learnedhand," he speculated the coverage gaps were facilitated by the utter vacuum of information when the story broke. Essentially, this lack of information allowed for pundits to post a wide spectrum of concrete opinions based on a mere fragment of facts. For them, that was a pretty sweet deal. The initial story provided fodder for several easy columns, yet it also included the cover of not having enough information to provide ironclad conclusions over the case. In his words, they could instead just use "relatively facile bloviating" in hammering out a paint-by-numbers column, without necessarily being forced to permanently stand behind their convictions. Now, I don't want to go too far in outlining his thoughts--in fact, I've begged him to spin his thoughts into a separate article--but he ultimately questioned whether or not there were enough incentives for detailed investigations from the commentators on the issue. And I think that's an interesting thought, albeit one that is somewhat undercut by the NCAA essentially clarifying the issues involved with their recent eligibility ruling.
The Eligibility Ruling, "The System," and Andrew Sharp
I don't think that anyone except Auburn fans should be satisfied with the NCAA's investigatory process or their recent eligibility ruling. But I do believe that if someone wants to complain about either the investigation or the ruling--as many have--then such a commentary should synthesize both the current situation and the possibility of future reforms. A lot of "Chicken Little" columns over the eligibility ruling have brought up several valid points, especially the fact that this ruling has gift-wrapped the "plausible deniability defense" for both individual players and schools in such situations. With this precedent, the player can just step aside and let others (including their parents) seek payment for their commitment. While that may be the case, I don't think too many people will be satisfied if the NCAA merely closes this loophole this summer with a well-publicized rule change. When it comes to analyzing the Cam Newton story, the overall system matters, and the overall system is much larger than this one jurisdictional loophole. Essentially, this story is about Cam Newton, but it's also about a lot more than just Cam Newton. It's about the entire legitimacy of the NCAA and college football.
To be fair, there's no shortage of articles connected with the concept of meaningful NCAA reform. Most notably, in a heavily-linked column from a few weeks ago, SB Nation's Andrew Sharp spent 4,300 words outlining his plan for how to "fix" the Cam Newton problem. But, in an overlooked point, this column was the *second* part of his analysis of the issue. Sharp preceded his discussion of potential solutions by writing another column providing his stance over the problems inherent within the media, the NCAA system, and how each of them demonstrated blatant hypocrisies in dealing with Cam Newton. In both columns, Sharp goes way, way too far for my tastes--my own stances are much more moderate--but that's not really even the point. Even though I disagreed with several of his premises and conclusions, I thought Sharp's columns provided a much-needed platform for an important and meaningful discussion over both the Cam Newton case and the overall NCAA system. I wish articles like those were the rule, rather than the exception.
In getting back on track, let me try to bring this home. I guess my main point is that analyzing "The System" *is* a key part of the Cam Newton story, but not to the extent that the other factual or editorial parts of story should just be ignored. Conversely, any discussion of the factual or editorial parts of this story should also acknowledge the context of the overall system. Now, I fully understand it may be impractical to expect pundits to comprehensively cover an issue with so many nuances. Deadlines and word limits do exist. But, while this story has served as an early Christmas present to the media, it has not been as charitable to the general public. By giving us steady streams of columns addressing singular issues, the media coverage has given readers tons of miniature stocking stuffers instead of providing the more meaningful presents created by long-form journalism. Which is exactly what we deserve.