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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

September 12, 2012 at 2:36 PM

Practice, injuries and barred reporters, oh my!

A couple of intriguing developments — at least for those of us in my business — today in the Pac-12. First, USC coach Lane Kiffin has barred Los Angeles Daily News reporter Scott Wolf from practice, and denied him a credential for the Sept. 22 USC-Cal game, for reporting that kicker Andre Heidari underwent surgery for a torn cartilage and will be out three weeks.

The incident stems from a policy set down by Kiffin that reporters are allowed at practice, but can’t write about strategy or injuries.

Then, in mid-afternoon Wednesday, Washington announced it was implementing the same policy. Generally, the standard before this was for reporters not to write about strategy maneuvers — don’t give away that the Huskies might be working on a halfback pass — but that injury news is fair game.

UPDATED, 9:54 p.m. Wednesday — Wolf was reinstated to be able to attend USC practices after a two-day ban, following Wednesday talks between Trojans AD Pat Haden and sports editors of the area’s major dailies. Still to be hammered out are more details on the practice policy.

Ah, the never-ending joust on this front . . .

As the LA Daily News incident has been reported, Wolf didn’t necessarily pick the Heidari news out of practice. The player was apparently injured in the Hawaii opener and didn’t make the trip to Syracuse, so his unavailability at practice becomes secondary to the news — something everybody in the stands could see — that he’s not kicking.

Obviously, there’s a massive gray area here. Coaches can’t reasonably expect reporters not to write about injuries when they’ve kept a player from appearing in a game. So when it is OK? Not when the player isn’t practicing on Thursday, but after he (officially) isn’t playing on Saturday? Or not even then?
I think the policy is an entree for coaches to do what many of them are doing already: Closing practices to the media altogether. If reporters are in the dicey position of having to parse whether their information is a direct result of seeing practice or from some other avenue, it’s much too easy for the coach just to say: All right, we’re shutting the doors.
Personally, I think many coaches are far too fretful about the effect of injury intelligence on their team. Think any coach feels deep down that, yeah, the reason we won Saturday was because we knew their right guard had a high ankle sprain? No question, if Matt Barkley is injured in practice and unable to play the next weekend, it has a dramatic effect, but that’s the unusual case. Too many coaches are willing to take the extreme measure and worry about the 3 percent of practice injuries that might really matter if they’re public knowledge rather than shrug off the 97 percent that don’t matter if they’re found out.
And specific to the USC case, I think the Trojans come off looking petty and vindictive to Wolf. They’re denying him — and not his newspaper — credentials to their next home game. Wolf represents his paper, and if his paper has truly breached some sacred trust, then USC — if it feels a sanction is in order — should deny credentials to the Daily News. But this is a battle it shouldn’t be fighting in any case.
As for Washington, I don’t think this has been Steve Sarkisian’s best week. First, there was the coarse comment Monday that the LSU game “made me want to puke.” Now the crackdown on practice policy, in the wake of the 41-3 loss at LSU, smacks of laying blame on leaks in the practice protocol when the UW clearly has other issues.
At Washington, this is just one more chapter in a long, off-again, on-again relationship between coaches and media. Almost a quarter-century ago under Don James, quarterback Cary Conklin injured a thumb at practice. James challenged reporters not to write it (amid what I recall as a less-defined policy), two of them did, and he closed practices the rest of his career.
Jim Lambright carried that policy over for more than three years. But in 1996, after he announced that Rashaan Shehee’s foot injury happened at practice and I disclosed subsequently that it happened when he jumped from a second-story balcony after hearing gunshots at an off-campus party, pressure increased on Lambright to open practices, and he did.
Then the school went through periods of openness (Rick Neuheisel) to lesser access (Tyrone Willingham) before Sarkisian.
This latest edict invites scenarios like the one being played out at USC. We’ll see where it leads. But I have a guess.
Why should it matter to you? You might argue that it’s media whining versus a coach’s right to do what he wants in the name of team security and an enhanced chance to win games.
Many fans pay hundreds of dollars in seat licenses and season tickets and have a thirst to know what’s going on. And I’d contend that coach’s position is vastly overstated.



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