Tuesday, August 29, 2006

See Dick and Jane Write

In the immediate aftermath of the controversy over Jeff Carroll and Bob Wieneke's series on ND recruiting, someone linked a sports journalist message forum on Rock's House. Wading through the critical comments about NDN in particular and "fanboys" in general, there seemed to be a thread of complaint that Notre Dame fans were afraid of what was described as "objective journalism" in coverage of the Fighting Irish football team.

Now, I know that hypothesis to be untrue. As I've said before, no one wants homerism in ND-related media because homerism is neither interesting nor informative. And most of the Notre Dame writers held in the highest esteem by a lot of fans (e.g. Avani Patel, Malcolm Moran, Vaughn McClure, Eric Hansen, Jason Kelly) are anything but homers (Kelly's status as an alumnus notwithstanding).

So what is it ND fans seek in their media? It's simple: Objective material that presents the facts and allows the reader to draw the conclusions rather than having those conclusions forced down their throat. That's what the five people I listed above do very well in most of their literary efforts.

So here is my primer on the things media folks can do or remember in order to give ND folks the coverage they'll read without sacrificing their objectivity. None of these things are difficult, and they represent the things the highly-regarded ND writers do that results in the readership taking them seriously. Perhaps instead of whining about the alleged intransigence of Notre Dame fans, some media folks could decide to meet them halfway.

Put some effort into your research

I hesitate to use a word like "lazy", given its pejorative underpinnings. So suffice it to say utilizing tired cliches and half-presented facts in an article is not going to win you friends anywhere, and the Notre Dame fanbase is no exception.

In the age of the Internet, fact-checking is made available to even the most novice web surfer, and you can bet on those folks verifying any and all allegations and information against all data available. You're going to be graded by a lot of motivated folks, so you're best served doing the legwork and getting it right before the lack of such legwork is exposed.

Under the Tarnished Dome remains the archetypal failure in this field and will probably not be challenged any time soon. But a new and similarly egregious example has emerged recently: comparing the first seasons of Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis as a cautionary tale for Irish fans.

Yes, they both lost only three games and got a lot of attention. Yes, after five years of Bob Davie's ineptitude, part of the ND fanbase was excited by a 10-win season. But Tyrone Willingham's first team didn't score an offensive touchdown until the third game of the season, looked terrible in four of their last five games, and suffered the first of three consecutive blowout losses to Southern Cal, so most knowledgeable ND fans went into season two with plenty of questions that needed (and, as it turned out, didn't have) answers. Charlie Weis' first team, on the other hand, scored less than 34 points in a game only twice over the course of the season while being competitive in all three games lost. As a result, there is a lot less uncertainty in the alumni and fans going into Weis' second chapter.

Past performance never guarantees future results. But given the unlikelihood Weis will hit his head and suddenly forget how to be the coach he's been so far, logic dictates (a) ND fans can reasonably be more confident now than they were in 2003, and (b) warnings about alleged "parallels" will be viewed as simplistic and overcautious, presenting a negative picture to the reader.

Subway alumni are people, too

Judge Smails once reminded us all the world needs ditch-diggers, too. Unfortunately for Notre Dame's subway alumni, this seems to be the prevailing attitude by which the media views them.

Not everyone in the world goes to college, and not everyone in the world goes to a college that has a Division 1 (or Bowl Division or Eagle Reading Class or whatever the NCAA is calling it now) football program. So logic dictates the masses of humanity filling up these football stadia every Saturday (or Thursday or Tuesday or whatever day ESPN, in its never-ending battle to do for sports what MTV has done for music, has bribed some schools to play its games) aren't entirely made up of the graduates of the two institutes of higher learning in question. So the non-alumnus fan is not a phenomenon unique to Notre Dame.

What is unique to Notre Dame, however, is the use of a specific term to describe such a fan. "Subway alumni" was coined in the 1920s and 30s to describe the many Notre Dame fans in New York City who, while they didn't attend Notre Dame (or any college, for that matter), would ride the subway to Yankee Stadium to watch the Fighting Irish take on the Black Knights of the Hudson from up Army way, and the term eventually grew to encompass the entire non-alumni fan contingent. Subway alumni take great pride in their status as such, and Notre Dame alumni recognize how they've contributed to the history and tradition of the program.

Also unique to Notre Dame, apparently, is the condescending, if not downright hostile, tone in which non-Notre Dame folks, including a lot of media creatures, use that term. No one has any problems with the auto worker from Detroit who makes seven pilgrimages to Ann Arbor every fall, nor the distillery worker who considers a September Saturday not spent in Knoxville to be a waste of time and life, nor the UCSB grad who has spent the last three years going to games in the LA Coliseum and who will no doubt disappear the next time the Trojans go 7-5.

But brand yourself a Notre Dame subway alumnus, and John Mark Karr has a better chance of getting positive comments from the media than you do. The subway alums, the media says, are somehow defective in their fandom. They only care about the team and not the school.

This, as I said, is a shortcut to a tune-out. At the risk of painting with a broad brush, most of the subway alumni active in their Notre Dame fandom care as much about the school in general as they do about football in particular. Attempting to create a "crazed booster" contingent in the fanbase is a strawman of the worst kind.

I suspect the root of the problem with opposing fans is a belief if the subway alumni weren't rooting for Notre Dame, the school would get less attention nationwide and would not enjoy the influence in college football it has. I would certainly hope media folks who are supposed to be objective about their topic wouldn't fall into such a simple-minded trap, because such things are supposed to be above those with journalistic integrity. Besides, all those schools have subway alumni contributing to their own influence that I'd guess they'd hate to lose.

Don't assume a willingness to embrace a lawbreaking culture

In short, selling ND's soul for football glory. Again, Under the Tarnished Dome sets the low-water mark, but this is the mistake Carroll and Weineke recently made in their four-part recruiting article in the SBT I talked about here.

In over 100 years of playing football, the only thing Notre Dame has done at a higher percentage of success than playing football is following its rules. All areas of the Notre Dame family, from the coaches and players on down through administrators, alumni, and yes, even Subway Alumni, put a priority on compliance just as much as winning. To them, a win out of bounds is not a win.

Therefore, if you're going to attempt to prove the existence of a mindset that runs counter to that 100 years of history, you need to bring very strong evidence to back up your assertion. Otherwise, your ND-related readership is going to turn the page. You might earn cheap points with those on the ND-hating side of the ledger, but if that's your goal, you're unlikely to take any of this to heart anyway.

No one believes Notre Dame is perfect

Not everything Notre Dame does is right. Mistakes get made there just as they're made everywhere. Sometimes they're benign, sometimes not so benign, but they're there, and any Notre Dame alumnus or fan with a basic level of intelligence knows it.

If you go into your story believing ND fans need to be convinced of this, most likely you'll end up with a heavy-handed piece that won't be viewed well because the readers will interpret it as an agenda on your part. You may think you need to make hyperbolic statements and arguments to drill through the perceived shell of resistance, but when the shell isn't there, the drill just goes too deep and weakens your piece.

If the details of a mistake are presented with a factual emphasis, most of the Notre Dame readership will listen. If it comes across as gratuitous, with aspects blown out of proportion or buttressed with questionable material, they will not, and that lack of interest shouldn't surprise you.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

No Tickee, No Washee

The season ticket renewal finally arrived. And well-timed to boot -- the missus and I had just been discussing whether or not we wanted to renew since my daughter can't handle the games and it's more difficult to get to South Bend during the week these days. But we're still hoping the long-awaited renovations end up giving us a chairback seat in the current Section 110, so it's at least one more year of ducats for us.

A couple of interesting things in the renewal packet this year.

Meet the team, meet the team, step right up and greet the team. Season ticket holders will have an opportunity to attend a free dinner and open practice in mid-October, date TBD. Called the "Meet The Team Dinner", it promises "up close and personal access to the Notre Dame basketball players and coaching staff" and is sponsored by Famous Dave's BBQ. While it isn't the Midnight Madness I wanted, it's certainly a step in the right direction and shows good thinking for all involved.

As usual, however, I have a suggestion: make the dinner season ticket holders only, but open the practice to the students as well and really talk it up in the dorms (provided the event is not during Fall Break). It'd be good to get the players' classmates out early and interested.

The price is right. Ticket prices will stay the same this season, which is good. The check I'll be writing -- or, to be more precise, the online form I'll be filling out -- will be more, however, because there'll be 20 home games this season. That has to be close to the record. I don't think Digger in his Fairfield-and-Marist-fueled wildest dreams ever got to 20.

But that leads me to...

The games. Oy, the games.

The Big East slate is decent, relatively speaking. Louisville is expected to do well while showcasing a lot of young talent. Ditto Marquette. Villanova is a question mark, but if the game is late in the season, it could provide excitement. And DePaul is always a tradition-laden excellent affair no matter how their team is expected to be. But not a lot else to get excited about on the other half. South Florida, Providence, and Seton Hall aren't expected to do much, while West Virginia replaces their top seven scorers from last year and something like 90 percent of their floor minutes. And Connecticut and Pittsburgh, two teams considered to be among the front-runners for the title, aren't on the schedule at all.

Then there's the non-conference slate. 20 home games minus eight in the conference leaves 12. Take out the two exhibitions and that leaves us 10, and since ND can play only 12 non-conference games total, that's 10 of 12 games at the Joyce Center. Alabama and IPFW will conclude their game contracts, while Portland and Winston-Salem State (recently arrived in D1) are scheduled to come in, probably for one-game contracts.

The remaining six games are TBD. One would hope considering the relatively watered-down BE slate and the presence of RPI-killers like IPFW and WSS on the non-conference list, they'd have some quality programs on them. But the Integer, the ACC, and most of the SEC schools have already released their schedules, and the Irish aren't on them.

I realize the conference is going to 18 games next year and multi-year contracts might be tough right now. I also realize if the Irish get past Butler in Indianapolis, they'll most likely get a game against the Hoosiers, with more quality games in NYC should they overcome Indiana.

But I'll say this now: six "bought" one-timer games is not the way to go here, so I hope that's not what we're going to see. First, the season ticket base isn't going to get emotionally erect over watching Patriot League patsies in the December cold. Second, a schedule this heavy on the cupcakes leaves ND with a razor-thin margin come Selection Sunday. The committee will no doubt be looking to hold the puff piece parade against the Irish, and one misstep could give them that opportunity. Trying to schedule an NCAA appearance seldom works.

I'm hoping for a surprise like UCLA or Arizona or Washington out of the Pac10, or Xavier or Dayton or Creighton, more traditional opponents who are expected to have strong seasons. If at least two of the six come from a group like that, it would go a long way towards stabilizing the SOS component of the RPI, which can only help a Notre Dame team looking to break a three-season NCAA-free skid, and would contribute to an overall-interesting home schedule.

But a steady diet of the Patriot League or America East is bound to give the Irish indigestion in March.