If you get into a conversation with pretty much anybody about oversigning, there will be two things that will inevitably be brought up: Elliott Porter and the Wall Street Journal’s expose on Alabama’s use of medical scholarships. Elliott Porter is a good example of roster mismanagement and there is no defense for Les Miles in that situation – a topic we will likely cover some other time. The WSJ article, on the other hand is a good example of poor journalism.
I started the Oversigning Retort, in part to respond to articles that are written against oversigning, especially when they don’t present the facts in proper context or are simply trying to bring down a rival team or conference. What better way start this off than discussing one of the most famous articles written on the subject? I will link the article, but there is no need to follow it as I will present it in its entirety here with my comments provided in blue:
Alabama’s Unhappy Castoffs
Ex-Players Say Coach Nick Saban Pressured Them to Take Medical Scholarships; a ‘Bitter’ Outcome – by Hannah Karp and Darren Everson
Former Alabama football players say the school's No. 1-ranked football program has tried to gain a competitive edge by encouraging some underperforming players to quit the team for medical reasons, even in cases where the players are still healthy enough to play.
Please note the statement in bold. If that part is true, then there is a problem. This article has no proof of this, but insinuates it several times. They mention three former players – all of whom were injured and all of whom signed off on the medical exemption. While a couple of them seem to feel as if they could still play, the medical staff is the one making the determination and there is no counter medical determination even attempted so we have the way a 20-yr old feels about himself against the professional opinion of highly qualified trained medical doctors. I wonder which gets the most attention here…
At least 12 times since coach Nick Saban took over the program in 2007, Alabama has offered players a "medical" scholarship, according to public statements made by the team. These scholarships, which are allowed under NCAA rules, are intended to make sure scholarship athletes who are too injured to play don't lose their financial aid. A player who receives one of these scholarships is finished playing with that team
Three Alabama players who've taken these exemptions say they believe the team uses the practice as a way to clear spots for better players by cutting players it no longer wants. These players said they believe Mr. Saban and his staff pressure some players to take these scholarships even though their injuries aren't serious enough to warrant keeping them off the field.
If you read no further, please stay with me through this point. There is so much in this paragraph here that I could write a full article on it alone. Two very damning accusations right here. 1. Bama cuts players that are underperforming, and 2. They lie about the players conditions. The article mentions exactly 3 ex-Bama players, Chuck Kirschman, Jeramie Griffin, and Charles Hoke. Of these three, only one of them actually says anything like what has been accused (the “bitter” one) and even he admits that the final decision was his. One of them is actually used as a (very brief) counter-point in the article as an example of a player not being pressured. While he is counted as one who has made accusations against the team, he ends up doing the exact opposite. The third player similarly does not make any accusations against the team or Saban. In fact, it appears he was treated quite fairly as well. When it all boils down, we end up with one (admittedly bitter) player who gets quoted several times in the article, two players who are barely mentioned and who offer no backing to the accusations, and some other shakey evidence we will cover shortly. This author’s opinion and preconceived notions about Saban appear to have had more to do with what got written in this article than any facts or quotes he/she was able to obtain.
"I'm still kind of bitter," said former Alabama linebacker Chuck Kirschman, who took a medical scholarship last year. Mr. Kirschman said Mr. Saban encouraged him to accept the scholarship because of a back problem that he believes he could have played through. "It's a business," Mr. Kirschman said. "College football is all about politics. And this is a loophole in the system."
Please note that while the college student feels that he could play through the problem, he does not dispute the injury.
Alabama isn't the only school that has given players medical scholarships. Including the Crimson Tide, the 12 members of the Southeastern Conference have given at least 25 of these scholarships to football players in the past three years. Ultimately, it's the school's decision whether a player is healthy enough to play football.
Here is another money quote from this article. I put “at least” in bold for a reason – they don’t provide an actual number here because they a) couldn’t find it b)didn’t really look for it, or c) just flat-out wanted the effect that Bama had twice as many as the rest of their conference. I am working on a project that I will share in a couple of months where I compare the actual attrition rates from SEC and Big 10 schools. In order to do that properly, you must find every player who signed an LOI and is no longer on the roster – and for what reason. From the 2009 class, Bama had two accept medical scholarships. The rest of the SEC had 10. That is from only one class within the time period given here, so unless only 3 more were given out from the players overlapping this time period from the 11 teams within the rest of the conference, I would say that that number is a little low. Note that there is no real context given then. All we have is Bama’s number. What is the national average? I have little doubt that Bama used it more than most teams during this time, but how much really? Are other teams just letting their injured guys stay on the team to keep from this type of media backlash? Are there any other teams that have experienced this much injury*?
In a statement, Doug Walker, the school's associate athletic director for media relations, said Alabama's first priority in these situations is always the health of its players. "Decisions about medical disqualifications for student-athletes are made by medical professionals and adhere to the parameters outlined by the NCAA…and the Southeastern Conference," he said in the statement.
But we are going to ignore this completely. This is Alabama, after all, how good can their medical staff really be, right?
The school added that the "process for medical disqualification is very similar from campus to campus across the country." Alabama said that student-athletes sign a medical-exemption certificate agreeing that they fully understand the conditions, that the diagnosis of the injury or illness clearly appears to be an incapacitating one, and that there's a "reasonable expectation" they'll never again be able to play.
Again, note that the player MUST sign this for the medical to occur. This means that a medical waiver cannot be forced on anyone.
An Alabama spokesman said the school won't discuss individual cases, citing health-privacy laws. Mr. Saban declined to comment.
How college-football teams manage their allotted number of players is a serious competitive issue in the sport. The 120 schools in the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision, the sport's highest echelon, are limited to 85 scholarship athletes each. No more than 25 new signees are allowed to join a team in the fall. Because injuries are common, teams do whatever they can to make sure those spots are filled by the best athletes.
Because some players may fail to qualify academically, some teams take on more players than they have room for, to make sure they don't get caught short. The problem for teams comes when the numbers don't work out and the team winds up needing to make cuts.
They also take on more players to account for known and expected attrition. If a coach has enough recruits agreeing to greyshirt, then there are no cuts needed, but that is never mentioned.
Alabama, which won the national championship last season, is off to a dominating 3-0 start this year, including a blowout win over Penn State. The Crimson Tide play at No. 10 Arkansas Saturday in the weekend's most anticipated game.
The program is one of several in the SEC that have developed reputations for pushing roster limits. Since Mr. Saban took over as coach after a stint with the NFL's Miami Dolphins, Alabama has routinely had to trim its roster ahead of the season. Placing players on medical scholarships has helped it do so.
The implication here is that Saban is cutting players to make room. Again, this is the heart of the oversigning issue, but while cutting kids is not exclusive to oversigning teams, it seems that only they get criticized for it (as pointed out here). Of course, very few players have actually come out and said they were cut. In fact, out of the seemingly hundreds of players “cut” by Saban, this article is the closest thing to actual evidence of it occurring, and while the article says 3 players felt this way, they only offer quotes from one of them saying so while the other two do much the opposite.
Secondly, medical hardships don’t happen overnight. Many of these medicals were know (even by the public) well in advance of NSD. Both of the guys that accepted them last year were rumored on message boards and among Bama bloggers soon after the season ended, but they were not announced officially until the end of the summer. In fact, many schools never announce this type of attrition because they don’t have the entire nation’s media scouring over their roster trying to find ways they are cheating. Could it not be that Saban knows who is being put on medicals in January and simply accounts for it then?
In some cases, the players who took these scholarships say they didn't feel pressured. Charles Hoke, a former Alabama offensive lineman who took a medical scholarship in 2008 because of a shoulder problem, said the choice was left entirely up to him and was based on the many conversations he had with the team's doctors and trainers over the course of his junior year.
Now would be a good time to remind you of the quote from earlier in the article, “Three Alabama players who've taken these exemptions say they believe the team uses the practice as a way to clear spots for better players by cutting players it no longer wants.” Does this last paragraph give you the impression that Mr Hoke is one of these players? Obviously not, but as he is one of the only 3 players mentioned in this article you have to think that he is. Why is he characterized this way? Perhaps because if they said that one player, who admits he is bitter, is all they had making these accusations their article wouldn’t carry the same punch.
Others who took these scholarships say they believe the school is violating the spirit of the rule. Mr. Kirschman, the linebacker, said he injured his back in April 2008 but continued practicing with the team through the spring of 2009. That May, he was approached by coaches and trainers and asked to take a medical scholarship.
Back to Mr Kirschman since Mr Hoke didn’t take them in the direction they were wanting to go I guess.
"I wasn't playing significant minutes, but I was personally upset because I did anything coach asked, I was a team player, I had a 4.0 average," said Mr. Kirschman, who played in two career games, both in 2008, and is now working full time as a robot programmer at Mercedes.
Mr. Kirschman said the school offered in the summer of 2009 to pay for his graduate degree in business—an offer he accepted—and that he still gets some of the same perks as players. "I still get game tickets, which is nice," he says.
So the implication here is that he wasn’t hurt but just not very good. I guess that could be the case, but it could also be that the back flared back up several times throughout that time. Perhaps the reason he didn’t play in 2009 was because of his back. This really isn’t explained, as we are left with just enough information to make us think that Mr Kirschman was perfectly fine, and was asked to take the medical for no reason. While that could have been the case, it is actually not claimed here. It is certainly implied, and is definitely what the authors want you to take from this section, so I find it hard to believe that if his back was fine that they wouldn’t have pointed that out.
Mr. Kirschman said the decision to take the medical scholarship was ultimately his, and that he decided to do it to open up a scholarship for the good of the team. But he said he felt he was pressured. "It was pushed," he said. "It was instigated for several players."
Again, if he was hurt I have no problem with them pressuring him to take the medical, and I have no problem with them wanting to do it so that they can replace him with a new recruit. If he is injured and can no longer compete because of it, that is what the medical scholarship is for. Sorry, but unless he says he wasn’t injured (and has a doctor confirm it) there is no problem here.
In August 2009, Jeramie Griffin, a redshirt sophomore running back at Alabama, tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a practice—an injury that kept him out for that season. After undergoing surgery, he said, "I came back in the spring and I was OK."
Here’s our third player. Please let me know if you see any accusations like they said at the beginning of this article…
Indeed, Mr. Griffin's bio on Alabama's official athletics website said he "looked strong in 2010 spring drills, just eight months off of surgery."
Mr. Griffin said that he was surprised last month when the football staff told him he had failed a physical. At that point, Mr. Griffin said, Mr. Saban sat him down and asked him what he wanted to do besides playing football. He said that Mr. Saban floated the possibility of a medical scholarship and asked if Mr. Griffin was interested in student coaching.
So a guy that Saban is cutting because he is not good enough is being asked to help coach the team? Yea, that makes sense.
Mr. Griffin said he doesn't contest the results of the physical and said it was "basically my decision" to forgo the rest of his playing career.
So, what’s the problem? Remember, this is one of the guys the article says “believe the team uses the practice as a way to clear spots for better players by cutting players it no longer wants” How do they get that from this? We have a guy that agrees that he was hurt taking a medical scholarship, isn't that what they are for?
Mr. Griffin said he has agreed to take a job as a student coach. He added that he felt less angry about being pushed to take the medical scholarship—which frees up roster space for the team—than he did about not living up to his potential.
Wow, I love that quote. Sounds like a great kid and I wish he hadn’t been injured.
"I felt like I could have played," he said. – end of article
I wonder why he didn’t contest the results then. Or perhaps he felt that way but knew that the medical evaluation was correct and not playing was in his best interest. I wish this quote had better context.
*I know that there are. Vesper, if you read this, send me a P.M. with your e-mail. I wanted to reference some of the things you’ve written about Nebraska’s recent medicals, but couldn’t find it. I want to get that from you (as well as some other stuff for future installments)
Nick Saban could very well be cutting players using this technique. Alabama could be using medicals at a faster rate than anyone in the country. The 12 players that have received these scholarships could very well be a rouse every time – but while this article certainly accuses them of doing these things, the proof they offer is both inaccurate and not with enough context and supporting evidence to prove it.