By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — One of Public Enemy’s more timeless songs is the 1988 classic “Don’t Believe the Hype” — a saying that has aged well due to the fact that there’s a lot more sources of hype these days than facts.
Take the case of the latest rumors of the demise of the Colonial Athletic Association, or CAA.
When CBS Sports’ Brett McMurphy “reported” (to use the term loosely) that VCU, George Mason and Butler “have had discussions with the Atlantic 10 and indicated to the league they have potential interest in joining for the 2013-14 school year,” it set off a batch of rumors that all three schools were on their way to the 36 year old conference.
And when the New York Posts’ Lenn Robbins tweeted last week that George Mason and Virginia Commonweath were going to leave the Colonial Atletic Association, or CAA, and that Butler “probably” was also going to join by May 1, Twitter, in the words of one fan, “exploded”.
But the real story is not a CBSSports.com report filled with rumor or a 140 character message from a New York Post reporter.
It’s that guys calling themselves journalists are reporting the “hype” instead of the facts.
When you look at the McMurphy report on CBSSports.com, what is striking is the lack of hard facts about, well, anything.
“Sources told CBSSports.com that VCU’s Board of Visitors already has had at least two meetings about making the move, while Butler has negotiated with representatives of the Atlantic 10 for the league to assist financially for the Bulldogs to change leagues.”
At best, Butler’s talk of “financial assistance” implied that the negotiation was ongoing – meaning, hardly a done deal — while the idea that VCU’s board would be discussing possible moves to other conferences wouldn’t be far-fetched at all, but it hardly indicates that a school on its way out.
After all, Richmond, years ago, had board-level discussions to join the Patriot League that never amounted to anything, so the mere fact that there are “discussions” means, well, absolutely nothing.
A day after the initial CBSSports.com report of the rumor was released, CAA commissioner Tom Yeager rapidly shot it down.
“Both schools indicated there were no truth to the rumors,” Yeager told Patrick Stevens of the Washington Times. “They are not exploring other options. In combination with conversations over the last couple months and weeks, they’re not looking to go anywhere else and they don’t have an offer that would turn their heads. We didn’t hold hands and take blood oaths or anything. I take them for their word.”
In the Baltimore area Friday night for Towson’s football banquet (celebrating its first CAA championship last fall), Yeager said he had spent nearly the entire day battling the poorly-researched and irresponsible rumors.
“Anybody can write a blog these days,” Yeager told CSJ executive editor David Coulson at the Towson event.
Seemed like a pretty solid denial of a report that was short on any details.
But this denial didn’t stop a whole host of Twitterers and writing hacks to pounce upon this thin rumor and declare it a fact, however.
Suddenly the words “oft-rumored” and “boilerplate denials” started to appear around A-10 departures from the CAA – even though no such rumors seemed to exist prior to the McMurphy report, and the denials were far from boilerplate. (What part of “They are not exploring other options” is a boilerplate denial?)
“Rumors of conference realignment were in the wind before the recent report by CBSSports.com… The New York Times dealt with the A-10’s expansion hopes in October,” Bob Molinaro of the Virginian-Pilot noted in his article — which is stunning, for if you actually read the article, there’s not a single athletic director or Atlantic 10 official quoted in the article.
(As a matter of fact, the only actual facts of “conference poaching” came in regards to Hofstra president Stuart Rabinowitz informally talking to presidents of Atlantic 10 schools asking if they were interested in joining the CAA.)
And outlets like the Dayton Daily News reported that “Butler is contemplating a move to the A-10, according to multiple media outlets, and CBSSports.com reported this week that VCU and George Mason also are in discussions about joining the conference.”
Welcome to the new world of reporting, where circularly-referenced articles based on the same unsubstantiated rumor now pass as “confirmation” for what’s really happening.
“Rumors have fluttered around for about a week saying that CAA powerhouses George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth have been exploring the possibility of jumping ship from the Colonial to the larger Atlantic 10 Conference,” Chase Kiddy of James Madison’s school newspaper breathlessly reported. “Multiple news outlets have reported conversation between the two schools and the A10, though both schools have denied that any ‘official’ meetings or conversations have taken place.”
“Unofficially, it might be a whole other story,” Kiddy speculates. “The public record can’t touch random phone conversations or big whig dinners at fancy restaurants in Richmond and Washington. Backchannels of communication seem to be how all these conference realignments have happened anyway.”
It seems like an old Groucho Marx line: who are you going to believe, me, or your lying eyes?
STILL MORE RUMORS
That wasn’t the end of the story, however.
George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Butler, and CAA officials had another completely uncorroborated rumor to deny this past Friday when Mr. Robbins let loose with his tweet that VCU and George Mason, and “probably” Butler, would be headed to the Atlantic 10 by May 1st.
Just like the original rumor, it caused a flurry of extra Twitter hype, mostly from VCU and George Mason students or prospective students taking the uncorroborated rumor and assuming that it was fact.
These same folks didn’t bother to think about the sheer ludicrousness of the idea that Butler would “probably” make a momentous, all-sports decision to move all its sports to the Atlantic 10 in the span of ten days.
“If it’s a done deal, it’s the best-kept secret I’ve ever heard,” an anonymous trustee told David Woods of the Indianapolis Star.
The Star report that an imminent move to the Atlantic 10 was “completely not true” didn’t make the same impact that an anonymous, unsubstantiated report had on Twitter.
“As for our interest in joining the Atlantic 10, it would seem to be worthy of our consideration given some of the schools in the Atlantic 10,” a letter from Butler president James Danko stated in the same article. “However, it is also understood that we would need to undertake a full cost/benefit analysis.”
Seriously, what more do people need for folks to realize the truth that Butler is not moving on May 1?
Almost immediately following Butler’s flat-out denial from the highest levels of the organization came similar denials from CAA commissioner Tom Yeager with corroborating evidence from the highest levels of George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth with one message: they ain’t going anywhere.
“I talked to (VCU president Michael Rao) at length on Wednesday afternoon,” Yeager told Tim Pearrell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “There are no decisions being made. They haven’t even drilled down into even looking at anything.”
It comes down to substance.
“I won’t say they haven’t talked about it. I’m sure they have,” Yeager told Pearrell. “It’s similar to having a possibility for a new job or moving. You’re trying to look at things, making lists of pros and cons. No decisions have been made. If anything, there’s a lot of solidification to where things are going in your own mind.”
Add to that an ESPN.com report that Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade denied the report as well, it begs the question: what credibility do Mr. Robbins and Mr. McMurphy have left?
Not content with simply reading it for myself, I did my own digging on the matter, talking with people around the world of FCS and talking with someone who recently had the occasion to talk to Mr. Yeager about this very subject. He said exactly what the official reports were saying: that it was rumor, and the thought that anyone would be moving by May 1 was completely untrue.
In this day and age, you can win the Twitterverse for an afternoon with a false account relatively easily. But it’s a dangerous game. People who really know what’s happening at the FCS level won’t just be sitting idly by and letting every shady report go through without vetting it against the hard evidence.
Maybe Mr. McMurphy and Mr. Robbins, or any number of other so-called reporters, might want to remember next time to not “believe the hype”.