Calling BS on the Lobos’ PR

By Daniel Libit

There’s a reason this kind of thing is called a Friday news dump: the release of some disappointing information, or cockamamy argument, precisely when most everyone is getting off their work computers and heading home for the weekend.

That is to say, when your target audience might not be paying the closest attention.

And so it was, Friday evening, that Frank Mercogliano, UNM’s top sports spokesman, took a break from his tweeting to drop a pile of dishonest nonsense on GoLobos.com, the school’s official Athletic Department website: “Why Student Athlete Interviews Are Valuable.”

The title of this “article” (we’ll charitably call it) was a humdinger of lip service — and the rest of the words fallaciously followed suit. This wasn’t just Mercogliano’s doing: UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs; Amy Neel, UNM’s Faculty Athletics Representative; and UNM political science professor Michael Rocca, a member of the Athletic Council; all lent their names to the case for why the public shouldn’t know what athletes really think about their experiences at the University of New Mexico.

The reason?

For the sake of the athletes, but of course.

Though conspicuously unstated, the point of all this was to undermine a series of recent NMFishbowl.com reports, which publicized the concerns that Lobo athletes have voiced during end-of-the-season exit interviews. Those stories relayed various complaints about gender inequity, racial insensitivity, sports-related medical bills, and coaches with difficult personalities (and worse), as described by the athletes themselves, and notated by  members of the Athletic Council.

And Mercogliano’s article, evidently, was UNM’s effort at a collective push back.

As a written document, the piece is a disjointed mess. And it would be uncharitable to merely rip on bad expository writing, but for the sinister argument that was trying to be smuggled through: that, at a public institution, secrecy actually equals transparency — and actual transparency victimizes the victim.

Presuming we can lay some ethical bedrock, it behooves us to address some of the sleight-of-hand misdirection contained in UNM’s article — insofar as we can make sense of it.

Let us begin by stipulating that college athletes, for all they give to their universities, rarely get a chance to freely speak their minds. When, let’s say, an athlete is given an opportunity to talk to reporters, it almost always occurs at a podium, with the head coach sitting right beside them. If you need further confirmation, we refer you to the words of former Lobo track star Kendall Spencer, who Mercogliano summoned in his piece as a testifier to the current way of doing business.

“The senior student-athlete exit interviews offer a substantial opportunity for colleges and universities around the country,” Spencer, who chairs the NCAA’s Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, is quoted in the GoLobos.com piece. “For most of us, it’s the first time [emphasis added] we have the opportunity to reflect on our journey as college students and impact the lives of those to come by providing feedback used to improve the next generation of students.”

One could reason that the labor in this athletic enterprise deserves to have its concerns more widely broadcast. So, this website obtained notes from those exit interviews through a public records requests. In reporting on them, NMFishbowl.com presented the claims not as substantiated facts, but as precisely what they were: anonymized comments that athletes had made to faculty members of the council. In certain cases, the notes suggested a consensus of multiple parties; in others, they conveyed the isolated impressions of a single athlete. The stories made clear those distinctions.

We furthermore gave the Athletic Department ample opportunity and encouragement to provide its input — whether it was to contextualize, clarify, or make a direct appeal that the publication of these documents would somehow harm the athletes. (If it really harbored this concern.)

It choose not to.

Rather, the department waited for the articles to be published with scarcely a peep — one boilerplate statement from Mercogliano — and then, having realized the heat the stories had generated, went into defensive mode. Thereupon, Krebs personally called out potential leaks in his own department and forbid his employees from speaking to this reporter — you know, for the sake of transparency. We learned of this because it was written down in the minutes of the Jan. 17 Athletic Department Leadership Team meeting, which were subsequently leaked to NMFishbowl.com. Turns out, not everybody in Krebs’ department is so keen to play the obfuscation game. Some national reporters began to notice this paradox and, worse yet, started tweeting about it, and duly freaked UNM’s shit.

By then, the story was not just about an Athletic Department’s potential problems, as seen through the eyes of former athletes, but about an Athletic Department’s ham-handed efforts to conceal those problems.

Which brought us to Friday, and Mercogliano’s essay infra dignitatem.

Often through thinly veiled insinuation (the most honest and forthright kind), Mercogliano made a number of claims about our reporting, and its consequences, which I will now refute:

Claim: NMFishbowl.com somehow violated the confidential sanctity of private interviews.

Response:  UNM’s custodian of public records provided the notes to NMFishbowl.com. These were not leaked. The school determined that it was statutorily bound to provide them after our public records request. When asked last week, UNM spokesperson Cinnamon Blair further told me she didn’t see anything improper about the release of the materials.

Claim: NMFishbowl.com compromised the anonymity of the athletes by publishing the exit interview notes.

Response: No UNM athlete is named in either of the stories or in the documents themselves. Thus, their anonymity is just as sheltered as it was before the documents were published. So who’s anonymity is UNM really wringing its hands about? The only identities disclosed in the article are the coaches and administrators fingered for a variety of maltreatment — and, in other instances, praise. In cases where specific allegations were made against individuals, NMFishbowl.com made the necessary efforts to give those individuals, and the department writ large, an opportunity to respond, repudiate, or acknowledge the criticism. For the most part, UNM and those individuals declined to do so.

Claim: UNM has the process covered; there’s no need for public scrutiny.

Response: “The students’ responses are summarized by the Council, and both positive and negative comments are discussed with Athletics administration,” Amy Neel was quoted as saying.  “Constructive changes have been carried out by the Athletic Department as a result of this process.”

About that: Finnie Coleman, the chair of the Athletic Council, made it pretty clear that even he’s not sure how the exit interviews are used to effectuate change. As he previously told NMFishbowl.com: “They don’t come up and tell us how to teach; we don’t presume to tell them how to run the athletics program.” In an interview earlier this month, Coleman confessed to being unaware of the systemic complaints about female fat-shaming, even though they are replete in the exit interview notes. Another member of the Athletic Council, who spoke to me not-for-attribution, likewise said that he was unaware of the issue.

So what specifically has UNM done to address athletes concerns? Mercogliano writes:

“While not an all-encompassing list, some very tangible things have come out of previous student-athlete exit interviews, including UNM’s hiring of a full-time nutritionist, two new large multi-passenger vehicles for student use, the new R.D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Clubhouse for the baseball team to career workshops and a soon-to-be announced new Athletic Performance facility that will benefit a large number of student-athletes.”

Unfortunately, this leaves unaddressed quite a few larger systemic issues, not the least of which are: the inability of athletes to fully use their scholarships because coaching restrictions prevented them from taking certain majors and classes; the complaints by female athletes that they were unfairly criticized about their weight, were required to relinquish scheduled training times to male athletes, and made to defer to their male counterparts.  And it left unaddressed the periodic episodes of racial insensitivity that athletes described in the department and on campus. But hey: they’ve got two new vans!

Claim: UNM somehow deserves credit for conducting student-athlete exit interviews.

Response: From the title of Mercogliano’s piece, onwards, there’s the clear attempt to lend the impression the this whole exit interview process is some wonderful creation of UNM’s athletics department — and therefore proof of its openness and transparency. He writes:

“How do we as a department ensure that the student-athlete experience is living up to what it needs to be?  Feedback, positive and negative, is critical for any athletic department to understand the needs and concerns, and to understand the successes, for any student-athlete.  So how is this best accomplished?

Senior student-athlete exit interviews.”

(Pause for slow clap.)

Except…as Mercogliano later confesses, UNM is required by NCAA statute to conduct this interview process, in the same way they are required to feed their athletes, monitor their academic progress and limit their practice time. All this proves is that UNM is only as open to athlete feedback as they are required to be by the NCAA.

Claim: NMFishbowl.com, by publishing the exit interview notes, has potentially subjected athletes to “reprisals”.

Response: Who would UNM athletes have to fear reprisals from?  First of all, the exit interviews were conducted with graduating seniors who were leaving the UNM program. But that “reprisal” sentiment does indeed create a scary sense of danger, suggesting that the UNM Athletic Department may not be the warmly supportive environment it claims to be.  Could the “reprisals” come from UNM coaches and administrators?  Is that the fear? As NMFishbowl.com reported on Thursday, some athletes have already complained to the department about being retaliated against for bringing up issues with coaches.

Claim: UNM Athletics is all for “transparency”.

Response: Some version of the t-word appears three times in the GoLobos.com article. Krebs utters it in this quote:

“We aren’t alone as these are done by athletic departments all across the nation, and while we need to be transparent in the things we do, we need to protect the rights of our student-athletes so they can keep their anonymity and be allowed to speak freely and not have their every thought subjected to public scrutiny.”

The funny thing about “transparency” is that you don’t become transparent by simply clicking your heels and repeating the word ad nauseam.  You become transparent by opening your operations to public scrutiny, and not by obscuring your activities with empty propaganda and strategic maneuvering.

Claim: Mercogliano writes, “It is the department’s sincere hope that our exiting senior student-athletes will continue to give feedback to the Athletic Council and not be deterred by any attempts from people outside our department to use their perceptions to discredit them or their experiences at New Mexico.”

Response: Herein lies the biggest lie of all: that by amplifying the concerns of unpaid college athletes, it somehow discredits those athletes. As logical fallacies go, this is the cake-taker. Quite the contrary: never before have these exit interviews been more valuable, indeed more useful, because now they have entered the domain of real accountability, the public domain. Now it’s not just UNM’s athletic department answering to itself — or to an admittedly toothless faculty senate committee — but to the public, the people who pay for Mercogliano’s and Krebs’ and Neel’s salaries.

As one Twitter interlocutor pointed out to Mercogliano late Friday night, the Krebs regime doesn’t necessarily have the best track record with openness: ergo, the infamous case of the disappeared Mike Locksley surveillance video, among other suppressions.

This is why public service journalism is best not left to the spokesmen of public institutions, try as they might to masquerade as reporters.

But not unlike the exit interviews, UNM’s blundering ode to secrecy is itself a revealing document, a concession that under the crucible of actual transparency, certain arguments just fail to make sense. And other things become perfectly clear.

(Lead photo credit: Christopher Holden/Flickr)