The Star-Ledger v. Rutgers athletics

The Star-Ledger's sports desk consistently puts out a terrific product, on a daily basis, that is well worth your subscription money.

The Star-Ledger's editorial board, at the same time, seems to take pride in sullying the paper's reputation with shoddy fact-checking and a failure to even perform basic research (like a customary check of the Ledger's own archives.) Unfortunately, the foibles of the latter group have sullied the otherwise-sterling reputations of the former by association in the minds of many fans of Rutgers athletic teams. FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver once proclaimed:

I have written for perhaps a dozen major publications over the span of my career, and the one with the most thorough fact-checking process is by some margin Sports Illustrated. Although this is an indication of the respect with which SI accords its brand, it does not speak so well of the mainstream political media that you are more likely to see an unverified claim repeated on the evening news than you are to see in the pages of your favorite sports periodical.

That bit of context helps illustrate how two separate divisions of the same entity could diverge so wildly in quality, which is not to say that all non-sports coverage of Rutgers athletics (i.e., Kelly Heyboer) at the paper is bad. The latest case in point being a rather shoddy editorial in today's Ledger.

There has not been one of these here for a while, so let's pull out the knives and hack the claims to shreds.

But here’s the question: Does Rutgers have a plan to wean the athletic department off the mistaken, but oft-repeated notion that "what’s good for us is good for the entire university"?

Did this editorial's anonymous author even bother reading Steve Politi's recent column on this very subject? Yes, Rutgers has a plan to address the deficit. Stadium expansion was a short-term stimulus designed to foster long-term growth. Athletic director Tim Pernetti is practically holding the Big East hostage to make sure they receive fair-market value for their television rights. Rutgers is outsourcing ticket sales with an eye on generating more revenue. Moreover, you may not like this answer, but financial considerations were also part of the decision several years back to cut six non-revenue sports.

Two years ago, athletic director Tim Pernetti was handed a self-righteous sports program that had been blowing through money like a drunken Powerball winner.

What does "self-righteous" even supposed to mean here? That they don't automatically agree with everything the Ledger editorial board says?

Likewise, if one actually looks at USA Today's database of college athletics finances, it's clear that the athletic department spending at Rutgers is not wildly disproportionate compared to other peer schools. What Rutgers has is a revenue problem. They are trying to build an athletic department up from decades of neglect, and they are currently heavily subsidized because the Big East receives a pittance in conference television revenue compared to the other five Bowl Championship Series conferences. Sure, Rutgers could spend less money on athletics - if you are fine with cutting more sports, and cutting academic support.

Let's further qualify the Ledger's definition of "blowing through money like a drunken Powerball winner." After months of slander and weasel words, what was the Ledger's smoking gun example of unchecked spending against Rutgers football? Outrage upon outrage, they sent flowers when a player's father died. Should that have been done with athletic department funds? Probably not, although that was more an example of sloppy accounting controls than any sort of illicit activity.

All the while, the jock-ocracy

Way not to even bother with any pretenses of neutrality. That utterance reads like it was written by a twelve-year old auditioning to be a Gawker freelancer. It should be clear to even the lay observer that the Rutgers football program is not in any way a traditional football factory. To the best that it is possible to balance athletics with academics and being good community citizens, they are certainly are trying.

insisted the slush funds, unchecked spending, secret contracts and willy-nilly growth benefited everyone with an "R" on their sweater.

You. Lying. Assholes. Tim Pernetti should received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for blowing his nose with a copy of the Ledger at the Papajohns.com Bowl pep rally.

Who gives a shit that the author is unlikely to have spent even a modicum of time researching this piece. The repeated failure by Star-Ledger writers to even consult their paper's own archives is a repeated source of outrage, a festering wound that will not heal, to every fair-minded person who continues to read their publication. Why are Rutgers fans frustrated? Because we have repeatedly tried to tell you that this is not true. Some of us even politely! When a falsehood is repeated so often, so carelessly, it is hard not to then infer malice and deliberate intent.

For the umpteenth time, there were no secret contracts. The Star-Ledger published a draft clause from Greg Schiano's contract that did not ultimately appear in the final document. The following quote is from Rick Malwitz and Keith Sargeant from the Gannett papers.

Mulcahy denied Friday that an addendum excusing the $500,000 buyout figure existed.

"After many discussions and offers, the coach felt that the university was working with him and was committed to the completion of the stadium. Since such a drafted document was never executed, we never submitted it. There is no agreement amending the buyout," Mulcahy said.

That will happen when two veteran political reporters are blind to the ulterior motives of a source trying to get Bob Mulcahy fired from the athletic department  Josh Margolin and Ted Sherman received a mistaken quote from Rutgers president Richard McCormick, and then deadlines took precedent over getting the story right, as it went to press without clarification from Mulcahy. The Star-Ledger never printed a formal retraction to this claim, and the real stickler is that they continue to repeat it to this day.

Far, far worse was another supposed "secret contract": the deal to pay Schiano with funds from a marketing deal with Nelligan Sports (a common practice nationwide.) I mean, not many researchers would miss a story published in their very own paper called "Plan: Boost in salary covered by boosters" (NSL, Matthew Futterman, 12/5/2006.)

Perhaps, but as Rutgers continues its struggle through a budget crisis that includes cutting six varsity sports after this year, the university will have to enter new territory by seeking private funding to give Schiano his due as one of the country's top young football coaches. Rutgers has used public money to pay Schiano $250,000 and $625,000 from "Nelligan Corporate Sponsorship moneys" according to his contract. That provision refers to Nelligan Sports Marketing, the Little Falls company that sells advertising for the university's athletic program.

Futterman reported on the Nelligan payments in late 2006. Rutgers fans dug up that quote three years ago, and Mulcahy soon had an ironclad response (the following quote is from a Trentonian article that is no longer online.)

Though information that has been made public in recent weeks has drawn headlines, other public information has been overlooked, Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy said yesterday.

Referencing the content of previous university-issued press releases and one 2006 newspaper story, Mulcahy said recent revelations that part of football coach Greg Schiano's compensation comes from Nelligan Sports Marketing should not have come as a shock because the school's relationship with the firm had been previously documented.

"There's a press release talking about the contract and sponsorship, and it was in the Star-Ledger article," he said. The Star-Ledger of Newark, he pointed out, reported in 2006 that Rutgers had "used public money to pay Schiano $250,000 and $625,000 from Nelligan Corporate Sponsorship money" in the seven-year contract he signed in 2005.

Mulcahy has acknowledged that the university did not publicize a 2007 addendum to Schiano's contract - revealed in a Star-Ledger report last week - that includes a direct payment from Nelligan of $250,000. But he pointed yesterday to a 2005 press release announcing Schiano's seven-year contract that did not mention Nelligan by name, but that said "the new contract also increases Schiano's guaranteed income from private sources from $325,000 (in 2005) to $625,000 in 2006 and $750,000 by 2012."

Under what possible definition does that count as "undisclosed?" Moving along...

Rutgers chose cleats over curriculum.

Then why has the Star-Ledger repeatedly praised the Rutgers football program for doing well in the Academic Progress Report rankings?

And now, thanks to some digging by USA Today, we learn

Stop right there. Actually, your paper published the very same information over a week before USA Today's high-profile story, and have referenced similar figures in the past. USA Today's database has been publicly available going back at least to early 2010. Tom Luicci and Mike Vorkunov knew about it. Matt Futterman knew about the athletic department's deal with Nelligan Sports back in 2006. Is it too much to ask if, when writing about unfamiliar subject matter, that you actually consult with resident, in-house experts on that topic in the hopes of avoiding wild embarrassment? Is that too much to ask?

How did Rutgers dig a hole that big? Mostly by expanding the football stadium without making sure there was private money available, by giving the football coach a hefty raise to about $2 million a year and by implementing a simple budgeting plan for athletics: They want, they get.

USA Today reported that the Rutgers athletic department received $17,917,867.00 in 2008, and $18,411,795.00. Kind of hard to pin all of this on stadium expansion then. Another reason why this is an atrocious point is that stadium expansion was funded by a bond tied to future ticket revenues. What's actually going on is that Rutgers has spent quite a bit of money over the past decade with the goal of making up for lost time, which no one disputes. The Big East receives very little in television revenue, while at the same time Rutgers still fields a great deal of non-revenue sports. Which would have been immediately obvious if the piece's author had bothered to consult the breadth of NCAA research on this topic, instead of spouting nonsense about a complex and unfamiliar topic.

Despite the best efforts of some terrific journalists on staff, the relationship between Rutgers fans and the Newark Star-Ledger remains as poisoned as ever. This is not about receiving positive or negative coverage; it's about the facts. If the athletic department does something wrong, Rutgers fans want to know about it. We are, after all, their customers. When a writer with credibility, like Tom Luicci or Steve Politi writes about the athletic department, their words deserve careful consideration. Both have displayed an unending commitment to getting a story right. Not only has the Ledger failed to acknowledge its past factual errors, but consistently repeating them to this day despite clear evidence to the contrary is a repeated thumb in the eye to their readers that damages the entire publication's credibility.

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