It hurts to ask about injuries

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comSeptember 13, 2012 

A memo regarding the University of Washington’s information embargo on football injuries was distributed to reporters following practice Wednesday.

The new policy, mandated by coach Steve Sarkisian, comes down to this: “Don’t ask, because I won’t tell.”

Measures also will be taken to suspend access to any media member who shares an observation on either strategy or injuries. Withholding information about strategy makes sense: A fourth-down pass play out of a punt formation loses its capacity to surprise the opposition once a newspaper reports “the Huskies spent 15 minutes working on a fake-punt play Wednesday.”

But the gag order on injuries is troublesome. If a player – say, Keith Price – is seen watching a Tuesday practice on crutches, it means Huskies fans won’t learn about the quarterback’s inability to start until backup Derrick Brown lines up behind center the following Saturday.

As a media relations coordinator for the university was elaborating on the restrictions, my thoughts returned to Dec. 8, 2008, the day Sarkisian was introduced during a pep rally disguised as a press conference. Among the hundreds of happy onlookers inside the Don James Center were the Huskies cheerleaders and marching band, which played “Bow Down to Washington.”

Sarkisian’s first word to the crowd was “wow.” He was 34, a rising star going places after establishing himself at USC, where he’d been offensive coordinator for Pete Carroll’s perennial national-championship contenders. A prominent theme that day was replacing the climate of secrecy and suspicion that had distinguished the reign of Sarkisian’s dour predecessor, Tyrone Willingham.

“Whatever has gone on before – I wasn’t here,” said Sarkisian, careful to avoid mentioning Willingham’s name. “We’re starting off on a brand new foot with me, with the program. I think, for all the guys, it’s a chance at a new beginning.

“We’ve got 105 kids on this football team,” Sarkisian continued, “but they’re not the only ones making this thing and making this experience what it’s going to become. We want people around us. We want people seeing us.”

Underscoring his commitment to include fans in the Huskies football experience, Sarkisian noted that practices would be open. It was a philosophy he’d picked up from his close friend Carroll: Practice-field attention is healthy for players. How can they expect to compete before 72,000 fans if they’re not exposed to observers during the week?

Watching Sarkisian speak while clutching his precious toddler son seemed to permeate the cramped room with the fresh air of hope and change.

“It’s going to happen fast,” Sarkisian vowed.

The festive introduction, it turns out, began a slow retreat toward the same atmosphere of distrust associated with Willingham. Those open practices that were supposed to acclimate Sarkisian’s team to scrutiny gradually were closed to the public and the media. By 2012, reporters would be permitted to attend game-week practices only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

And now comes the edict, issued to reporters but also intended to trickle down to Joseph Everyday Fan, that injuries are none of your darn business. Sarkisian revealed the policy Wednesday, when he was asked about the status of starting left guard Colin Tanigawa.

“We’re not going to comment on injuries any more,” he answered. “I’m not. No one in our organization is. It’s just a competitive disadvantage for us when other teams don’t and we do, so that’s going to be the road we take.”

It’s a road well traveled these days. Sarkisian’s buddy and former USC coaching-staff colleague, Lane Kiffin, refuses to comment on practice-week injuries sustained by the Trojans. Oregon’s Chip Kelly, Stanford’s David Shaw and Washington State’s Mike Leach are similarly reticent.

The pattern is curious in the aftermath of the Penn State scandal that tarnished the legacy of the late Joe Paterno. If anything is to be learned from the most dispiriting saga in the history of American sports, it’s the necessity in making college-football programs transparent while reducing the omnipotent control of college-football coaches.

Paterno, we now know, was given too much power. And yet, even after the ignominious removal of his statue from “Happy Valley,” it’s as if coaches are power tripping at an unprecedented pace.

“We’re making the rules,” they’re saying in unison, “and if you don’t follow our rules, there will be hell to pay.”

Sarkisian is not an especially intimidating tyrant – he issued the no-talking-of-injuries-anymore policy in a voice that wasn’t confrontational – but his record at Washington, two games into Year Four, is 20-20.

On Dec. 8, 2008, Sarkisian promised the recovery from the 0-12 miasma of Willingham’s final season would “happen fast.” Aside from the Huskies’ payback victory over Nebraska in the 2010 Holiday Bowl, and two upsets of USC, the bright, young, rising star of the college coaching ranks has presided over a whole lot of mediocrity.

It’s fair to wonder if Sarkisian’s newfangled refusal to provide updates on injuries isn’t a natural reaction to the obvious: He’s got a football team, four years into his tenure, that will be fortunate to finish .500.

Sarkisian used one word Wednesday that struck me as curious. He referred to his program as an “organization.” Really? So that’s what University of Washington football has become? Not a team, not an extended family derived from a great American melting pot, but an organization?

A final thought: As Sarkisian was talking about the new policy of not talking about injuries, some kids from the UW band – they’re practicing, too – were thumping their drums 30 yards away. But I couldn’t see the drummers.

The fence to the practice field was covered. Outside the gate, a sign efficiently described Year Four of the Steve Sarkisian Era.

“Practice closed.”

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