Another Brick In The Wall: Air Force Football and The Media

Jake SchallerContributor ISeptember 25, 2009

KNOXVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 9:    The Air Force Academy Falcons offense huddles just before scoring their final touchdown against the University of Tennessee Volunteers on September 9, 2006 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tennessee won 31-30.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

A new media edict was handed down on Wednesday by Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun.

“If a player doesn’t finish a game due to injury, he will not be available to the media after the game or the following week on Monday and Tuesday,” the academy stated in an e-mail (that means injured players won’t be available for at least an entire week, as Mondays, Tuesdays and after games are the only times players are available to the media).

This, no doubt, is a reaction to Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson’s interview on Tuesday in which he—heaven forbid—spoke candidly and truthfully about his ankle injury. Apparently, Jefferson (who suffered the injury on national television last weekend, for all to see) saying his ankle is “somewhere between 60 and 80” percent has given San Diego State, Saturday’s opponent, some sort of decided schematic advantage.

The rule is just the latest in a series of drastic changes Calhoun has made to his program’s media policy—from limiting the availability of players, to limiting when and about what assistant coaches can speak, to making freshmen off limits except for after games in which they play, to forbidding media to write about “anything that happens” at practices. The changes have swung Calhoun’s program from one of the most open and media-friendly in the country to on par with some of the most clandestine. It’s been a drastic, bizarre and ultimately puzzling change.

Quick disclaimer:

I understand that this is Calhoun’s program, so he can do whatever he wants with his media policies.

And, as I said when the initial policy changes were released in the summer, I’m not looking for sympathy. I’ll find a way to write stories no matter the restrictions, and I’ll be just fine. Besides, nobody’s going to shed any tears for a sports writer because it’s hard to feel bad for someone who watches football for a living.

However, there are several things that must be said about the new policies:

One, they affect a reporter's ability to provide information about a team. Information fans of other programs—like Navy, for instance—receive from the folks covering their teams.

Two, they put members of the media in an awkward situation. Our job is to report the news. So what do we do when we see an injured player not practicing (but can’t write that) and the head coach won’t comment on said player? We’re just supposed to ignore something so newsworthy? After all, our responsibility is to provide information for our readers and/or viewers, not to protect the team we’re covering.

And third—and I know most will say this is just the reaction of a grumpy scribe—I think the changes adversely affect Calhoun’s image.

For the last two seasons, Calhoun was candid and open about his program. He didn’t hesitate to tell you who was playing well and who wasn’t. And he wasn’t afraid to tell you who might not be able to play in the upcoming game because of an injury.

I respected the candor, and if I was a fan of Air Force, I’d have loved it. It was as if Calhoun was saying, “Here’s my team, and this is who we’re bringing to the battle. We’ve got nothing to hide. Stop us if you can.”

Now, I understand coaches will leave no stone unturned when it comes to trying to win games. And Calhoun has said that injury information affects the way a coaching staff will game plan. The Falcons’ plan for San Diego State last year, he said, changed when they found out there was a good chance the Aztecs’ quarterback would not play.

But come on. Did that really turn the game?

And is Calhoun really saying that an opposing coach is going to base large parts of his game plan on what he reads in The Colorado Springs Gazette or The Denver Post?

Look at it this way: If you were a coach, and you read in the newspaper that covers your upcoming opponent that the opponent’s quarterback was doubtful, would you totally ignore that player in your preparation? Would you devise a game plan as if he wasn’t going to be there?

(Answer: No. You wouldn’t).

I tried to get Calhoun to agree to a compromise: If we can’t write that, say, a key player is wearing a red jersey in practice and is dragging his injured foot around in a protective boot, then can he at least make a comment on said player? Can he at least say the player is “questionable” or “doubtful” or “probable?”

Nope. Calhoun refused to do it.

That seemingly innocuous piece of information, in Calhoun’s mind, could potentially swing the competitive balance of the game.

And maybe he’s right. He’s the guy with 19 victories in just more than two seasons, so it’s tough to argue with him. Though it’s interesting to note the Falcons won 17 games his first two years without the restrictions.

Anyway, the thing about these kinds of policies is they reek of desperation. They are the kinds of policies a coach coming off a 2-10 season would implement in a last, desperate attempt to fight off circling vultures. But Calhoun is at just about the opposite end of the spectrum from a coach on the hot seat.

So why be this petty and paranoid?

Calhoun—unlike some Air Force coaches, and to his eternal credit—refuses to use the rigorous academic workload and military obligations of cadets as excuses for not winning games. During his first two years injury information fell under the same umbrella. Not anymore.

By the way, San Diego State’s leading rusher, Brandon Sullivan, is “definitely out,” of Saturday’s game, Aztecs coach Brady Hoke told the San Diego Union-Tribune, because of a second-degree sprain of his medial collateral ligament.

If Air Force wins on Saturday, it won’t be because the coaching staff knows that.