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Power imbalances have made it nearly impossible for college athletes to talk honestly to the media without risking their careers.

Photo: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

When I speak with a college football player on the record, I do so believing in a binary pass/fail: If I procure anything special – anything new or sensitive – it’s a success. If I don’t, if the athlete stays on script entirely throughout the process, it’s a failure. In order to succeed at my job, I need to unearth some piece of information that doesn’t belong to the public.

This process is not only difficult and disingenuous, I have come to believe it’s viewed as dangerous by the athletes themselves. If I pass, they likely fail. Never has access been so restricted at major programs. College football programs exercise ridiculous leverage over an unpaid labor force and deep finances to craft “brand messaging.” It’s the same as any large corporation.

Head coaches trying to minimize variables associate success with uniformity. Dissent doesn’t jibe in a monoculture. So, when I attempt to differentiate my reporting from my competition’s, I’m asking for the player to give me something that puts them at risk, puts that tiny keyhole promise of a maybe-one-day-possible pro career in jeopardy.

The relationship between the media and college athletes has never been particularly good. Historically it’s lacked any incentive or fairness to the player, and it has only become worse as the game has become more lucrative. As coaches demand total compliance, suppressing expression is considered acceptable practice.

On the rare occasion access is granted, it’s either via a thick veil of predetermined talking points and media coaching, or the school has confidence (via familiarity with the outlet) that unspoken rules will be adhered to. There’s an old reporter saying: “Anything they want in the paper is advertising. Anything they want out of it is news.” Accordingly, any real attempt to glean something honest - about locker room culture, about the coaches, other players or the athlete himself - puts the player at risk.

As a sport of amateurs inflated into a billion dollar industry, the preferred methodology of successful college football enterprise has been to reduce risk at all costs. Favor, power and money have been heaped at head coaches who can manage to build consistency out of the inherently inconsistent – a constantly rotating workforce of teenagers and 20 somethings, a majority of whom are black and many of whom hail from poverty.

It’s never been a secret, but now it’s hard to ignore. College football players are allowed virtually no agency in expression. Look at Iowa’s now-abandoned social media policy. Contrasted by the advances in player-first media relationships in the NBA, it’s not just restrictive, it’s inarguably a policy out of time.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but for it to be any way else college football players would need some kind of representation, some kind of organized body that could wield agency, or at least sit at the table. In a business where money calcifies anything it wants – changing a mascot or even making progress in a logical postseason format – the development of such a body seems unlikely.

It is not remarkable that Mike Norvell greatly exaggerated his “one-on-one meetings” with Florida State players. Norvell has received no official sanction, suspension, reduction in pay or loss of authority. His career will march along untouched. Moreover, the reporter who took his quote was scrutinized for taking a standing head football coach at his word in an on-the-record conversation.

That Norvell attempted the lie is what’s noteworthy, because CFB’s structural imbalance could make something that ludicrous - claiming you spoke one on one with 80 odd human beings when you certainly did not - possible. In other words, he thought he could get away with it.

Fifty years ago he certainly would have. Even ten. Even five years ago he would’ve. It’s not that social media, where Marvin Wilson chose to speak, is a game changer. It’s that (without asking him) Wilson maybe saw the new liberties social media has afforded pro athletes. They manage their brands, not the teams who pay them. They control their own communication now. Sometimes this is done to their personal benefit without facts, no different than what franchises and leagues have done for years.

It’s worth mentioning that Wilson is a senior, a team captain, and is very good at his position on a team with a first-year head coach under a mandate to win immediately. If there’s any agency afforded to college football players, Wilson would have it. We have yet to see a freshman fighting up the depth chart speak out. If real progress comes from these events, it will take years to measure. With the height of the walls around player culture in college football programs, it’s hard to establish any context to measure that change. I think it’s safe to assume that if these incidents are the last time we hear about these issues, nothing changed.

Maybe Wilson just finally had enough. I don’t know. I know that what he did was something I can’t really recall - as an active CFB player with a realistic pro future, he risked potential blackballing, internal issues and the deadly “anonymous reports” character defacement we’ve seen from coaches and scouts. He did this to express 1. That his coach was lying and 2. To assert his own complete identity as a human being.