The dangers of making an assumption

Published 11:40 pm Monday, March 9, 2009

To alter a Freudian phrase, sometimes a column is just a column. Other times, it’s the flaming cigar that ignites the brush fire.

I recently wrote a column that dealt with the NCAA book scandal at the University of Alabama, but I made one mistake in that writing. I made an assumption.

The majority of my information for the column came from an Associated Press release that was posted on Thursday at 6:27 p.m. It stated, “Alabama suspended five football players for four games,” and went on to state “The names of the football players and other athletes and sports involved were blacked out in documents made public Thursday because of federal privacy laws.”

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That’s where I made my mistake. This article was the first I remembered hearing of the textbook scandal, and I made an assumption — based on what I read — that the suspensions were upcoming. That assumption caused me to ask what games they would be suspended for, and if missing the first four games in 2009 would be sufficient. I also said the suspended players would be identified by their absence.

Because I did not intensively research the initial incident and the university’s self-imposed sanctions further, but rather delved into the terms of Alabama’s 2002 probation, I did not realize that the five players were identified and suspended shortly following their actions in 2007. After realizing my error, I edited the column to exclude the erroneous information.

For that, I profusely apologize. I made the mistake of assuming the self-imposed sanctions laid out in the news release were imminent, not already passed.

My goal is not to hurt, not to degrade and not to maim. Instead, my goal is to look at a situation, analyze it to the best of my ability, gather as much information as possible and write an unbiased piece.

For the most part, Thursday’s web-exclusive column met those goals. The violations are potentially major and began at a time that makes Alabama eligible for the repeat offender label. The university acknowledges that the players knowingly took advantage of the Supply Store, but says they did not know they were breaking NCAA laws.

But, one bad apple spoils the bushel, and mine was spoiled because I did not gather as much information as I could on the self-imposed sanctions that took place in 2007. Instead, I relied largely on the information found in the AP release.

Again, for that, I apologize.

I have no agenda against any college in this state. There are none that I favor over others, much less a cluster that I hold above one. I am just a sports writer giving my opinion based on my view of a situation. When I give my opinion, I usually turn over every known rock for any relevant piece of information. On this occasion, I did not.

This is a business in which there is no margin for error. My mistake was one that easily could have been avoided with one more piece of information. Instead, I flung a flaming cigar toward the forest.

It is a mistake that will not be repeated. For any one that my oversight offended, I apologize. My intent was not to smear the university, but to shed light on what the violations can mean in the eyes of the NCAA, particularly given the time frame in which they occurred.