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Off the record

Photo by Teresa Mathew
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By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 11, 2013

Every gate has its keepers — those with the clout to open and to unlock, but also the power to contain and restrict.

It’s a dance that plays out among spokespeople, sources and journalists every day, from the bustling press corridor of the West Wing of the White House to the tree-lined college campus.

For the gatekeepers of most organizations, celebrated news is information worth spreading, while confidential tidbits sometimes call for aversion. But for journalists, every effort to conceal is countered with a drive to uncover.

Most times, leaders have reason for much of the hush. On campus, members of Greek Life, athletic departments and administrators, as well as their spokesmen, all have a role to fulfill: They seek to uphold a brand’s name, keep strategies competitive and ensure initiatives are carefully planned.

But does secrecy — or the efforts to report it — ever go too far?

Full court press

Past the Hartwig Administration Building’s glass doors, ticket desks and stacks of newly minted team posters, an unassuming back staircase leads to one of the Athletic Department’s most influential offices.

Headed by Associate Athletic Director Dave Ablauf, the Department of Media Relations — and its 11 associate directors — carefully molds the message and image of an immensely visible, yet strategically fortified, University department.

Ablauf, who has been immersed in the inner workings of university athletic departments since his college days, emphasized the educational aspect of training student athletes to interact with the press.

“We don’t try to fill them with information because it has to be from their perspective,” Ablauf said. “The student athletes are the experts in their sport; the coaches are the expert in their sport. You want them to be able to show their personality — who they are — when they are talking to someone.”

But athletes are not taught simply by amassing experience. Each fall, the Athletic Department holds etiquette training on social media for both first-year players and their more seasoned counterparts.

Perhaps equally important is the training that occurs in preparation for the swarm of journalists student athletes often encounter. While more pertinent for sports that attract the most media attention, such as men’s football and basketball, public relations staff and coaches constantly provide their athletes with pointers and possible story angles to prep for game day interviews.

While Ablauf encourages senior leadership, such as captains, to carry a team’s message, not all information is up for grabs. Ablauf said topics such as athlete injuries, trade secrets and team strategies are particularly off limits.

“Games are won in a few plays,” Ablauf said. “It’s a few plays here and there that decide football games, basketball games, any other sporting event, and you want to maximize your opportunities to win those sporting events so you want to keep that competitive advantage, and I think that’s something that we’ve done here.”

For example, in a protocol spanning half a century, Michigan football practices have been closed to the media since Bo Schembechler began coaching in 1969.

“I think there are things you want to share and things that you don’t want to share, but I’d say we try to be as transparent as possible with the public and with the media, but there are obviously things you want to keep within the framework of your team,” Ablauf said.

However, Ablauf said technology has made it nearly impossible to keep anything secret.

“Every person in America — in one way or another — is a reporter today,” Ablauf said. “You have the means to report on anything that you want.