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How the Michigan Athletic Department got caught on the catfish hook

By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 1, 2013

Like a fish caught on a hook, the Michigan Athletic Department was ensnared in accusations Friday that it deliberately hoaxed its own student athletes.

In a matter of hours, muddled language by Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon and Michigan coach Brady Hoke, rapid conclusion-jumping and one word — “catfish” — set off a flurry of media stories suggesting that the Michigan Athletic Department had lured its football players into relationships with a fake online girlfriend. Fueled by the Manti Te’o catfish scandal, a preemptive, if invasive, social media lesson from 2011 suddenly snowballed into a story that Michigan Associate Athletic Director Dave Ablauf called “totally inaccurate.”

The first report, from Kyle Rowland of the Ohio State blog Eleven Warriors, surfaced at 9:24 a.m. Friday with this tweet from a leadership conference in Toledo attended by Brandon:

Rowland and others interpreted Brandon’s remarks as admitting to a “catfish” scheme to educate Michigan’s athletes. Specifically, according to Rowland, Brandon described some athletes’ responses to the woman as inappropriate, seemingly implying contact between the two parties.

Soon, MLive.com, posted a story that seemed to confirm Rowland’s story. The report quoted Hoke at a football coaches conference in January as saying that a social media consultant “had his assistant -- she tried to talk to our guys. ‘Hey, what are ya doin’?’ Whatever it might be.”

“Some of them didn’t use their heads when communicating back and forth with that young lady.”

The story ran under the headline, “Brady Hoke explains how Michigan catfished its own players.” The catfish hoax, which gained national prominence after it was discovered Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was a victim , involves the use of a fake online persona, typically to lure a victim into a sham relationship. Neither Brandon nor Hoke used the term, according to Ablauf, who said that reports of catfishing are “jumping to conclusions that aren’t there.”

After Michigan denied the claims, Rowland posted a full story headlined, “Yes, the University of Michigan Most Certainly Catfished its Own Football Players.”

Soon, more headlines, from sources like FoxSports Detroit, USA TODAY and CBSSports.com asked, “Did Michigan ‘catfish its own players?” or proclaimed that the “Michigan social media experiment smells like catfish,” or that “Michigan AD ‘catfished’ Wolverine athletes, for their own good.”

Ablauf and a former Michigan football player who attended the meeting painted a different picture. A female consultant from the firm 180 Communications did contact Michigan student athletes with friend or follow requests in the fall of 2011, they said. She was, in fact, real. The inappropriate behavior cited by Brandon, referred to posts not associated with the consultant, including photos of partying and alcohol or vulgar statuses, according to Elliott Mealer, the former player in attendance.

After the consultant made contact with the players, the Athletic Department held separate meetings with the offense and defense.

“At one point, they put a picture up of this girl, who is a really good-looking girl, and asked, ‘Does anybody know this woman?’ ” said Mealer, a redshirt junior lineman in 2011. “Nobody raised their hands. All of the sudden they said, ‘Well, some of you claim to know her, because you accepted her as a friend on your Facebook.”

He recounted that the woman walked down the stairs from the back of the meeting room.

“The guys who recognized her started slouching in their chairs and gasping for air a little bit,” Mealer said.

That was the extent of the relationship, and the Athletic Department used the exercise to teach the team about public image and personal branding, a necessary skill in professional settings, the department said. The department repeated the presentation with the men’s and women’s basketball team in 2011 and the entire student-athlete population in 2012, Ablauf said.

Ablauf and Mealer imply interaction between the consultant and players went no further than checking on statuses, photographs and posts. The statements by Brandon and Hoke, like the one from Hoke detailing “communicating back and forth” seem to contradict this explanation.

In fact, Brandon all but called the scheme “catfishing,” in this quote from the Toledo Blade: “We took this really beautiful picture of her and she went out and baited some of our student-athletes, some of the guys into having an online relationship.

“Baited them into doing all kinds of things and saying all kinds of things.”

Subsequent reports used these remarks as evidence of a hoax. Ablauf said that logic was flawed.

“I think that the individual who reported it and the media that are picking it up are basically using, obviously, the most recent situation with Manti Te’o and they’re jumping to conclusions that aren’t there,” Ablauf said.

Michigan has had social media changes in the recent past. Starting in 2012, the Athletic Department required athletes to provide notification of all social media accounts so that they could be monitored. Later, the state of Michigan passed House Bill 5223 barring such requests. The law took effect Jan. 1, 2013.

According to Mealer, Hoke’s policy has always been “You shouldn’t put anything on Twitter or Facebook that your grandmother wouldn’t be proud of.”

He said the exercise with 180 Communications was “pretty harmless, for the most part, and a way to protect players.”

In many ways, the situation hinges on the meaning of the word catfish. In the vernacular of college football, molded by the Te’o scandal, to catfish is to dupe a victim with a girlfriend who doesn’t exist. The term actually originated in the 2010 MTV documentary, “Catfish,” which focused on Nev Schulman, who befriended an eight-year-old in Michigan and had a relationship with her sister. Neither actually existed.

“To think about the definition of ‘catfish,’ it's really anybody that is willing to take a risk, push the envelope, leave their comfort zone,” Schulman said. “The people who reach out to me are in many ways Catfish because they're looking to take a chance, take a risk, and then there’s always a chance the other person we haven't met could also be doing the same thing. (They) might not be being totally honest: We don't know until we get there and we find out.”

Whatever the definition, Ablauf said that “We don’t catfish our student athletes.”

Stephen J. Nesbitt contributed reporting


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