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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,, 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 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.