Earlier this month, NJ.com (the website for the NJ Advance Media collection of papers) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to try and obtain Michigan’s football roster to include in their list of Big Ten football players from New Jersey. At that point, Michigan was the only Big Team team that hadn’t released a 2017 roster, with the link on their site showing the 2016 one.
The school then said they would respond by Aug. 25, which is Friday. They’ve now responded, and argued, as per NJ.com’s Ryan Dunleavy, they cannot provide the roster as there is no roster:
The ridiculous response from Michigan was to delay for nearly two weeks and then claim: “There is no responsive document.”
Obviously, Michigan was jerking us around. The NCAA caps training camp rosters at 105 players and each school’s NCAA compliance office tracks the roster at all times for eligibility purposes.
Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has tweeted that final tryouts (for walk-on spots) can’t start before August 28, and that they’ll release a finalized roster by August 30. That’s fair in one sense, but it would be quite possible to still update the roster for 2017 and then add any final walkons later, as the other Big Ten schools do.
However, it is a defense to the FOIA request that there isn’t a 2017 roster yet. Dunleavy was smart to predict this response and include “If walk-on student-athletes are unknown or yet to be determined, I will accept a document listing all active Michigan football student-athletes on scholarship/financial aid” in his request, as that’s certainly tracked somewhere. Michigan ignored that part of the request at first, though, and when he pressed them following their denial of his FOIA, they said they’d have to look for that document:
We understood your request to be for the football program roster, and that if walk-on student athletes on the roster were unknown or yet to be determined, you would accept a partial roster.
As there is no roster, and from your message below I now understand your request to be for other types of records “listing all active Michigan football student-athletes on scholarship/financial aid,” we will consider your request clarified and will proceed with determining whether there are other types of records that may be responsive.
Is this all that consequential? Not really. It’s probably possible to almost completely construct the roster of Michigan’s scholarship athletes by carrying forward those from 2016 whose eligibility hasn’t expired and adding reported transfers. And this certainly doesn’t have the stakes of some other NCAA FOIA battles, such as the two ESPN has fought with Michigan State over records of sexual assault by athletes.
But refusing to provide a roster, or even a list of scholarship players, seems petty and unnecessary on Michigan’s part, and that fits in with the wider trend we’re seeing of college football programs trying to restrict media access.
The problem here too is that it’s secrecy for secrecy’s sake. There’s no obvious competitive advantage to be gained from not releasing this roster. It can maybe be argued that the school’s trying to get attention for their official roster release day, and trying to make any last-minute walk-ons feel included, but neither of those goals would really be stopped by a preliminary roster with a list of who’s currently there.
Instead, it feels like Michigan football is being petty because they can. And they can do that if they want to, but it is going to bring a fair bit of criticism. The question for them is if that criticism is worth it for whatever advantage they think they’re getting by withholding this roster.