The (Kyle) French Connection: Social Media and the Football Narrative

by Jon Arens 

Lost in the noise surrounding the Kyle French resignation of last week was a tiny glimpse into one of the more important cogs in the Wisconsin Football machine: the University’s athletic compliance department.  This group works in relative anonymity to ensure that any information disseminated from the athletic office is portrayed in the best possible light while also making sure it’s staff and student athletes are consistently aware of the many rules of the NCAA. While constantly tested, their value is rarely publically on display.

Kyle French.jpg

Enforcing NCAA and team rules is one thing, but for every legal or academic issue, there are countless simple transactions whose calculated management is entrusted to a few employees within the confines of department.

French losing his starting job was a very simple transaction in the grand scheme of things. Based on his on his inconsistent performance, his demotion was unsurprising and understandable. Even if a linebacker was now charged with kicking long field goals, many Badger fans applauded the move by Gary Andersen and his staff to go in a different direction.

So if this was such a simple transaction, how did I come to be writing a piece about a kicker resigning his position?

Quite simply, it is because the athletic department was not allowed the opportunity to manage the transition from the start as they normally would have been able to in any other instance. This disconnect almost became the first real controversy of the Gary Andersen era. More interesting than the actual potential controversy was actually how the storyline was created and then later ended; it shows exactly how important the unseen faces of an athletic department can be to a coaching staff.

The first word of French’s demotion was passed on to the media from his private Facebook wall late Thursday night:

Kyle French Facebook.jpg

It doesn’t take multiple readings to pick out the key phrase in that statement:

“The coaches have asked me to forgo my senior season...”

For missing field goals? Is that a thing? Seems a bit harsh, no?

Unfortunately for the athletic department, these opinions were given the chance to marinate overnight in the Twitter Easybake Oven, ensuring by morning there was a fresh #hottake ready for consumption. In the pantheon of easy to write sports columns, this French situation would have definitely medaled, especially during a bye week with few talking points.

For a coach who seems to unable to do wrong, it seemed Gary Andersen had his first self-inflicted controversy on his hands.

But then something interesting happened.

That morning, just as you could feel the winds of controversy creeping across Mendota, a simple tweet appeared from French’s private Twitter account online and was retweeted by several friends and media members, instantly negating indignant blog posts across Madison:

Kyle French Tweet.jpg

In declaring the mutual nature of decision, French had effectively closed the book on the situation and neutered a potentially damaging storyline for Gary Andersen and his staff during a bye week much better spent resting and preparing for a tough road test at Iowa.

So what exactly happened here? How did Andersen and Company dodge this missile? Well, they certainly did not do it alone.

The increasing social media presence among student athletes is very difficult for universities to monitor and control. Not all the athletes have public Twitter accounts, and little to no players have open Facebook pages. Because of this, athletic departments can be placed in an unfair footrace against the athlete when attempting to publish information coming from the department.

In this case, that is exactly what happened.  There was no way a athletic department employee could have monitored or controlled the message that the coaching staff had not forced French off the team that Thursday night. Even with a private Facebook page, that incorrect, and potentially damaging, information was immediately set free across the internet.

TO RECAP:

A kicker is told he is not getting his job back. Once that decision has been made, the kicker can do with it as he pleases. He can accept the demotion, or he can walk away from the team as is his right. Gary Andersen laid these two options out for Kyle French. Either way, the ball was in the court of the redshirt junior. He was not being kicked off the team. He was simply being told he had lost his spot.

And you know what? The decision French made is the one the vast majority of people would make if given the same circumstances.  I would have.

Scholarships do not guarantee playing time, but also do not require the athlete to unilaterally accept a demotion, should one occur. Athletes are free to leave a team if they wish at any time. The only time they can be made to leave the team against their will is if they are academically ineligible, or if they have broken a law or team rule.

But let us return to the main point. Did we need twelve columns about big, bad Gary Andersen kicking a bad kicker off his team following a rough game?

Quite simply, no, we did not.

Without the athletic department’s intervention Friday morning, Gary Andersen would have surely faced quite an awkward series of questions at his next press conference.

Sometimes it is the little things that can make the biggest differences, especially when the next opponent is “BYE” and sportswriters don’t have typical game week storylines to focus on.

But for the athletic department, there is no such thing as a little issue. Anthills become mountains quickly in the fast paced and controversial world of big time college athletics. We as fans should be thankful for the staff that helps make sure we can enjoy the games and not the drama.

Hey Gary, I think you might have some thank you cards to write this week.