The truth takes a walk on the Wildcat side

It’s funny how the media functions. Especially when it comes to stories in which sports, politics and power collide.

So Northwestern athletic director (full title: Combe Family Vice President for Athletics and Recreation) Derrick Gragg takes on a new position as Vice President for Athletic Strategy. The university releases a statement basically saying it was a joint agreement between school and AD, one that immediately was challenged in the media as bull, reported as Gragg being “pushed out” and “tactfully shifted aside.”

Something Gragg and the university, when asked, publicly deny. Yet, it has been believed and framed by us — the media — differently.


Could two things both be true at the same time? Maybe. Maybe it was the title (or similarities?) that made the presentation of the move not believable. Maybe it was the mentioning of NIL and the House v. NCAA settlement and not their own pending court case in their statement that made the media suspect. But the deeper unknown is: Why didn’t the media take Northwestern’s word at face value?

Maybe, as a fellow writer shared with me, we don’t trust the words the university tries to sell us because “they have not exactly been transparent about anything, but have been especially cagey in the last year or so.” Damn, truth hits. But does that automatically mean they’re not being fully truthful now? Hard to tell.

But when, as Stewart Mandel wrote in the last line of his story for The Athletic, that “booster pressure ultimately contributed to the ouster” of Gragg (yes, the word “ouster” was used) what are we to make of that? Not just the contraction from what was said by both Gragg and the university but without any follow-up or context to the reason for any “pressure” from the previously unnamed boosters as being a large part of why Northwestern is about to have a new AD.

So what do select members of the media do in situations like this, when ambiguity floats like pollen in May in the air of an ongoing, developing story? We look at the timing of it all. We look at why this is happening at this exact moment. Why is a statement by the university being released now? Why is the decision to move this person being made now? Why is this being “spun” the way that it’s being spun? By both sides. Because, as life always tells us, timing is everything.

And the timing of this suggests that while Northwestern maybe being forthright in what they are doing with the repositioning of Gragg (“created a new position” was how it was phrased by AP, “reassigns” was used by CBS Sports), something deeper than what’s between the words being said and written may be in play. Something that allows an opposite member of the media to conclude the following: At the center of everything here could be the finalizing and finishing of the most expensive stadium renovation in the history of NCAA football.

See there’s often a difference between timing and coincidence. Even when the parties involved swear that both are the same. The new $800 million Ryan Field (football stadium) rebuild, of which part of the Ryan family’s (Pat and Shirley Ryan) 2021 $480 million donation to the university will be attributed, is something Northwestern in scope has never seen or been a part of before.

Something that with Gragg’s criticized track record of his messaging and “invisibility” in the Pat Fitzgerald situation and handling of the Jim Foster situation, that could easily be offset by how under his watch and tenure after those controversies the embodiment of Northwestern athletics has been more successful than any athletic department in the Big Ten, not only by winning seven conference titles in various sports and being the only school to have their football and basketball teams win a bowl game and an NCAA Tournament game respectively, but by winning national titles in lacrosse and field hockey, that still he might not be “the right person” for the job. For them. For whatever reason.

Speculation matters.

See, the word “boosters” becomes a trigger in this. It’s a word used by someone in the media but not used at all by Northwestern or Gragg in how they decided to explain the decision they both came to. What do the “boosters” have against Gragg that the university doesn’t? What allows — at this time — the boosters or “two people briefed on the decision” to conveniently become sources in a news story when the university and
Michael Schill, the university president, didn’t make any other comments besides the ones made in their initial statement?


And while this can be looked at as a new start in the way Northwestern presented it or as a Gragg “demotion” as my colleague Steve Greenberg wrote it, what it really looks like is a power move that’s routed in the politics of the building of an over three quarters of a billion dollars stadium. That’s all coming from private money.

That’s what the timing of all of this says. That’s what neither the media or the university really want to talk about. That’s probably what’s really going on.

See, they not like us. And he not like them. But the real question is who inside Northwestern is allowing the media to tell lies about them about the lies the media feels they are telling us? V

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