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Our lips are sealed following Sunday’s open practice

Ken Fowler | Wednesday, August 29, 2007

You might be looking for a practice report from Sunday’s “Student Appreciation Night” in this space.

Sorry to disappoint.

Sure, I could tell you how many plays Jimmy Clausen ran, out of what formations with what offense and against which defense, but that wouldn’t be wise. The Observer was told not to publish any account of the practice or else it would face “serious” repercussions.

That policy is understandable from the football team’s standpoint.

It was June 6 when Charlie Weis announced that he was moving fall camp from West Quad to Cartier Field and that he would open one practice for local fans, one for professors and one for students.

Most students didn’t get back to campus until Saturday or Sunday, so their open practice was Sunday night – within a week of the team’s first game and, we were told, too close to kickoff to run a meaningless, bland training session.

But when Weis said he would open a practice for students, he hadn’t yet indicated his plan to not announce a starting quarterback before the Georgia Tech game.

So Weis had his predicament.

Thinking ahead to the open practice, Weis probably figured that students would be able to determine the starter by watching two hours of time on the field. Last week, he told WNDU that he had already decided on a starter and the chosen quarterback would be dumb not to know he is starting. Still, Weis doesn’t want Georgia Tech to know, and that means he needs to control the flow of information.

Sunday’s practice was closed to the media, but The Observer’s four football beat writers are in a unique situation of being students and media members. So Brian Hardin, the team’s director of media relations, let us know that we could go to practice. But, in not so many words, he said we could lose our media access if we reported on what happened at practice.

I understood that position. Any objective observer would admit that Weis’ strategy of not announcing the starting quarterback is a significant advantage for the Irish against Georgia Tech (and possibly Penn State on Sept. 8). Any opponent who must waste time studying one or two extra quarterbacks is far less efficient than one who knows the starter. Claiming the secrecy doesn’t help Notre Dame in any way, as several national columnists have, is flat-out wrong.

But I asked Hardin the obvious question: What about the message boards? I figured students would be posting about what they saw immediately afterward – and most students are not media representatives in their spare time and cannot be threatened with limited access.

Hardin said Weis probably would ask the students not to blog or post about the practice. But Weis didn’t, and the message boards filled up.

Therein lies The Observer’s predicament.

The Observer could look like a shill if we pretended as if Sunday night’s practice was closed and the muzzle was on. Truth is, there were nearly 2,000 people who saw the two-hour practice, and at least a dozen who gave accounts of varying insight that weren’t quite snap-by-snap but nonetheless detailed. That’s not quite a small, off-the-record audience.

If Weis wanted to keep the happenings of the practice out of public consumption, he needed to keep it closed to all students. The post-practice Internet updates were predictable. And they demonstrate why having an “open” session while threatening a media outlet not to report on it is, well, absurd.

But media credentials are a privilege, and we accepted the team’s terms. If we had not, we might lose the chance to serve our readers in more important ways in the future. But it is also important to inform our readers – on campus and off – why we are not reporting something that should be covered.