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Thursday Thoughts: On rumors and our responsibility, and Florida-LSU fallout

Let's clear the air.

Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The cowardice of calumny

Did you hear that rumor? That one from this week about that one star player getting suspended/injured? You probably did. Did you investigate it? If you did, you should probably have worked from "This is bullshit" rather than "Is this true?"; it's way easier to wade through the cesspool of crap that college football news has become by being skeptical rather than hopeful or gullible.

Calling what's transpired this week "reporting" is unfair to the form, in fact: This has been a week in which fans have apparently gone from gentle trolling to outright slander. Florida State fans apparently started a rumor about a Florida defensive player on Monday night, which begat a rumor about a Georgia offensive player on Monday night, and another one about a different Georgia player on Tuesday, and a rumor about a Florida State offensive player on Wednesday.

To be very clear: These rumors all appear to be fabrications created out of whole cloth. To be more direct: They're malicious lies spread by fools, and I think it's relatively likely they could qualify as slander if prosecuted as such.

I'm not using any of these players' names in this post because I think it's profoundly unfair to those players (and to their families, who have to read lies from out of the blue) to give any life to these unsubstantiated rumors. The best means of combating slander is to either thoroughly report out the rumor — impossible in this case, and in most involving rumors in college football, because of the labyrinthine warren of message boards and Twitter accounts that serve as the sources for these lies — or to starve it of the Internet oxygen that is attention, hoping that fire cannot survive in a vacuum, and will die out before it spreads.

That's why, when a commenter joined Alligator Army on Tuesday, then posted multiple FanPosts propagating the rumor about Florida in question here at Alligator Army, then seemingly rushed to Facebook to get them out in the world under the Alligator Army name, I hid those posts as swiftly as I could. Visiting either URL now gives a 404 error to anyone without editorial privileges here.

Few things about college football are worse than how it facilitates the spread of unchecked misinformation on the Internet.

I hid the posts (instead of deleting them), because it's my understanding that there's no substantive difference between the two options except that one archives them for me to reference. Hiding them, in other words, allows me to tell you that the text of those posts sounded like out-and-out trolling to me: "The buzz has been created by the anti-gators in Tallahassee who do talk to folks with knowledge in Gainesville," that commenter wrote in the first post. "Apparently this is striking a nerve of truth as a prior post on this very strong rumor was eliminated from this site," the second post read, in part; it continued, asserting "There unfortunately appears to be too much smoke for there to be no fire."

I'm pretty sure that's a troll trying to make lies sound like truths with smart-ass "The Man is trying to suppress the truth!" horseshit, in case the total lack of substantiation of these rumors wasn't a clue.

That these rumors caught the wind at all owes something to the nature of FanPosts. They're user-submitted content, and they show up on the right rail of the Alligator Army home page unless I (or another person with editorial privileges) sees and edits them, and they get shared with the Alligator Army logo on Facebook and Twitter.

User-submitted, of course, does not uniformly mean "bad": Some FanPosts, like the one Fellows wrote about Florida's QBs this week and the one Gavin Hawkins wrote last week on another bit of dumbness, are strong work. I edited both of those pieces, posted both of them to the official Alligator Army Facebook page, and placed the former in our front page layout. I'm more or less fine with at least spreading the ideas therein, though I don't necessarily endorse them entirely.

Some FanPosts, like the ones posted Tuesday and the spam we've irregularly gotten over the years, are obviously not things I endorse, nor postings that I think should be tolerated for more than moments at Alligator Army.

And yet: Whomever did originally post those FanPosts got them propagated swiftly enough (the first one was up for just over three hours; the second one lived for under 90 minutes) prior to me removing them that they've apparently been shared on Facebook hundreds of times. And because of that, I've had to answer questions about those posts, which I did not write and do not stand by, repeatedly, and deal with stultifyingly stupid charges about "spread(ing) rumors for clicks."

I'm confident that anyone who has read the actual content on this site for more than maybe 10 minutes realizes that "spreading rumors for clicks" is just about diametrically opposite from what I and other writers here try to do. (And, frankly, we don't always succeed in that regard! But we do try.)

When bullshit floats out into the ether under our name, however, I can't be sure that all of the people who are seeing it are familiar with Alligator Army, and so the work I and a slew of talented writers have done here means nothing to people who see either a) posts under the Alligator Army banner that I did not write, solicit, endorse, or tolerate or b) posts under the Alligator Army banner "mysteriously" deleted.

That is a profoundly unfair situation, I think, for us.

So, for the first time in a long while, I've re-instituted a one-day probation period for new commenters. I've wanted to allow people to sign up for Alligator Army and leave comments immediately because I like allowing new readers to respond to article that might be their first ever at Alligator Army, but it's worth instituting a delay to reduce or eliminate abuse of the privilege of posting FanPosts that comes along with it. (And it might also prevent a fair bit of the drive-by trolling, as a side benefit.)

I've also tweaked the disclaimer that appeared underneath FanPosts. It used to be the simple "Please be kind and use good grammar." It now reads: "FanPosts are written by members of the Alligator Army community, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, editorial judgment, or standards of Alligator Army or SB Nation."

It's my hope that these measures, and this explanation, will help tamp down on the propogation of rumors from Alligator Army. But I'd be a fool to think rumor-mongering, and trolling, and gloating over lies being met by repugnant ugliness, won't continue, no matter what I do; too many people use the lack of accountability for statements made online as an excuse to make ones that they simply shouldn't.

So I'm going to do what I always try to do: Strive to produce good work, and sound reporting and aggregation, with copious sourcing and attribution, and care taken to get things right rather than get things out. There is darkness to curse, of course, but there will always be candles to light.

And in the interest of lighting candles, let's clear up some muddy waters.

Florida needed a backup kicker

Florida making a public show of its search for a walk-on kicker, especially during a bye week, is, I think, a fairly cool thing: Only fans predisposed to pretend that conducting such a search thanks mostly to injury is evidence that Florida is "a mess," or something, will find it more worthy of lampooning than legitimate interest, and I think the creation of a narrative around crowdsourcing a kicker is a positive thing for the Gators.

I also think it's very cool to have more than 200 sign-ups for the opportunity, and several dozen show up — clearly, there was significant interest from the student body in this position, and probably enough to net at least a few quality candidates for the role.

Let's be clear, though: The role up for grabs, and the one that Dallas Stubbs reportedly claimed, is almost certainly backup kicker.

Jim McElwain confirmed Wednesday that kicker Jorge Powell, who had performed every kickoff and place kick since the Gators' game against Tennessee, is "obviously done" for 2015, after suffering what appeared to be a serious injury on a kickoff at LSU. That pressed Austin Hardin, who has struggled with his own injuries (while seemingly dwelling in McElwain's doghouse) in 2015, back into service.

And Hardin was fine against the Tigers. He made all three extra points he took, and boomed all four of his kickoffs for touchbacks, including one 70-yarder after a delay of game penalty. Florida did end one drive at LSU's 35, rather than attempt a long field goal, but the Gators were down by a touchdown at that juncture, and I doubt they would've kicked even with a healthy Powell; Hardin's leg strength is his standout asset, and certainly considered better than Powell's.

If Hardin was healthy enough to go on short notice that night, it's a safe assumption he'll be healthy enough to go against Georgia. But Florida needed a backup plan in case he's not, or in case he gets injured in the flow of a game, and that's where a tryout to get a third kicker on the roster makes sense.

That may dismay many who are fed up with Hardin's own inconsistency: After recovering from a 2013 campaign on which he went a dismal 4-for-12 on field goals with a 7-for-10 showing in 2014, Hardin struggled again in 2015, going 3-for-6 before being replaced by Powell, and also missing an extra point. Still, he should have more trust from Florida's coaches on Halloween in Jacksonville than a player they met literally 10 days prior, and he's obviously going to have years more experience.

I couldn't see a fairway-green walk-on unseating Hardin without a truly extraordinary fortnight of work, and I didn't think former walk-ons Stubbs and Brooks Abbott — both among the players who apparently made a final round of competition on Wednesday, but both also not players who had been on Florida's roster under McElwain — were likely to do so, either.

So no, Florida is not "a mess" by virtue of looking for a kicker: It's just looking for depth. Hopefully, the Gators found that on Wednesday in Stubbs.

If nothing else, though, Florida did something subtle and beautiful on Wednesday as part of those tryouts: At least two female students were among the prospects in attendance, and the Gators made sure to document at least one of them....

...without bragging about it. It shouldn't be news for a woman to want to play football, especially at a position where her skills could very well be largely on par with men's skills, and silently observing diversity is hardly making news.

I'm also with Spencer Hall on this point:

We hope a lady kicker makes it and kicks the game-winner against an undefeated Florida State team to melt #FSUTwitter's soul forever. I would enjoy that.

LSU's trick play was totally legal

The frustration of being had by Les Miles on LSU's fake field goal last Saturday led many Florida fans to assert, or wonder about, the illegality of the play itself, by virtue of holder Brad Kragthorpe's knee being down at the time of his throw — really, it was a pitch, as the play was officially recorded as a run — to kicker Trent Domingue.

This was also a popular complaint after LSU pulled a very similar trick play on the Gators in 2010. Both times, though, fans were wrong: As GatorZone's Scott Carter noted earlier this week, the NCAA's official rulebook (here's the 2015 version in a PDF) provides an exception that allows such trick plays to occur:

Ball Declared Dead

ARTICLE 3. A live ball becomes dead and an official shall sound his whistle or declare it dead:

b. When any part of the ball carrier's body, except his hand or foot, touches the ground or when the ball carrier is tackled or otherwise falls and loses FR-58 Rule 4 / Ball in Play, Dead Ball, Out of Bounds possession of the ball as he contacts the ground with any part of his body, except his hand or foot [Exception: The ball remains alive when an offensive player has simulated a kick or at the snap is in position to kick the ball held for a place kick by a teammate. The ball may be kicked, passed or advanced by rule] (A.R. 4-1-3-I)

We can argue about whether that rule is confusing, given how it seemingly contradicts the rule governing live/dead ball calls in college football: A knee being down means the ball-carrier is down for good during a live play. We can argue that the exception shouldn't exist, or that the rule should be rewritten, but that just sounds like sour grapes from fans burned by a fake field goal, and it's a poor reason to outlaw fake field goals as a whole. I'd even argue that there's a very simple solution to both this problem and the NFL's convoluted process of determining a catch: Have the NCAA adopt the NFL's rules governing possession, allowing players to go to the ground without necessarily being down, and have the NFL adopt college football's catch rules, allowing one foot being in to qualify a play as a catch.

But what we can't argue is that the officials got that play wrong: They called it according to the NCAA rulebook.

Leonard Fournette's "punch" was probably fine, too

Florida fans were also upset about Leonard Fournette delivering a stiff-arm in the form of a "punch" to Marcus Maye's helmet on Saturday.

You can see that play in the two videos below.

First, the word "punch" only appears once in the NCAA rulebook, and only in the context of a player punching one's own chest while standing over another player, which is grounds for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting. There's no specific prohibition on players punching other players, which seems odd, until you realize that "strike" is the NCAA's preferred parlance.

The NCAA's rule on fighting would also seem to exempt Fournette, for whom that vicious stiff-arm was clearly related to football (emphasis mine):

ARTICLE 1. Fighting is any attempt by a player, coach or squad member in uniform to strike an opponent in a combative manner unrelated to football. Such acts include, but are not limited to:

a. An attempt to strike an opponent with the arm(s), hand(s), leg(s) or foot (feet), whether or not there is contact

The only ruling in the NCAA rulebook regarding personal fouls committed by a ball carrier is slightly less clear, but I also think it doesn't apply (emphasis mine):

Striking Fouls and Tripping — ARTICLE 2

II. A1, a ball carrier, strikes tackler B6 with his extended forearm just before being tackled. RULING: Personal foul. Penalty — 15 yards. Enforce from the previous spot if foul occurs behind the neutral zone. Disqualification if flagrant. Safety if the foul occurs behind Team A’s goal line.

My reading of that rule, and especially that italicized section, suggests to me that the personal foul would be for an intentional strike with the forearm that is not part of the stiff-arm; Fournette finishing his stiff-arm with a flourish would not qualify.

However: The rules on the books could also use some clarity on whether a ball carrier can contact an opponent's helmet. Rule 9-3-2 (a) would seem to permit stiff-arms: "The ball carrier or passer may use his hand or arm to ward off or push opponents." Rule 9-1-2 (a), though, would seem to suggest that warding can't include to the head: "No person subject to the rules shall strike an opponent with the knee; strike an opponent’s helmet (including the face mask), neck, face or any other part of the body with an extended forearm, elbow, locked hands, palm, fist, or the heel, back or side of the open hand; or gouge an opponent."

And whether that latter rule really does apply to stiff-arms by ball carriers or not — I think it does? — the NCAA could do itself some good by clarifying that, because my understanding from watching dozens of football games every fall is that ball carriers can stiff-arm as necessary, including to the facemask and helmet, to avoid being tackled.

Every coach turns in plays to the SEC

Finally, arguably the most misguided hubbub over a misunderstanding this week (which is saying a lot!) came from fans miffed by Les Miles sending plays to the SEC offices for review after Saturday's game.

Miles gave extensive comments on that decision on Monday, specifically about Fournette being driven back after referees whistled plays dead: "I want to look into that. I'm not trying to get a call; I just want to take care of my player." And earlier this week, The (Baton Rouge) Advocate's Scott Rabalais wrote a column about refs not protecting Fournette, in which he also relayed Fournette's claim that he was poked in the eye by a Florida player at the bottom of a pile (but not the back's explanation that "You can’t really tell who it is since there’s six people on top of you") and explained a greater context of Fournette getting his fair share of rough stuff this year.

I think LSU has a legitimate gripe with referees' reluctance to be more firm with Florida on some of those plays involving Fournette, and on at least two other plays: An apparent missed block in the back by Chris Thompson helped spring Antonio Callaway's punt return, and Keanu Neal quite clearly made contact with an LSU player while both were out of bounds. And I think it's undeniably true that Gators players have, by being thorough on finishing tackles and standing runners up to stop their forward progress, made contact with and driven back more runners than Fournette after whistles this year.

But Miles sending those plays to the SEC isn't him snitching on Florida, or being a sore winner: It's a coach sending plays to the league office to review for missed calls and potential interpretation down the line. And Miles is far from alone in doing that.

Jim McElwain almost certainly sent Kentucky's late hit on Will Grier that did not draw a flag to the SEC, too — but McElwain also said earlier this year that he would not discuss what plays he sent to Birmingham. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel sent two plays in after the Tigers' loss at Georgia, and told reporters the SEC said calls on both plays were incorrect; Miles declined to share the SEC's response to his submissions, too, so Pinkel actually went further than Miles did, and because Georgia's on a bye and isn't trying out kickers, that's somehow still a storyline as of today.

To be clear: Getting worked up over this is stupid. Even the best refs miss calls, as we well know, and I think coaches have a responsibility to help refs (and the SEC, which governs and employs them) get better by providing their feedback. Frankly, if a coach isn't submitting plays, I think that coach is probably abdicating an important duty; the only difference in what coaches do on this front is how they go about doing it, and what, specifically, they're complaining about. (Complain about something you did first, as Alabama did in September, and you deserve some chuckles.)

We should not be so blind in our rooting that we can't see events on the borderline involving our teams as penalty-worthy offenses, or at least reasonably clarification-worthy. We should not let fan be shorthand for fool.