It is an unfortunate byproduct of the media environment that we now find ourselves in that gossip has essentially replaced journalism, narratives have replaced news, conjecture has replaced confirmation, virality has replaced veracity, and hot takes have replaced headlines,
In an era in which a single statement can morph from an uninformed message board post into a multi-media cycle talking point from presumably credible pundits, anything that gets clicks or engagement becomes a self-fulfilling story based solely on the number of people willing to parrot it without giving it the consideration or due diligence that it so obviously requires.
This, of course, isn’t new; we have seen this painfully destructive phenomenon play itself out for decades on cable news networks covering everything from politics to entertainment to sports. However, as Ohio State fans, we are — once again — seeing it hit home with an unsuspecting player stuck in the center; only this time, it is due — at least in part — to the well-meaning, but short-sighted actions of his coach and his program.
I understand why Ryan Day has essentially closed ranks around injuries within his program, not only does it provide a strategic and tactical advantage to not disclose injuries to the public, keeping your opponent in the dark about what they might see on the field in any given game. But also, having learned lessons from the pandemic, keeping the medical information of students private is certainly something to be championed.
Under Urban Meyer, the Buckeye football program was remarkably lax when it came to discussing injuries, a fact that was no doubt appreciated by journalists and fans alike. However, since Day took over, there has been a progressive reversal in the opposite direction, each year seeing the head coach become more tight-lipped on the topic, to the point where during this past regular season, even the OSU coach himself admitted that he needed to do a better job of accurately communicating the status of players ahead of games.
There are obviously basic informational reasons for football programs to be somewhat open about injury statuses, but those are mostly unsubstantial reasons — giving beat writers information for stories or assuaging fans' curiosity. Of course, as more and more states (including Ohio on Jan. 1, 2023) legalize sports gambling, there could be calls for a uniform injury report standard like that seen in the NFL, but those considerations are neither here, nor there at this point.
How the policy of Day’s program has had the most negative impact has been on display in recent weeks with the unwarranted controversy over Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s decision not to play in the College Football Playoff. What began as entitled and unhinged “fans” voicing displeasure and conspiracy theories on social media and message boards became a national point of conversation when CBSSports and SiriusXM’s Danny Kanell popped off on Twitter and ESPN’s Todd McShay cited “NFL scouts” in claiming that the wide receiver is unequivocally healthy enough to play in New Year’s Eve’s Sugar Bowl, but has opted not to play solely to protect his draft potential.
These asinine comments were not only refuted by legitimate journalists, including The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, but Smith-Njigba’s father took exception to them as well, providing — for the first time — any substantive information about his son’s rehabilitation process.
Being w my son yesterday for his first day of rehab and seeing his limitations for myself gave me peace w our families choice to get my son healthy. Encouraging him play would be selfish and abusive. I’m at peace bc I know he’s in the right hands 4 recovery. https://t.co/WQKZtWDF65— Le Puma Noir (@MNjigba) December 7, 2022
I don’t want to spend too much time on either Kanell or McShay’s insulting audacity and lack of journalistic ethics or rigor, but anyone who has paid attention to Smith-Njigba this season knows that after getting hurt in the season opener against Notre Dame, he attempted to come back and play two weeks later against Toledo — certainly not a team you would be rushing back to play against if you preferred to sit out the entire year as Kanell accused Smith-Njigba of doing.
The receiver had two catches in that game before having to exit due to injury, and then didn’t play again for five weeks, when he tried to come back against Iowa on Oct. 22. Again, he had one catch and quickly exited the game, never to return to the field as a Buckeye again. It was shortly after that game that it was reported that his father said that Nov. 26’s game against Michigan was the “best-case scenario” for Smith-Njigba’s return... clearly this was not the best-case scenario.
As we sit here now, the Iowa game was just over seven weeks ago and the CFP semifinal in two and a half weeks is still very much in the recovery period for severe hamstring injuries.
But, instead of doing actual reporting on how bad Smith-Njigba’s injury is — at best — McShay laundered talking points from an indeterminant number of NFL scouts who almost certainly had ulterior motives in speaking to him, or — at worst — made it all up either for clicks or out of animus.
However, it is not just the likely factual inaccuracies and complete lack of consideration or nuance that McShay and Kanell approached the story with (which is becoming increasingly emblematic of how they and their colleagues across the sports media landscape operate), but what is even more frustrating and damaging is the obvious biases and venom that they directed at a player who tried to come back from this injury twice before very clearly being unable to even walk without pain. Watch that video and read those tweets again. Why do they sound like they are personally offended by JSN’s decision?
I am not a doctor, nor do I have insight into Smith-Njigba’s specific injury situation, but neither do McShay, Kannel, or even Brugler for that matter. While the former two’s lack of journalistic ethics or objectivity would still be a problem no matter the circumstance, I do think that Day’s refusal to provide even the most basic of details about players’ injuries exacerbated the situation to where Smith-Njigba became an easy target for talking heads looking to gin up attention for themselves.
Because Ohio State still has never confirmed what Smith-Njigba’s injury actually is, there’s been no ability for the public or media to accurately ascertain what the realistic expectations were for his return. So instead, it became a constant guessing game about when JSN might come back; could it be this week? Will it be for The Game? What about the playoff?
By not providing details or a realistic timetable, it allowed people to create their own narratives in their heads about what was and wasn’t going on, leading them to often have wholly outsized expectations about what was happening behind the scenes. We saw this on Twitter and message boards with fans discussing the possibility of the receiver returning on a nearly weekly basis.
However, when the reality of the situation proved to be nowhere close to what many had hoped and/or imagined, it soured some on Smith-Njigba — through no fault of his own. That rancor began to percolate as the regular season finale approached and reached a boiling point when JSN announced that he was going to focus his recovery efforts on prepping for the NFL Draft.
Whether pundits like Kanell and McShay already had their targets set on Smith-Njigba, or they picked up on the storyline from the darker corners of the Ohio State interwebz we’ll never know, but they certainly capitalized on the most selfish and cynical pockets of college football fandom by throwing raw meat into a cage populated with people who were already predisposed to think of players as entertainment products rather than human beings.
Neither Kanell’s argument that JSN wanted to skip the entire season, nor McShay’s claim that he is healthy enough to play were ever made in good faith. Both were either concern-trolling to create a bigger platform for their reductive views on how college athletes should be able to exercise autonomy over their bodies, lives, and careers, or they are simply so addicted to the rush that social media engagement or being at the center of a controversial storyline that they never considered the real-life implications that their statements could have.
I feel fairly confident that in their heart of hearts, neither Kanell, nor McShay has any actual idea about what’s going on with Smith-Njigba’s injury, but they are more than comfortable enough spouting off for kicks and giggles, knowing full well that what they say has an impact on how players are perceived, both by fans and people inside the game.
Either the pair — and others who made similar comments — never considered that they could be unfairly damaging Jaxon’s future, or they didn’t care; both would be egregious, but the latter would be unforgivable.
Some of these same people (looking at you McShay) attempted to do the same thing to Justin Fields following the 2020 season. They carried water for similar “unnamed NFL sources” who allegedly claimed that the greatest quarterback in Ohio State history was a poor leader, “didn’t love football,” wasn’t smart enough to play QB at the NFL level, and other obviously bullshit talking points designed to hurt his draft stock for one reason or another; and it very well might have had an impact since Fields dropped out of the top 10.
Justin Fields didn’t deserve that then, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba doesn’t deserve it now.
Earlier in the season, I made a case that perhaps all of the players getting hurt for the Buckeyes — and the programs’ reticence to discuss them — was actually part of a bigger plan to get guys healthy for the biggest games of the season. That clearly did not turn out to be accurate, as the injury issues proved to be a problem all season.
However, injuries happen in football, that’s a part of the game that to a certain extent is not only unavoidable but also inevitable. But what is avoidable and absolutely didn’t have to happen is Ohio State keeping things so buttoned up that it blew up in their faces and potentially hurt the NFL career of one of their most talented players in recent memory.
Gossip-mongering media members are undoubtedly the bad guys here, but I hope — in addition to a lot of on-field lessons — that Day and the program realize that protecting their injured players is about more than just keeping everything private. Sometimes, providing information that the player is comfortable sharing can actually save them more headaches than it causes.