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Smeltzer: Lack of Transparency Backfired on Franklin

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

A lot of this column will be critical of James Franklin, so right off the bat, I’d like to specify that what you’re about to read applies to a lot of college coaches, if not most of them.

In the NFL, teams are required to be transparent about injuries.

College football is different.

College coaches aren’t required to give any information about injuries, and as a result, many don’t. Penn State coach Franklin is one of those that wants to disclose as little information as possible. Reporters still ask about injuries, as is our job, and the routine usually goes something like this

  • Player gets hurt
  • Reporter asks Franklin about his status
  • Franklin basically says “we don’t talk about injuries” and reveals little, if anything at all.

To be clear, this isn’t an issue from a personal standpoint. I can still write an accurate article on what Franklin says about an injury regardless of how little it is, and those types of stories usually get viewers. Most of the time, Franklin keeping us in the dark is an annoyance at worst, at least from my end. I can’t speak for anybody else.

But the injury case of Joey Porter Jr. became a bit of a mess, and Franklin is at fault.

Porter, a cornerback who is expected by many to go in the first round of 2023‘s Draft, missed this past Saturday’s game against Maryland due to what we now know is appendicitis. It was an unusual, but not unprecedented medical emergency that Franklin doesn’t expect to keep Porter out for the rest of the reason. That’s about it. It wasn’t something that should have created confusion and speculation.

Here’s the lowdown. Before the Maryland game, it became apparent that Porter wouldn’t play. He didn’t participate in warmups and was dressed in sweat pants, which were pretty clear signs that he wouldn’t be a go. After Penn State’s 30-0 win, Franklin went out of his way to address Porter’s absence to end the opening statement of his postgame press conference.

“Just so you guys are aware, and there’s no gray area out there, Joey Porter was not available tonight,” Franklin said. “And that was a non-football injury situation that we’re working with. Hopefully, we’ll have Joey back soon.”

Franklin said this to clear up confusion, but ended up creating more of it.

People wondered what he meant by “non-football injury.” Some, including Nittany Sports Now, correctly figured that it meant Porter had a medical issue that didn’t take place on the football field. Others thought a “non-football injury situation” meant Porter missed the game because of something that wasn’t injury-related, and that’s where speculation began. Fans wondered if Porter was skipping the rest of Penn State’s season to prepare for the NFL draft. They figured that’d be realistic since Penn State is out of the Big Ten and College Football Playoff race.

In the opening statement of Franklin’s weekly press conference this past Tuesday, Franklin again addressed JPJ.

“There’s been some misreporting out there,” Franklin said. “And I don’t understand how that happens, but it did. So I will get into the specifics of this one, so it clears it up. Joey had appendicitis. That’s what happened.”

Franklin might not “understand how that happens,” but I think I do.

I think people speculated because they didn’t know the entire truth, and they didn’t know the it because Franklin wouldn’t give the full truth right away.

Now, whoever was “misreporting”— and Franklin didn’t specify who, nor should he have publicly— was in the wrong for doing so. The idea of Porter sitting out 1/4th of the season to get ready for the Draft, even with Penn State out of the national title race and even in this “opt-out” era of college football, didn’t make any sense, nor did the idea of Franklin suspending Porter and then feeling compelled to address him unprovoked after the  game. But the “misreporting” was made possible because Franklin wasn’t upfront. As well-intentioned as it is for coaches to want to protect their players and keep their medical information private, that strategy can backfire, and it did with Porter’s situation.

What’s particularly obnoxious is that Franklin gave no indication that he may have been at fault. Enough people “misreported” on Porter after Saturday to the point where Franklin felt the need to specify Porter’s diagnoses Tuesday. That’s a good sign that he could have done a better job explaining things initially. Apparently, Franklin doesn’t feel that way. Although he might not have been talking about media members specifically, the fact that he used the word “reported” implies that he was talking about, well, reporters and painting them out to be the villains in this case. I haven’t seen any credentialed media member “misreport” on Porter, and if that happened, shame on them. But whatever mistakes made were made possible by Franklin not giving the full truth from the get-go.

If Franklin wasn’t going to give the full truth Saturday, he at least could have phrased his announcement in a way that made more sense. It’s easy to see how “non-football injury” could come across as “not an injury,” so maybe specifically using the word “medical” somewhere would have cleared things up a little more.

A lot of college coaches would have handled the Porter situation the same way that Franklin did, Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi being one of them. That’s just the way things are. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessary. By not being upfront about Porter, Franklin opened the door for people to draw false conclusions. Yes, whoever drew those conclusions should know better.

But the bottom line is that Franklin should have known that something like this was possible. By not thinking of how a lack of transparency could go array, he unintentionally helped create the “misreporting.”

How Franklin handles injuries won’t change, and most of the time, it won’t cause any problems. It did this time, and that’s not fair to Joey Porter Jr.

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