Justify, Accelerate, Horse of the Year, and Unfair Conundrums

A few days ago, top-notch turf writer and all-around good guy Jeremy Balan attempted to get a constructive dialogue going about Justify, Accelerate, and the voting for Horse of the Year. As most such attempts do, this went haywire quickly, with many respondents on Twitter unable to engage in basic discourse without resorting to tactics often seen during elementary school recess (seriously, folks, we’re better than this).

It’s no secret that I’m passionate about what I believe in when it comes to this issue. I respect Accelerate and what he accomplished this season, but I firmly believe an undefeated Triple Crown winner trumps anything any other thoroughbred could do in a single season. As such, when it comes time for me to submit my Eclipse Award ballot, Justify will earn my Horse of the Year vote.

I understand that others disagree with me on this, and I even get a few of the arguments. Justify didn’t run after the Belmont, and in the back half of the year, Accelerate captured three Grade 1 races (including the Breeders’ Cup Classic). Justify never raced against older horses, and this year’s crop of 3-year-olds (which looked promising at the start of the season) fizzled as the months went by.

However, I can’t help but feel like Justify is paying for something else. Let’s head to Peabody and Sherman’s WABAC Machine and travel all the way back to 2015.

mr-peabody-and-sherman

No horse had won racing’s Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and the sport had suffered through several agonizing close calls. Silver Charm never saw Touch Gold. Real Quiet was nosed by Victory Gallop (and may have been taken down had the photo gone the other way). Smarty Jones was several hundred pounds overweight, with half of the riders in the field ganging up on him before Birdstone picked up the pieces.

Out of the darkness came American Pharoah, a four-legged wrecking ball that had demolished two overmatched fields in Arkansas ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Despite being kept extremely wide on the first Saturday in May, he prevailed over Firing Line. A torrential downpour couldn’t stop him two weeks later in the Preakness, and the next month, he made the Belmont Park grandstand shake.

(Relevant tangent: I get a lot of arguments in favor of Accelerate, but the “we’re emphasizing the Triple Crown too much” argument needs to go the way of the dodo bird. In 2015, many of us were wistfully wondering if we’d ever see a Triple Crown winner again, and some in the industry openly wondered if the sequence needed to be changed to make it easier. We’ve gotten two since then, good for a mere 13 in a century, and suddenly it doesn’t matter as much? This is inconsistent at best and flat wrong at worst.)

American Pharoah was instantly revered as a legend. It didn’t matter what he did after that, or who he beat, or that he lost the Travers, or that Beholder scratched ahead of a highly-anticipated showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Because he accomplished something no equine had in nearly four decades, the public was grateful for his presence and didn’t ask questions.

Justify got no such favorable treatment. It was only a three-year gap between Triple Crown winners, and the same guy who trained the last one got to do it again. Even considering Justify’s defiance of the Apollo Curse, his journey to racing’s pantheon seemed…almost ho-hum by comparison. As impressive as it was, there was a hint of, “we saw this movie three years ago, and that one was better.”

For purposes of this exercise, let’s assume American Pharoah either never existed or retired after the Arkansas Derby. In this alternate reality, Firing Line wins the Kentucky Derby, Tale of Verve wins the Preakness, and Frosted wins the Belmont. Racing continues to be without a Triple Crown winner until 2018, when Justify goes from an unraced maiden to the horse that snapped a 40-year drought in less than five months.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that such a scenario would make Justify one of the most beloved horses in history. He’s not seen this way because another Bob Baffert trainee won the same series of races while Justify was nursing.

I submit that such a conundrum is unfair to the horse’s legacy, and that this perception has altered the way some are approaching Horse of the Year balloting. If you’re more impressed by Accelerate’s resume given his year-long campaign and number of Grade 1 victories, I respect that (though I’ll exercise my right to amicably disagree). If you’re voting for Accelerate because of a distorted perception of the Triple Crown, its degree of difficulty, and what another horse did several years ago, I find that ridiculous.

Can Horse Racing Grow Without Passionate People?

Over the past 30 years, your fearless scribe has come to one unmistakable conclusion: I’m cursed.

It’s a curse that probably doesn’t sound like a heavy burden, but it’s one I’ve had to deal with all my life. You see, my mind doesn’t stop. When I get stressed, or frustrated, or whatever the case may be, I see things in weird ways and use the written word as a way to cope.

Sometimes, this works. At least one executive at The Saratogian wanted my written weekly column gone in late-2012, and it took a convergence of two bizarre happenings to save it. The first came when former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed a series of unspeakable acts, and his one-time teammate at the University of Maine, fellow Kingston High School graduate Andrew Downey (to whom I still owe a debt I cannot repay), agreed to talk to me. The second came when my grandfather passed away and I wrote one of the things I’m most proud of (I’d link to it, but The Saratogian changed website providers several years ago and lots of content was lost).

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work. At least one track probably still has a bounty on my head for something I wrote for Horse Racing Nation in 2014, and I know for a fact several industry heavyweights have taken plenty of exception to things I’ve said and/or done. What I’m writing now is probably going to go in the latter pile, but this is an issue I feel incredibly strongly about, and one that I’ll always fight for.

It’s been a tough month or so for a lot of people in the horse racing industry. The genesis of this column came after a visit to Los Angeles last week, where a lot of people (including several of much higher status in the racing business than yours truly) came together to say goodbye to Lou Villasenor. Lou was one of the most visible front-side employees at Santa Anita for three decades. He worked for both HRTV and Santa Anita’s simulcast department, and he was one of the good guys. As Kurt Hoover said in a post-funeral gathering, if you had a problem with Lou, something was wrong with you.

Lou was a sweet, kind, passionate man who loved what he did and was loved by the people he worked with. If everyone in racing attacked what they did for a living with the zest and vigor that Lou did, the industry would be a much better place.

The problem is, it seems as though we’ve decided that people with this sort of passion are expendable.

Before I go any further, I need to point out that this isn’t about me. As many of you know, my position with DRF was transitioned to part-time in September, and I left that position in November. However, what I’m writing is much more about what others in the industry have had to go through over the last few weeks.

Michael Wrona’s abrupt dismissal from his post at Santa Anita came as a shock to the horse racing world. He won an unconventional contest for the job in 2016 following the semi-retirement of Trevor Denman, and over the past two and a half years, he called races in Arcadia with professionalism, flair, and enthusiasm.

I count new Santa Anita announcer Frank Mirahmadi as a friend. Whether Frank knows it or not, he did a lot for me during a brief time where we were both employed by TVG, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Santa Anita is his dream job, and I know he’ll do great work (as he has in each of his prior career stops). However, I feel terrible for Wrona, who, by all indications, was completely blindsided by Santa Anita’s decision to not renew his contract.

(By the way, if you want an example of how classy Wrona is, here’s one: Last Wednesday, during what had to be one of the worst weeks of his life, he suited up and went to Lou’s funeral. Michael Wrona doesn’t know me, nor does he have any reason to be reading this, but that was a first-class move from a man whose character has been vouched for by many others elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only rough news from Santa Anita. When Wrona was dismissed, word leaked out that several members of XBTV’s production staff were also shown the door. This included several former HRTV colleagues of mine, such as Aaron Vercruysse, Richard Migliore, and Michael Canale (among others). Additionally, following news that several of Santa Anita’s graded stakes races were downgraded, longtime racing secretary Rick Hammerle (who trainer Bob Baffert gave the utmost credit to for filling the allowance race Justify won prior to the Santa Anita Derby) was let go as well.

They’re all fantastic, talented people, and they’re too gifted to be unemployed for very long if they don’t want to be. Furthermore, none of them need me to vouch for any of that, and I’m sure at least one of them wishes I hadn’t (sorry, guys; it’s my website, and I like each of you very much!).

The reason I’m writing about this now, though, is pretty simple: In a time where horse racing needs to be focused on creating passionate fans in order to ensure the sport’s continued survival, why is it that we’re making a habit of kicking out passionate employees?

This isn’t solely a Santa Anita issue. As racing has slowly dwindled in popularity, no circuit or outlet has been immune from this trend. The folks from Thoroughbred Times have horror stories about the publication’s shutdown in 2012 (and the lean years that preceded it). TVG had a highly publicized round of layoffs in 2011, and had a less public round in 2017. Analyst Jason Blewitt, whose work very few have ever criticized, was let go from NYRA for reasons that remain unclear (though, thankfully, he’s since latched on at Gulfstream Park).

In order for handle and revenue to grow, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. Forgive me, but this doesn’t strike me as a complex concept. Beer festivals, food trucks, and the like are nice (and one could argue that they drive attendance and look great on social media), but those don’t teach anything that would make good players out of mediocre players or indulge the curiosities of someone making his or her first trip to the track.

I’ve learned a lot over the past three months about doing what you genuinely love to do. I’m passionate about communicating facts and opinions about this great game, and having a full-time job allows me to keep my hand in some aspects of it. Similarly, I have no doubt that the people looking for work will be more than fine in the long run, and that they’ll be back doing what they’re excellent at in short order.

Unfortunately, this is a worrisome trend. While racing (like anything else) is a business, complete with profit/loss margins that must be met, it seems counterintuitive to not invest in passionate people that can help a racing company grow. We need those people in the game, because if they’re put in the right spots, they’ll create more people like them that will contribute to its growth. Maybe that isn’t a fan base that plays well on social media, but it’s a fan base horse racing cannot survive without.

(Rest in peace, Lou. We miss you.)

A Requiem for a Different Saratoga Meet

Every once in a while, maybe every few years, I go out to dinner and have a weird internal dialogue with my subconscious. The last time I can remember this happening before Monday night was the week of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup. In addition to being the lone social media person for TVG at the time, the company was rebranding HRTV into TVG2, which meant redesigning what was then HRTV.com to fit the new brand, all while staying on top of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube during one of the four busiest weeks of the year.

That Thursday, I came into work at 6 a.m. and watched the sun rise on one side of the Howard Hughes Center. I left at about 8 p.m. after watching it set on the other side, and the first place of repute open on my way back to my then-apartment in Pasadena was a Denny’s in Culver City. I was running on fumes at that point, and it’s a miracle I didn’t pass out during that weekend’s TVG Extra broadcast (visions of overtime money danced in my head!).

My present-day corner of the world has a dimly lit dive bar next door. It’s called Vinnie’s, and after two long days of work Sunday and Monday, I wound up there as a local band was doing a sound check for a 10 p.m. set. The food isn’t fantastic, but it’s solid, cheap, and, most importantly to me on this particular evening, someone other than me was preparing it.

The best way I can describe Vinnie’s is this: Picture Sister Margaret’s, the bar in the “Deadpool” movies. It’s dark, to the point of being gloomy, and there’s sometimes strange stuff going on (on this particular evening, several people were shooting dice on the bar and sending the same $1 bill back and forth). It’s popular with bikers, but not the ones you need to be afraid of (think of the One-Eyed Snakes from “Bob’s Burgers,” in that they look menacing but are mostly harmless).

You may be thinking to yourself, “Self, I thought this was a horse racing column.” I’m getting there. The reason I was so winded tonight is because the 2018 Saratoga meet has come to a close after 40 cards of racing in upstate New York. It took me a little while to realize it, but I wound up at Vinnie’s for a reason. It’s a different kind of place, and this year’s Saratoga stand was a different sort of meet.

Sure, at its peak, it had the great racing Saratoga is known for. The meet hosted slam-dunk Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Monomoy Girl, who cruised to victory in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Top sprinter Imperial Hint ran roughshod over the field in the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt. Fast-rising Marley’s Freedom galloped home much the best in the Grade 1 Ballerina for Red Jacket honoree Bob Baffert. Fans saw Saratoga County native Chad Brown set a single-season record for wins by a trainer, and were treated to a rousing rendition of the Travers, which found a way to stand out even without Triple Crown winner Justify (thanks, Catholic Boy).

There were certainly highlights, ones Saratoga produces every single year, and by the numbers, the track saw its second-highest all-sources handle in history. However, there were some bumps along the way. The first 20 days of the meet saw nearly 10 inches of rain drench the Saratoga area, and 50 races were rained off the turf. From a handicapping perspective, that often meant having to look at races twice, just in case the skies happened to open up.

There was also the infamous race run at the wrong distance. When Somelikeithotbrown waltzed home to break his maiden, it was going a mile and an eighth, not the race’s intended route of a mile and a sixteenth. Additionally, there were a few late scratches of horses entered as parts of entries, which meant that the remaining horses in those entries ran for purse money only and were not eligible betting interests. The worst-case scenario in that instance happened in one day’s opener, when half of a Joe Sharp-trained entry was ruled out and the other half won as much the best. Bettors who liked that part of the entry and bet accordingly got nothing for having a correct opinion, which is a situation that must be avoided at all possible times.

For me, this meet was weird in other ways, too. I started writing for The Saratogian in 2012, and stayed on as a seasonal freelancer after leaving for California in late-2013. In that time, I’ve seen a lot of changes at the newspaper. My two primary supervisors, managing editor Barbara Lombardo and sports editor Kevin Moran, took buyouts in 2015. David Johnson, who assumed Kevin’s post after his departure, left following the 2017 meet. This summer, the paper’s full-time sports staff consisted of two people: Editor Joe Boyle, whose primary job was to produce regular sports sections for both The Saratogian and The Troy Record, and Stan Hudy, who took the lead on producing The Pink Sheet. Compare that with the staff I walked into in 2012, which boasted a sports editor (Kevin), several full-time reporters (myself, David, Stan, Alex Ventre, and eventually Mike Cignoli), a few freelancers (Jeff Scott, who still contributes, and the great Mike Veitch, who retired last year), two clerks (Chris Maley and Tyler Michaud), and a dedicated sports paginator/copy editor (first Matt Donato, and then Ryan Hayner).

Even with a full staff, producing two sections a day for seven weeks is not easy (DRF colleague and former Saratogian sports editor Nicole Russo can back me up on that!). The realities of journalism are such that editors and reporters must do more with less on a constant basis. Joe and Stan put forth herculean efforts to get the paper(s) out as scheduled, and while I thanked Stan in my final bankroll blurb of the season, it’s worth doing so again here, in an area where I’ve got a bit more room to express myself. Thanks, Stan. Hopefully, I never held anything up!

From a handicapping standpoint, the meet was its own kind of difficult. Saratoga is always hard. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is that three wins per day is an admirable pace, and that 120 winners (three a day for 40 days) will yield a solid placing amongst other handicappers of that ilk. When I somehow came out on top amongst all print handicappers in 2017, I did so with 128 top-pick winners. John Shapazian, who won the crown this year, had 123. As I recall, one or two others were in the 115-120 range.

This year, Shapazian had 116 winners. Liam Durbin, who regained the Pink Sheet title, had 109. I had 108, and as far as I can tell, that was good for a clear third (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These are incredibly low numbers compared to the ones that are usually needed to win, but that’s how hard this year’s meet was.

Put in other ways, consider a few of these facts: Talented but little-known trainers Chuck Lawrence, Gary Contessa, and Greg Sacco all won more Grade 1 races (one apiece) than longtime Saratoga maestro/future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher (zero). Mark Casse, one of North America’s most respected horsemen, suffered through an ugly 0 for 48 streak at the Spa that ended when Fly Away Birdie came running late in the Labor Day opener. Gary Sciacca saw Casse’s streak and raised it 21 more, to 0 for 69 (special thanks to DRF’s David Grening for his note on the specific number). He hadn’t won a race at the Spa since 2016, but the drought ended when Sicilia Mike romped in Monday’s seventh race. Paraphrasing an Andy Serling remark from early in the meet, you’re nobody until you get crushed at Saratoga, and this year, the bakeries making humble pie did incredible business.

I look forward to Saratoga every year. I grew up going there every summer, getting autographs from jockeys, listening to Tom Durkin, and learning how to read the publication I’d eventually work for. There are changes every summer. More people I’ve rubbed shoulders with leave the business, for one reason or another. Durkin retired after the 2014 meet. Many people that populated the press box in 2012 and 2013 no longer work for those employers, and a few, unfortunately, have passed away (Paul Moran, Mike Jarboe, Matt Graves, and John Mazzie are all missed). We’re already preparing for one additional change that’s coming sooner rather than later, as longtime NYRA bugler Sam Grossman’s last day of work came and went Monday afternoon.

Saratoga provides a rush to be able to test my skills against other handicappers (for my money, some of the best ones around). As an incredibly competitive person drawn to horse racing not by fashion or Instagram photos, but by the very nature of pari-mutuel wagering (my money against yours), that’s always been something I value. Having said that, it’s also an incredible honor to produce content others can use as a tool to make some money, and that’s the primary reason I love doing what I’m privileged to do for seven weeks out of the year.

Personally, there are years where the Saratoga meet means something bigger. 2013’s meet was my way of burying myself in work to keep my mind off of other things in my life. 2017’s meet was about me proving several high-level doubters dead wrong, and I remain proud to say that that’s what I did (you can blame those doubters for me going into wrestling promo mode at times over the past year; if you find me, ask and I’ll tell you the story).

This summer wasn’t quite like that. It was an endurance test, handicapping’s version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where hitting the wire brought with it its own special sense of relief (and, for a privileged few, some sense of accomplishment). It was a summer where a lot of creatures, both human and equine, had to navigate around situations that were far from ideal. To those that did: Congratulations. You made it.

God willing, I’ll see you all next year. I’ve got a title to get back!

THE DARK DAY FILES: Lessons from a Day Trip to Lake Tahoe

On my day off Monday, I drove three hours each way to watch horse racing on television.

Before anyone calls me an idiot (in some cases, again), I suppose I should explain. You see, I had casino loyalty points that were going to expire in mid-September, and rather than start from scratch, I opted to make my maiden voyage from my home in northern California to Lake Tahoe.

I make a few trips every year to Las Vegas, and there are some similarities between the journeys to the two Nevada locales. When I lived in Los Angeles, it took between three and a half and four hours to get to Sin City by car, and it’s a similar-length drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe. Additionally, there are agricultural inspection stops on both trips back that do nothing but inconvenience roughly 97% of motorists passing through.

However, that’s about where the similarities end. First, the drive from LA to Vegas is best known as a kind of competition. Everyone has a time they’re trying to beat (my personal best from Pasadena to a Vegas hotel is 3 hours, 32 minutes, and that’s without driving recklessly or hitting traffic), and everyone has a small town along the way they prefer to stop in for gas, food, or bathroom breaks (mine is Baker, which boasts a population of 735 people and, more importantly, an Arby’s).

The drive from the Bay Area to Lake Tahoe is anything but a competition. The last road one takes to get there is Route 50, which is mostly a two-lane road with intermittent passing lanes scattered about on the trek through the Eldorado National Forest. In other words, the trip could take anywhere from two and a half hours if you don’t hit traffic to four hours if you’re unlucky enough to follow huge trucks down that road with a peloton of your closest friends also in pursuit. I got there in three hours with a quick stop in Folsom (not at the prison), and the trip home took four with a dinner break in Vacaville.

Having said that, though, if you’re traveling during the day, you probably don’t want to hurry. Route 50 is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the United States, and there are several improvised spots to pull over for photographs. Once you wind your way through the forest, you come out in the rare kind of ski village that also thrives during the summer.

Of course, if you’re in the neighborhood to gamble, that’s prominently catered to as well. In fact, once you weave through the village and get to the state line, two casinos greet you. Harrah’s is on one side of the street, Harvey’s is on the other, and they sit literally inches beyond the California/Nevada border.

As one can expect, both places weren’t exactly bustling with activity at 9:15 on a Monday morning. As the day went on, though, I noticed a theme. Unlike Las Vegas, which thrives on providing sensory overload at all times, Lake Tahoe provides a relaxing environment that struck me as incredibly refreshing. The race book was quiet, with jovial tellers and wait staff. The casino floor had outgoing dealers, and each table had open seats and low minimums. Las Vegas is a wonderful place, but between the crowds and the elevated minimums at busy times, there are some circumstances that give gamblers major headaches.

Those didn’t exist Monday in Lake Tahoe. Instead, what I saw were fun atmospheres with people having a great time. Horse racing types, take note: Gamblers don’t necessarily mind losing if external factors provide some bang for their buck. It wasn’t Vegas, but it didn’t have to be.

I spent most of the day in the race book at Harvey’s, and for the last two races on Saratoga’s Monday program, I spent time chatting with a group of maybe five or six people. We all wound up on the same horse in the finale, first-time starter Surge of Pride. The Linda Rice trainee won on debut at odds of 7/2, and we were all pretty fired up as we headed to the windows (which, by the way, boasted no lines the entire day) to cash our winning tickets.

To tie all of this together: I’ve used this space a lot over the past few months to advocate for fan education, which I believe makes for a more attractive gambling product. Fans that feel comfortable with the product bet more, and they’re much more likely to recommend what they do to friends who are curious. Judging by what I see on Twitter on a daily basis, we have a large portion of the racing fan base that would not recommend the sport to those close to them, and that’s a problem that must be fixed (Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, are you listening?).

It’s great to provide all sorts of data to fans and handicappers, and if that leads to betting action, then a large part of the mission has been accomplished. That’s a large part of what I do for a living, and I hope I’m doing a decent job of that. However, what also works is to provide an atmosphere people feel comfortable in. We can produce that in really simple ways. We can fix timing issues that should not exist in 2018, both with the scheduling of races at different tracks and the times of those races themselves. We can test proposed rule changes by asking if novices would understand explanations of said changes made in 15 seconds or less. We can find ways to legitimately grow the game by marketing to the people who keep it going with steady action, as opposed to those who come to the track once or twice a year and don’t put money through the windows.

Nevada, of course, also has legalized sports betting, and that’s the elephant in the room. When sports betting becomes widely legalized, we need to present the best wagering product imaginable in order to stay competitive. There are steps we can take right now that aren’t huge ones. It’s my hope that we take them, improve the gambling atmosphere in this sport, and give horse racing an improved foundation moving forward.

THE DARK DAY FILES: The Importance of Student Journalism, and Those That Don’t Recognize It

Before becoming The Pink Sheet’s in-house handicapper, I was a multimedia sports journalist for a year and a half with The Saratogian, the main paper that produces it. It was actually my first full-time job following two years interning at Siena College’s athletic communications office, and it provided me with one heck of an entry point to the real world of journalism (and media production as a whole).

I got to do a lot of cool things, and not just at Saratoga Race Course (though using the press box as an office for seven weeks during the summer definitely topped the list of perks the job offered). I interviewed professional athletes like Jimmer Fredette and Kyle Busch, but primarily, I got knee-deep in high school and college sports, where I built relationships with coaches, student-athletes, parents, and administrators. Those are the moments I remember the most, from improvising a press box in my car when lacrosse was played in sub-freezing temperatures to having to get said car towed out of a makeshift parking lot when it sunk into mud during a baseball doubleheader.

Most of the time, my interactions with members of the community were cordial, even pleasant. However, there were times where it was necessary to take hard looks at certain situations. The men’s soccer program at the local Division III college had a hazing scandal that led to 24 players being disciplined and its spring season being cancelled. The main local high school in town had an incident with its boys basketball coach, and loudly took exception when one of our writers covered a baseball game where a player made four errors (you can read about that story here; it’s as absurd as it sounds). Additionally, racing fans may appreciate that I once fielded a few angry calls from a steeplechase trainer and his top assistant when I mistakenly reported a horse had been vanned off due to an error in the official chart that was corrected after my article went to press (if Richard Valentine and Laird George happen to be reading this, sorry again).

My point is simple: Journalism isn’t public relations. It’s about fulfilling responsibilities to communities that depend on your outlet for information as to what’s going on, good or bad. It’s not a responsibility to take lightly, nor one that should be burdened by people who are easily bent to the wills of the people or organizations they’re tasked to write about.

At this point, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this in what’s supposed to be a racing column. That’s a very fair question. I was fully prepared to write about Justify, Accelerate, and the race for this year’s Eclipse Awards. However, when I looked at Twitter after spending my day off in San Francisco eating a strawberry crepe and garlic fries (possibly the first time in the history of humanity that this combination has been ordered), I was horrified to see news out of Liberty University, an institution that, per Teddy Amenabar of The Washington Post, has taken drastic steps to shape their student-run newspaper.

First, the obvious disclaimers: Liberty University is a private institution that is well within its rights to do this. There are no constitutional or legal issues in play here, so do not fall into the trap of saying such measures violate the First Amendment.

Having said that, discouraging aspiring journalists from undertaking actual journalism is entirely the wrong course of action to take. What the school’s dean of communications is saying is that the school intends to use its newspaper as a public relations device. PR is not journalism, and it will never be journalism.

Journalism covers the things people deserve to know about, not what those in power necessarily want us to see or hear. In a perfect world, serious journalists hold everyone accountable. It’s not a profession undertaken by the meek. Journalists work long hours, wear many hats, and are often ridiculously underpaid for the work they do. They don’t do the job because they’re beholden to people or groups they cover. They do it because serious journalism is worth saving, even in an age when newspapers and other outlets are struggling mightily.

The young men and women that want to be journalists have already shown toughness by choosing that career path. They don’t want to create puff pieces that are easily digestible. They want to go the extra mile, do the dirty work, and tell the stories that need to be told. That these stories don’t line up with the ones Liberty University wants publicized is unfortunate for those in power, and any attempts to get students to conform to the desires of higher-ups are scary, at best.

Perhaps what’s weirdest about this is that the dean of communications doesn’t realize that quality student journalism is, in fact, the best form of public relations his institution could ever receive. I went to Ithaca College, whose student-run newspaper (The Ithacan) was often very critical of the school’s administration. It wins awards on an annual basis, and it’s trumpeted as an example of the Park School of Communications’ devotion to training young professionals who exit ready to make an impact in their chosen professions. Those in power don’t try to suppress the voices of its student journalists. They give those students platforms to find their voices, and that stance is a large part of why I’m proud to be an Ithaca College alumnus.

If you’ve read this far, chances are this story has hit you in a similar way it hit me. This is where I need your help. If you’re a communications professional, share what’s happening. If you’re a faculty or staff member at an institution of higher learning, and your administration is holding students back from doing what they want to do, say or do something about it. Your students want to be better journalists. Do everything you can to give them that opportunity.

Liberty isn’t the first school to do this, and chances are they won’t be the last. There are students out there whose voices are being suppressed for no good reason, and I want to do something about it. I’ll always be a journalist regardless of anything else I’m fortunate enough to do, and I feel a responsibility to make sure the field is as strong as it can be in the years to come.

If what’s happening at Liberty is common, I want to fight it. I want to give the suppressed students a chance to work around restrictions that should not exist. I don’t know what this would take, how this would work, or even what this would look like. All I know is that this is the right thing to do, one that I’d hope someone would do for me if I had wound up in a place not as receptive to the idea of a free press.

If you’re out there, and this speaks to you in some way, tell me. Click this link to use the contact feature available at this website to reach me. I read every single piece of correspondence that comes in, and I want to know how I can best help out some people that need it.