Athletes may win or lose. But in the world of sports, it’s often journalists who get shut out.
The standard-bearers of sports journalism are able to embed themselves in team affairs and come out with the most provocative stories. However, in the four years I’ve covered Miami University sports, I’ve learned that due to increased public relations (PR) policing at schools like Miami, to aspire to be an embedded journalist is to indulge in fantasy. This applies especially to student journalists.
Pressrooms have been consumed by a country club culture, in which pizza, pop, joke-telling and stale coach-and-player commentary is in abundant supply. And we student journalists eat that stuff up, all too often regurgitating press release information as sorry excuses for stories.
Buying into this overarching fraternity has corrupted the very essence of investigative sports journalism and has turned many of us – especially student journalists – into wide-eyed, willfully ignorant press cheerleaders.
This culture is safeguarded by the PR people. At Miami, reporters must request interviews with athletes and coaches through the sports information directors (SIDs), a policy which I find completely unnecessary at a mid-major school.
True, every so often, Miami’s Athletic Department will become deluged with interview requests – i.e. Ben Roethlisberger’s junior season, Miami’s hockey team reaching No. 1 nationally in the rankings and Doug Penno’s recent buzzer-beater in the MAC championship.
But the vast majority of the time, only a few local newspapers, namely The Miami Student, Hamilton-Journal News and to a lesser extent Cincinnati Enquirer, cover Miami sports on a regular basis, with only a handful of reporters attending press conferences. How many interviews are these players and coaches really fielding?
I can’t imagine that Miami quarterback Mike Kokal ever tells himself, “Man, I wish the press would just back up off me.”
Nevertheless, public relations has erected a, “Don’t call them, they’ll call you,” barricade between athletes and reporters that at times can seem like the Berlin Wall. On several occasions, requests for interviews have been denied because, “He pitched a bad game and doesn’t want to talk to the media,” or “He’s icing himself up in the locker room. He could be a while.”
At football press conferences, the coaches and SIDs almost always decide which athletes to bring with them to the podium.
I remember in 2005, after Miami football lost to Bowling Green 42-14, Head Coach Shane Montgomery came alone to the podium, denying access to any his players.
Look, I understand these athletes are busy. But we’re the ones on deadline. Would it pain them to answer a few hard-hitting questions in their emotionally fragile state? It’s just sports, people.
I also understand that the primary job of the public relations department is to protect its athletes. But on too many occasions, they have overstepped their boundaries.
This year, for example, Student reporter Chris Dierks wrote a feature about Miami hockey’s potential goalie controversy, after Charlie Effinger – who up until that game platooned with Jeff Zatkoff – was benched for the first time in two years after struggling against Notre Dame. After the game, Coach Enrico Blasi fervently asserted that Effinger would continue to platoon with Zatkoff; and hockey’s SID refused Dierks the right to interview either goalkeeper.
In his article, Dierks simply addressed the goalie situation in a quantitative manner, comparing Effinger’s substandard statistics to those of Zatkoff’s. Nevertheless, the next day Dierks received a phone call from the hockey’s SID, who chastised him for even insinuating that there was a goalie controversy.
The funny aftermath of this story is that Blasi indeed started Zatkoff over Effinger in nine of the final 12 games after the Notre Dame game, including the entire postseason. What a shocker.
I too have been a victim of public relations policing. Last semester, I wrote a column about basketball player Nathan Peavy and his late father, Terry, a former basketball star who died of a drug overdose when Nathan was a child. The overarching message of the story was that one doesn’t have to be a perfect person to be a good father. Unfortunately, Nathan’s aunt construed a couple sentences of mine as being insensitive and wrote a letter of complaint to The Miami Student. I had absolutely no objections to her grievance – she was expressing her right to speak openly about the matter. And it turned out to be the only complaint I received about the column.
However, due to the one complaint, the Athletic Department felt it necessary to call the journalism program and recommend that I be reprimanded for my actions. Why didn’t they just write a Letter to the Editor and speak to the matter in a public way? Instead, they handled it in a backhanded way by trying to have me censured by my own professors. Their request was correctly rebuffed.
In this, one of my final columns, my intention was not merely to espouse anti-PR sentiments (widely embraced in the journalism profession). Again, I don’t think any of the coaches, players or SIDs are bad people. This is just the nature of the beast – and it undermines the role of the journalist.
My experience at Miami has taught me that to be a story-hawking journalist, I need to go out of my comfort zone – ask the extra question, never settle for the same hackneyed responses, second-guess everything. Don’t hunt for negative stories; but also don’t allow yourself to turn you into an unwitting second layer of PR.