Archive for February, 2007

Where have you gone, Steve Kilkenny?

February 28, 2007


I’m always sad when I read headlines like this: “Honus Wagner card sold for record-setting $2.35 million.” I can only think about all the cards I sold to pay the rent in college, all those cardboard Aarons, Mays, Clementes, Mantles and Roses sold off for another couple of months in a dingy apartment or for a few more credits at the community college. (As if education is as important as pictures of childhood heroes.)

Collecting those cards were some of the best times of my life. I learned to negotiate by trading with the neighborhood kids, gladly handing over the Mets’ Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones for the likes of Steve Carlton, Harmon Killebrew or Bobby Murcer. I learned to organize by putting cards in order both by team and by numbers, depending on my mood. And I also learned to finish what I started by trading for even the most obscure players (like Cleveland Indians pitcher Steve Kilkenny) because I needed a complete set in 1972.

I also pored over statistics on the back of these cards. As a result, I understood more about baseball, football, hockey and basketball — especially about baseball. I learned that a 3.00 earned-run average and a .300 batting average make for pretty impressive seasons. And a 4.0-yard per carry average and 1,000 total yards is equally impressive, especially back when the season lasted 14 games, not 16. (Nobody was better than Jim Brown, who regularly averaged 1,000 yards during a 12-game series.) I can still recite Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average (.367) and that Lou Gehrig has hit more grand slams (24) than anyone else. Of course, some other records have been erased along the way, like the amazing new strikeout mark by Nolan Ryan and the new record for hits by Pete Rose.

I still have thousands of cards, but I have very few of the years that mean most to me — football and baseball cards from 1971-74. I might have to start putting a set together. I don’t have many of those cards left, but I do have some great memories. (And a college degree, too, I guess.)

I can’t wait until the new set comes out so my daughters and I can compare ERAs, batting averages and runs batted in as we sit and watch the Yankees on satellite TV.

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Dear Fans: Stop Storming The Courts

February 28, 2007

Storming the court is a fine way to celebrate a big victory. But fans need restraint when their school defeats a lower-ranked team, even if the game had been close, writes a columnist at Loyola Marymount. Unlike a columnist at Michigan State, Allison Hong writes that racing onto a field or court does not always create excitement.

Hong implores fans at Loyola Marymount to stop storming the basketball court after every victory. Running onto the court after a major upset is fine, but fans should not run out after a win over, say, Santa Clara University, she writes. In an open letter to fans, she writes: “Please stop storming the court. We’ve done it three times and now it’s just getting old.”

Sometimes, columnists need to take on their readers in order to affect change, especially when it can cost the school money. Hong does a fine job doing that for a good read. Check it out.

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Sports columnists should force readers to think, act

February 27, 2007

A good sports columnist should offer meaningful insights, cover sports ignored by others, offer cultural criticism, and analyze games in considerably more depth than the average fan. A sports columnist should, at different times, afflict and comfort us. A sports columnist needs to write with style and grace, should have strong opinions (but be willing to sharpen them with facts), and should offer fresh perspectives. Most of all, a good sports columnist needs to be an excellent reporter.

As the great Red Smith once wrote: “The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I’d like to be called that. I’d like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate.”

That’s a tough job description to fill. But many student journalists are cutting their columnist teeth on campuses across the country. And many are doing a pretty decent job. A review of more than 50 online newspapers across the country yielded several strong sports columns, some of which I list below. College newspapers are the place where young sports journalists can learn to mix reporting and opinion writing – and where they, subsequently, can enjoy the wrath of readers, coaches and athletes (and that’s after writing a good column).

The learning curve for young sports columnists can be difficult, something I noticed this past week. More than a few young columnists offered considerable opinion but very little reporting. Other columnists focused more on national sporting events, forsaking campus sports for the alluring lights of the NBA, NFL and MLB. As a result, these columns typically yielded stale second- and third-hand perspectives.

There’s no need to write a column on the top baseball transactions during the past off-season or to cite the reasons the Bears or Colts should win the Super Bowl. Unless you regularly cover these beats, you really have nothing new to say. These columns might be fine if you go to football camps, interview baseball experts, and regularly speak with these athletes; however, that is not frequently the case. Write local. That’s what your readers expect and that’s what will impress potential employers. Prove that you can cover your local beats first.

(One piece of advice to online editors: label your sports columns to distinguish them from your regular sports news. Online readers do not get to see the column sigs and the page design. Clearly denote your opinion pieces for your online readers.)

There were several excellent columns during the past week, but none better than one written by Ethan Conley of Michigan State’s The State News. Conley has always enjoyed watching movies. But recently he noticed that some of his favorite flicks have been sterilized by the PC police. Conley has also noticed college sports are also getting sanitized to the point where students can no longer rush a basketball court when their team wins.

Here’s the lead:

“One of my first childhood memories is of watching “E.T.” with my parents when we bought our first VCR. I have no idea why this sticks with me. There’s something about that wide-eyed alien who says “Ouuuuch” that resonates in my brain.

So you can imagine my excitement when the film was re-released in 2002. I couldn’t wait to see it on the big screen for the first time. Much to my dismay, it ended up being terribly disappointing — the FBI agents who line the street as Elliot rides past on his bike are now holding walkie-talkies instead of guns, Elliot’s mom no longer tells Michael he looks like a “terrorist” on Halloween and Elliot’s ‘penis breath’ insult is conspicuously absent. Apparently, that kind of language could slip by in 1982, but it’s too profane for the 21st century.”

Conley’s column rises well above most of those I’ve read over the past week, mostly because the writer has looked beyond the surface of sports. Too often, columnists address the obvious or the superficial. In this case, the sports columnist, like a poet, made a connection between two disparate things – movies and college sports. It’s an excellent read. Check it out, along with the other columnists listed down the right side of this blog.

Several other columnists also did a fine job this week.

I’m always a sucker for good baseball column. Matt Watson of the Arkansas Traveler starts out with a pastoral column on baseball, but he then brings everything back to his college team’s chances this season. College columnists need to remember to keep their focus on local sports, as Matt did.

“As temperatures rise, which the weatherman says isn’t going to last much longer, the dead of winter slowly fades away and the sweet smell of spring gets closer and closer. This can mean only one thing:

Baseball.

Beautiful, American baseball.

You won’t hear a “crack of the bat” officially until April 1, in a National League Championship rematch between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals that kicks off both the major league season and the Cards’ World Series title defense.

But the “pings” are in full swing in Fayetteville.”

Here’s a few other good columns:

Shawn Garrison, of Missouri’s Maneater, reveals how his grandmother taught him some of life’s best sports lessons.

“When I was a kid, I bought baseball cards by the boxful. I still have hundreds of thousands of them lying around my closet and room. One time, my grandma alphabetized my entire collection for me. Every single card was sorted according to sport, team and player name. Of course, it took me about three days to have them strung back out all over the place, but maybe someday I’ll get those reorganized.”

Ban Barkawi of Cal-State Chico’s Orion, offers a unique perspective on American sports, one that was cultivated in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where he was raised.

“When someone asks where I’m from, it takes me a good 10 seconds before I can explain it in the most convenient way. I’m Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, but I lived in Saudi Arabia until I somehow ended up in Chico.”

■ Brady Henderson of Western Washington uses his column to profile a walk-on football player. Some good reporting is included in this piece.

“Western senior outside linebacker Taylor Wade didn’t take the conventional route to becoming a college football player.

Despite a stellar career at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., Wade garnered no attention from college scouts and doubted his ability to play at the next level.”

Matt Daniels, of Eastern Illinois, does a fine job analyzing the reason the men’s basketball team failed to qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. He offers specific examples to prove his point. He starts by citing a few of the plays that helped ended the team’s season prematurely.

“A missed wide-open layup at the buzzer at Eastern Kentucky.

A questionable charge call with the game tied in regulation against Austin Peay.

A missed 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game against Tennessee State.

All three of these endings happened in the month of January for Eastern men’s basketball.

And when one looks back at the Panthers’ 2006-07 season, this month stood out the most – for all the wrong reasons.”

You, too, can focus on specific games and plays but you need to have an over-riding theme. Here, Daniels revealed the problems the team faced through several key plays during a tough final month.

Writing a column is not easy, as anyone who has written one can attest. You can’t claim anonymity or objectivity. The words are your thoughts and beliefs. The words are you. So, before you head out to write your next column, consider some of the points addressed at the start of this piece. But also know: To find great columns, you’ll need to put in some time – on a beat, at practices, and at games. Coaches and athletes will then see that you are as dedicated as they are, not some reporter stopping in for a quick peek. You’ll get much better insider information this way. Watch intently. Speak (and listen) to not only the athletes, but to the trainers, groundskeepers and trainers hanging around the fields. And make sure you do the research.

Writing a sports column can be challenging and time-consuming. But your efforts can make a difference in the lives of your readers. That’s what drove many of today’s top sports columnists (like the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke) to start writing.

“Like most of us, I became a journalist because I wanted to touch people,” writes Plaschke. “I wanted to make them laugh. I wanted to make them cry. I wanted to leave them angry. I wanted to make them think.

“In some professions, one might not elicit that range of human emotions from a customer in 20 years. In column writing, it can all happen in the same 20 inches. Such is the beauty of our craft. One can not just examine and report on a landscape but, however slightly, change it. One can not just touch readers, but embrace them and shake them.”

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Here’s a chance to cover the Women’s Final 4

February 26, 2007

Here is a great opportunity for college sports reporters to cover the NCAA Women’s Final Four. I have posted the information below that was forwarded to me by Eleanor Dombrowski, the program’s Internship Director & Special Events Coordinator. You can send her a note at e.dombrowski@csuohio.edu>

PRESS RELEASE
Cleveland State University is pleased to host the U. S. Basketball Writers Association’s Sports Writing Seminar and Scholarship Program. This program has been held for the past five years in conjunction with the NCAA Men’s Final Four. This is the first year it will be held at the NCAA Women’s Final Four.

The program begins on Friday, March 30, 2007, with a panel of national sports writers. Journalism students will compete for media credentials to cover the following NCAA Women’s Final Four events at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Four teams practices & press conferences – Saturday, March 31, 2007
Semi-Final Games – Sunday, April 1, 2007
Championship Game – Tuesday, April 3, 2007

All journalism students are invited to attend the panel presentation on March 30. To compete for a media credential, students must submit a published writing sample by March 15. For complete details and to download an application, visit Cleveland State University’s School of Communication website

For more information on the NCAA Women’s Final Four events, visit www.womenrockcleveland.com

Cross country — covering races

February 25, 2007


Sportswriter Gary Smith relies on the technique of in medias res to heighten the dramatic tension and create some mystery in his story about the struggles of a high school cross country team in southern California. In his article “Running For Their Lives,” Smith focuses on the story behind a California team’s success, a story that is certainly more feature than game coverage. But anybody who covers cross country needs to read this piece by White. Your race stories will be significantly shorter than Smith’s feature; however, you can still learn a great deal about covering races from his article.

Smith uses the technique of starting a story at the midway point instead of at the beginning, something that is familiar to those who have read Homer’s Iliad and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This technique allows the author to grab the reader’s attention immediately by focusing on some key actions, instead of on background.

After putting the reader into the middle of the action, writers can introduce characters, develop setting, and explain the primary conflict through a series of flashbacks or exposition. After the initial scene, readers are more likely to care about the characters they have just seen in action. Why is Achilles so angry? Why are the Greeks poised to attack Troy? This technique also allows writers to tease to future and past scenes as well – something Smith does exceptionally well in “Running For Their Lives,” an article first published in Sports Illustrated and considered one of The Best American Sports Writing articles published in 2005. I strongly recommend this piece – as well as anything else by Gary Smith, perhaps the finest sports reporter in the country.

You can also start your own race story in the middle of the action on a smaller scale, if you spend enough time researching the teams and runners and if you record the right information during the race. I have listed some tips and advice below to help you get to that point.

Covering sports can be daunting at first — watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and athletes. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the fourth in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during sporting events.

LEAD ELEMENTS
(By lead elements, I mean the first several paragraphs.)
■ Start in the middle of the race action, as cited above.
■ Name of the event
■ Name the location of the race (park, school field, etc.)
■ Include the distance of the race
■ Can address individual performance
■ Can address course or weather conditions at the race, if they are significant
■ Include overall team winner in the first few paragraphs

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Cross country is scored by adding the finishes of the team’s top five runners against the total scores of the other teams. The lowest score wins. Compare the scores for the following two teams. In an Ohio Valley Conference meet, Eastern Illinois’ runners finish fourth, eleventh, eighteenth, twentieth and thirty-fourth. Murray State finishes first, second, third, twenty-ninth and fifty-fourth. Who wins? You need to add the numbers. Eastern’s score is 4+11+18+20+34, which equals 87 points. Murray State’s score is 1+2+3+29+54, which equals 89. Murray State swept the top three spots, but it’s next two runners finished much farther back. Even though no Eastern runner finished in the top 10, the team’s overall performances were more consistent. In this case, you would certainly want to investigate how Murray State could have the top three runners in the conference and still not win the title. You can also focus on the consistent performances of Eastern. The reasons might be compelling.
■ Cross country teams run seven runners in meets even though only the top five finishers count in the overall scores. But there is one exception. If two teams are tied, the sixth-place runner is used as the tiebreaker.
■ A 5K race is 3.1 miles and a 10K race is 6.2 miles. To calculate, multiply each 1 mile by 1.6 kilometers

ELEMENTS TO FOCUS ON
■ Terrain. Hills can affect performance. Determine where the hills are located. A hill late in the race can have a big impact on runners.)
■ Weather conditions (some runners do better in muddy, rainy conditions; others do better when the weather is very hot.)
■ The team’s fifth-place finisher. Remember that cross-country is a team sport. Often, the finish of the fifth runner can be more significant than the finish of the top few runners.
■ Elevation. Teams that train at higher elevations typically have an edge because their bodies are more accustomed to working with less oxygen. Colorado State, for example, will do much better running a race in Terre Haute, Indiana, than a team from the Plains would have running at their home course in Boulder. Indiana State’s runners might struggle to catch their breath by the end of a 10K race.
■ Walk the course before the race whenever possible. You’ll need to know the terrain before you can properly write about the race. Plus, this will enable you to determine where and how you want to watch the game. Perhaps, you can cut through some woods and watch the leaders at the first and fourth mile markers before heading to the finish line.
■Personal best times. Compare a runner’s performance to his/her previous best. Do not refer to these as “PR,” as runners do. Yes, these are personal records but they are not actual records. Use “personal best” instead.
■ Go out to mile markers to see how key runners are doing. This will enable you to describe the runners, which your coverage read more like a story than a recitation of times and finishes. This will help your readers see the story.

Example: “Steve Prefontaine breathed hard at the four-mile marker. His legs seemed to slow down and his body swayed to the side, unlike the six runners who ran effortlessly past him.”

■ Pace. This is the average time per mile, so someone who raced three miles in 15 minutes ran at a pace of five minutes per mile. (Time divided by miles.) You will have to change minutes to seconds for most calculations. Thus, you would multiply 15 minutes by 60 seconds before dividing by three miles.
■ Splits (typically mile splits for longer races.) By getting these, you can determine where, and when, a runner either faltered or took off. Coaches typically record their own splits during the race. You can ask coaches, or team managers, for these.
■ Teammates running in pairs or packs. (Often, certain runners will stay together for most of the race to pull each other along.)
■ Comparisons to previous meets. Check how this team, or individual runners, fared this year compared to past years at this meet.
■ Comparisons to previous performances on this trail.
■ Check how this team, or individual runners, fared compared to previous races in this trail.
■ Walk the course before the race whenever possible. You’ll need to know the terrain before you can properly write about the race. Plus, this will enable you to determine where and how you want to watch the game. Perhaps, you can cut through some woods and watch the leaders at the first and fourth mile markers before heading to the finish line.
■ If this is a postseason race, state how many teams advance to the next level. And also state the time and date of the next race.

QUESTIONS TO ASK RUNNERS
■ What were you thinking during the race (or during a certain section of the trail)?
■ Was there a point in the race where you felt particularly strong?
■ Was there a point in the race where you felt weaker?
■ Were you watching, or focusing on, any runners? Which ones and why?
■ How had you thought you would do before the race started? What were your goals entering the race?
■ How did you think the team was going to do?
■ What surprised you the most?

QUESTIONS TO ASK COACHES
■ What was your pre-race strategy?
■ Did runners follow your pre-race strategy?
■ What were your goals for the race? (This might be as simple as getting each runner to improve by 10 seconds, or to place fourth as a team. This goal might also be to pull the fifth-place runner up a few spots.)
■ What types of workouts had the team go through the past week to prepare for this race? Were these workouts different from training the previous few weeks?
■ Ask coaches to explain anything that you are not certain about, meaning anything you cannot write with an authoritative voice.
■ Did you notice anything different about your team during the race?

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Mix in some reporting to your sports blogs

February 24, 2007

As a former sports reporter and sports copy editor, I have more than a passing interest in sports journalism. I read as much as I can in print and have recently started to scour the Internet for fresh voices and new insights on issues related to sports. Professional beat reporters and columnists are typically more informed than the average fan whose commentary often reads like a poorly written letter to the editor. But that’s no surprise.

Too often, average-fan bloggers spend too much time debating who should start at quarterback or berating the work habits of an athlete they have only read about elsewhere. You need to attend games and practices to properly evaluate players and coaches. Many posts on regular fan sites read like rants heard on second-rate sports radio. Many of these fan-blogs are all opinion and no research.

Of course, that’s the point with some fan web sites – acting as a continual message board. Letting fans speak is important to any news media. It’s fun and enjoyable. But sports bloggers should inform these conversations with reporting and research.

Professional beat reporters have the most to report online. And professional columnists say it the best, using more polished prose. Both professionals offer reliable information. These are the people we attempt to train in journalism programs across the country. Certainly, one does not need a journalism degree to be an excellent blogger, but some training sure doesn’t hurt.

Sports bloggers need to know how to interview, research and observe more carefully before they start writing online. Frankly, I do not want to read uninformed posts. I prefer to read bloggers who offer compelling insights not offered elsewhere, who take on important issues, who break real news, and who address issues with passion, empathy and great skill. These are the blogs I want to read regularly.

So do not just rant, rave, blather, bloviate, bluster or boast. Instead, offer something your readers will want – real news and thoughtful commentary. So get out of the house. Report. Interview. Observe. Or do some real research at home. Either way, find something worth repeating. That’s how you attract readers.

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Nominate sports columnists for the Weekly College Top 10

February 23, 2007

I am accepting nominations for the Cool College Sports Columns: Weekly Top 10, a feature that will begin next week. Send nominations to me at jgisondi@gmail.com. My e-mail is also listed under my profile (to the right). Blogs are also welcome for submission.

This way college sports journalists can learn style and techniques from one another; plus, you can see what issues columnists are addressing.

I cannot go into the web sites of every college newspaper, so I am going to rely on referrals by advisers, student-journalists, moms, dads and roommates. (Suggestions by ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends will not be considered, although they should make for an interesting read. Would love to see them.)

I’ll pick 10 columns/blogs each week, listing them by columnist and college publication along the right rail (see Cool College Sports Columns: Weekly Top 10).

Eventually, I would like to add other sports categories. But, for now, I’ll start by reading college sports columns/blogs. I just need the URL sent to me.

I am also fielding questions for a Weekly Sports Reporting Q&A that will respond to your questions on anything related to sports reporting, from how to deal with irate coaches to how to structure a better lead for game stories. From time to time, I will refer these questions to sports editors and reporters across the country. Send your questions to jgisondi@gmail.com.

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Swimming — covering meets

February 22, 2007


Covering sports can be daunting at first — watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and players. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the third in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during the game.

Swimming is a much more individual sport, unlike basketball, football and baseball. Reporters frequently focus on team results in game stories for team sports. In sports like swimming, tennis, and track & field, reporters should focus more on individual results. The team winner is not typically significant in dual and tri-meets. Instead, you should focus on the top individual and relay performances. Even in meets where a team winner is significant, reporters can first focus on individual performances. If the school from your area wins the regional or state titles, place that information higher in the story. But local results typically trump all other results. That’s what readers care most about. So, if you are covering a meet where no swimmer from your area finished higher than third, that should still be your angle. Focus on your local swimmer’s performance, describing how she kicked it in, or faltered, at the end to take third. You should still cite the overall team winners, but it should not be your main angle.

LEAD ELEMENTS
Here are several ways to find a lead angle for your story:
■ A single performance (someone who broke a long-standing record).

“Kevin Boyle set a national record in the 100-breaststroke …”

■ An individual’s performance (someone who won several events in a dual meet or invitational)

“Patrick Vitt won three individual events and anchored another to lead …”

■ A key match-up (a final race or relay that yielded the overall team winner)

“Dan Renick kicked it in during the final 20 meters in the final event to hand
Eastern its fourth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference title …”

■ Put a face on the event by featuring one or two swimmers.

“When Dan Woike’s right leg was ripped off by a bull shark, he was certain his life was about to end.
When a lifeguard rescued him, he knew he’d never walk or swim again.
At best, he figured he would be able to relax in a shallow pool.
Nine months later, Woike never dreamed he would win compete in a state high school swimming title, but that’s exactly what he did Friday night, finishing eighth in a 100-meter breaststroke prelim race.
Jacksonville Bolles, meanwhile, captured the boys high school title for the
ninth year, compiling 49 points to edge Miami Lakes (45) and Sarasota
Riverview (42) in the Florida High School Swimming and Diving
championships.”

■ You should also cite how the team fared somewhere in the opening paragraphs. That could mean revealing whether a team or individual advanced to the next level of competition, meaning a swimmer at the district meet advanced to the regional meet; or, that could mean simply citing the key scores in a dual meet or invitational.
■ You can cite dual-meet records somewhere in the story, but there is rarely a reason to lead with this record, unless a team has a lengthy winning streak.

“Eight different EIU swimmers took first to lead the Panthers to an easy victory in the Big Blue Invitational.”

Don’t forget to include some of the following information in the introductory paragraphs
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ Meet’s significance. Does any individual performance clinch a postseason berth? Is this a conference or district victory? Does the team have a chance to win at the next level, based upon the number of swimmers who just advanced?

WHAT TO LOOK FOR
■ Is the pool a fast or slow pool? Ask the coaches, check the times.
■ Focus on the finals unless someone set a significant record during qualifying. There are many types of records, so don’t lead with a record time for that facility or pool or a team record. Those are not nearly as interested as a state or national record.
■ How many swimmers advanced to the next level of competition for the postseason.
■ Check on a swimmer’s splits for race more than 50 meters. Did a swimmer go faster in the second half of the 100-meter breaststroke or 1,000 freestyle?
■ Look for races that were the most competitive, which typically means the races where the times were the closest.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ The events should be referred to in lowercase, thus the 500-meter freestyle, 100-meter breaststroke, 200-meter butterfly or 50-meter backstroke.
■ All races should be run in meters.
■ Individual Medley relay – consists of the following races in this order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. Referred to as the IM in second reference.
■ Medley Relay – four different swimmers compete over one-fourth of the prescribed distance in the following order: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle.
■ Swim meets are often held in natatoriums, enclosed swimming facilities.
■ Compare a team and individual results to previous year and to earlier in the season to find interesting angles
■ Swimmers train so they have their best performance at the end of the season. A swimmer wants to peak in the postseason, not during early-season dual meets. Dual meets are often competitive practices.
■ Cite diving heights in numerals. For example, Erin Miller captured first in the 3-meter diving competition by earning 345 points.

SCORING
■ Dual meets: Relays go 11-4-2-0 points. Individual events go 9-4-3-2-1-0 with only the best three for each team eligible to score.
■ Tri-meets: same scoring system except only the top two for each team eligible to score.
■ Championship meets (6 lanes): Relays go 14-10-8-6-4-2; individual events go 7-5-4-3-2-1
■ Championship meets (8 lanes): Relays go 18-14-12-10-8-6-4-2; individual events go 9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
■ Scoring varies for championship events using 12 and 16 lanes.
■ False starts – A swimmer who starts before the gun sounds to start a race. As in track, a swimmer is typically disqualified after prematurely starting twice in a row.
■ Qualifying – At the HS level, swimmers typically qualify for the state meets by finishing in the top four or six across several postseason meets, which can mean districts, regionals, and, sometimes sectionals. At the college level, swimmers qualify for the national championships by recording a certain time prescribed by the NCAA the beginning of the year. But these are still only provisional times. If too many swimmers record the provisional times, the NCAA will adjust the times to limit the number of swimmers competing at the national meets.
■ Typically, athletes must compete in qualifying heats before they can compete in the finals. Usually, the top eight racers compete in the finals.

WRITING STYLE/ORGANIZATION
■ You need to spell out minutes and seconds the first time you cite raced times. Afterwards, can rely upon using just numerals.
• For example, you would write that someone won the 1,000-meter free in 6 minutes, 12.45 seconds. But the second-place swimmer finished in 6:18.25.
• Franklin notched her ninth provisional time of the season by clocking 1 minute, 5.2 seconds in the butterfly, good for second place.
• Samantha Jordan finished strongly in the 100 fly, touching the wall .04 seconds ahead of Brittany Johnson in 1 minute, 12.8 seconds.

■ After you focus on the main stories of the meet, you can list several other interesting results by bulleting them.

Eastern also fared well in several other events:
•Ryan Terrell clocked in at 53.4 seconds to take second in the 50-meter freestyle.
•Dori Niemann took third in the 200-meter fly in 2:01.2.
•Chris Sobut anchored a 200-meter medley squad that finished third. Dan Woike, Laura Griffith and Matt Stevens teamed up with Sobut to finish in 1:43.9.

■ Citing team scoring. Don’t list every team’s scores in the story for bigger meets. Let the agate reveal all 21 team scores in a district, regional or invitational meet – and post key teams in a fact box. You should cite the top team scores somewhere in an earlier paragraph, unless you are writing a feature story on the event.

Eastern had clinched the invitational about half-way through the meet, compiling 729 points, 98 more than runner-up Valparaiso. Evansville took third with 411 points, followed by Lincoln College (321), Bradley (298), and Marquette (245).


INTERVIEWS/RESEARCH

■ Arrive early for the meets to get programs, speak to officials, and verify factual information with coaches and officials. In longer meets, you can arrive during the prelims to give yourself perspective on leaders and to determine which finals races will be most significant or interesting.
■ Read as much as you can on the teams involved so you can find interesting angles and so you do not just repeat what has already been written.
■ Go to ncaa.org and click on swimming for records, provisional times and rules, among other things.
■ How many swimmers returned?
■ How many swimmer graduated the previous year? Who were the top swimmers/divers lost?
■ What were their accomplishment the previous year?
■ Who are the leaders on the team? How is that revealed? Try to get a story that illustrates that. Feel free to put that story in your own words.
■ Swimmers might say that they felt especially strong in the event or meet. Ask them how they know that? Did they feel they were breathing easier, or that their strokes were stronger? Get specific reasons and details.
■ How many times did this team win this meet? “Florida captured its seventh straight Southeastern Conference title.”
■ When was the last time this team won this meet?
■ Make sure you speak to several coaches and athletes, but do not wait until the end of the meet to do so. Interview swimmers and divers as they complete their competition in order to compile a list of possible story angles and a longer list of solid quotes, insights and stories.
■ Interview opposing coaches as well. Readers will appreciate this additional, and typically new, perspective.
■ Ask what the athletes were thinking during their specific swimming events or right before they made a key dive.
■ Ask divers to explain their dives and to cite which dives they thought were the most difficult. Cite reasons for their comments.
■ Cite career-bests for athletes, when this is significant.

PHOTO CREDIT: Eric J. Hiltner/Daily Eastern News

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You can’t be a fan and a sports reporter

February 22, 2007


Jim Gray was vilified about eight years ago when he asked Pete Rose a tough question at the World Series. Rose, banned from baseball for gambling, had just been named to major-league baseball’s All-Century Team. Current players flocked around Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Nolan Ryan. But fans in Atlanta cheered for Rose the most, the man dubbed “Charley Hustle.” Some fans wept during this celebration. Not Gray. He wanted to know whether Rose was willing to admit to gambling on major-league baseball (something Rose finally did in a book a few years ago.) But in 1999, Rose was adamant. He had not gambled.

As fans were wiping their eyes, Gray tossed a hardball question that would have made Warren Spahn proud. “Are you willing to show contrition, admit that you bet on baseball and make some sort of an apology to that effect,” Gray said.

“Not at all Jim. Not at all,” Rose replied. “I’m not gonna admit to something that didn’t happen. I know you get tired of hearing me say that. … I’m just a small part of a big deal tonight.”

For the next two-plus minutes, Gray peppered Rose with similar questions. Some fans said he harassed him, some media folks even said he badgered Rose. If fans or NBC honchos wanted an emcee, they should have hired someone like Ahmad Rashad – and not put in a journalist trained to get to the truth of the matter. There’s a world of difference between a sport announcer and a sports journalist. You’ll have to decide which you want to be.

Fans and players called for Gray’s balding head. Some fans even created websites dedicated to getting Gray fired. NBC did not flinch, much to the chagrin of several executives at other networks. A few weeks later, CNN’s news boss told me he would have hired Gray in a heartbeat had NBC been stupid enough to fire him. Those in charge at the network understood what it takes to be a sports reporter. Young reporters need to understand this as well. Be courageous. Ask tough questions. Be a journalist, not a fan.

As a sports journalist, you need to know a few thing about your role before heading out to fields, tracks and locker rooms.

Don’t be a fan.
As a reporter, you are supposed to remain objective. If you want to cheer, buy a ticket. There is no cheering in the press box or in your stories. Even if you cover the college team on your campus, keep your rooting out of stories. Report on your teams as if you were an off-campus observer.

Don’t create heroes or villains
Athletes are people. Some are wonderful, some are jerks. The public likes to think they know athletes, but they do not. You are not expected to report on every little oddity or infraction of these players, but you are expected to report on the big problems like drunken driving or any arrests. Don’t protect players, but don’t make an issue of a player’s off-field behavior either unless it affects his/her play on the field – or unless this player broke a law. So a player has a child out of wedlock – is this really news? Not unless this person is a spokesperson for a ‘Just Say No’ celibacy group. Don’t pander to readers’ lurid curiosity.

Also, athletes and coaches are in a position to demand respect without giving any back. Don’t let yourself be pushed around. I’ve seen high school coaches who thought they were talking to one of their players during a post-game interview – and I’ve had to remind a few that I was not one of their kids. If a guy’s a jerk, stop talking with this player or coach. You do not have take verbal abuse for any reason. In my experiences, though, the vast majority of coaches and players have been terrific. A few are heroes, a few are villains, and many are somewhere in between. Don’t create a character; instead, reflect the character in people. Seek truth and report it.

Don’t look for friends.
Don’t cover sports to find friends. Have a courteous professional relationship. After years on a beat, you might become true friends with a select few – however, make sure these friends know that if they screw up, you will have to cover it. If this makes you uncomfortable, pick another beat. If you are honest and fair with your sources, they will offer the same back to you. A reporter should seek respect for a job well done, not friendship. Also, do not go into sports journalism to be a celebrity yourself. We are information-gatherers. That’s what we should do best. Spend time behind the scenes. That’s where the best stuff is anyways.

Don’t take freebies.
No shirts, sweaters, golf clubs, free trips or tickets to the game. Even if you pay full price, you are really acting unethically. Sure, you can argue, you paid full price for that box seat at a World Series game. But that’s something few others would have been able to do. Most likely, you were offered those prime tickets because of your position as a sports reporter. Refuse any special treatment, gifts, or favors.

Professional teams in the NFL and NBA regularly offer buffets to those covering games, knowing reporters will not have the chance to leave the stadium. NFL beat reporters, for instance, will arrive at least a few hours before kickoff and depart at night after interviewing players and filing stories. So buffets are set up in most press boxes. Some newspapers send a check to these teams, estimating how much food their reporters will eat during a season.

Note to college reporters (Advisers and professional journalists skip to the next paragraph. There’s nothing to see here. Move along now.): Eat up at your college games. Most college kids are poor and hungry. You are spending much time at these games, working hard to file your game stories, columns and side bars. Get some necessary sustenance. That’s what I tell my college sports reporters. This is my sole exception, one that others might not agree with. Eat up at these games, but do not do so when you are covering stories off campus. Make sure to ask editors about this policy at any news company that hires you after college.

Hey advisers! You can start reading right here. We were just chatting about pop music and tuition fees.

Many years ago, I refused to wear my high school alma mater’s jacket when temperatures plummeted during a football game. I froze. The winds blew and my hand trembled as I recorded game stats. The assistant coach, a close acquaintance, implored me to wear the jacket. I told him the coach on the other sidelines might not understand. I was glad when that damned game was over.

On the other hand, some gifts are offered innocently. If somebody sends you flowers as thanks for a story or profile piece, you do not necessarily need to send them back. That could be rude. If this is someone you might not ever interview again, keep them and appreciate this gracious act. If this is a source you regularly deal with, you can keep the flowers – but do gently remind the source that you are not allowed to accept such gifts, even one as nice as flowers.
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Good riddance, Chief

February 21, 2007

Students are livid. Alumni are furious. Fans are so angry they are peppering websites with angry messages. The University should be ashamed for bowing to pressure from the NCAA, they write.

Now, people all over Illinois are stunned and deflated as they prepare to say good-bye to the Chief, the school’s American Indian mascot for the past 81 years.

No longer will fans get to see a University of Illini student make a mockery of Native American culture. No longer will students get to see a 20-something white male jump around as if he had ants in his pants. No longer will people in the arena get to see the most ridiculous and insensitive portrayal of an ethnic group anywhere. Thank God.

The Chief is relatively new to me. I grew up in Florida where we have our own version of the Chief. But that’s where the comparison ends. Before football games, Chief Osceola and his horse, Renegade, ride out to the center of the field and throw a spear into the middle of the field. Afterward, this chief pretty much sits on his horse, riding up and down the sidelines a few times. Chief Osceola does not do a mocking dance, nor chant nonsensically.

Unlike at U of I, Florida State has the support of the local Indian tribe. The Seminole Tribe officially sanctions Chief Osceola and the use of its name. Plus, the Seminole Tribe seeks the connection to the university. It’s am “honor” to be associated, says Max Osceola, the chief and general council president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Of course, the university pays the tribe for the use of that mascot. Still, there is a difference between the two chiefs. The chief at Florida State is quieter and treated with respect. At the U of I, the chief is a spazz who mocks Native Americans. What in the world does that dance have to do with anything that Illini, or any other Indians, find spiritual and sacred? Isn’t a university supposed to stand for reason and knowledge? Illinois is one of the finest research institutions in the country, yet it is remembered more and more for the Chief’s dance. The decision is a no-brainer for such a revered educational institution.

How about we use Sambo as a mascot and have him do a black-faced dance a la Bojangles? The Chief’s dance is just as absurd. What’s just as sad are the comments on message boards and in interviews cited on TV and in newspapers. Many fans and alumni are attacking the university and the NCAA for forcing the end of the chief’s escapades.

Fans invoke such weighty words as honor and loyalty and tradition, but they fail to mention that the chief ridicules these very same words for Native Americans everywhere. [By the way, how in the hell does the NFL allow such a mean-spirited word as Redskins to remain as a team nickname?]

“The chief is an honored symbol,” writes one fan. “I am ashamed of the University of Illinois. The Chief is much more than a ‘mascot.’ He is a respected and honored tradition who has spanned generations.”

Another writes: “I love the Chief and the honor, loyalty, and tradition that he stands for. … The University has now lowered itself to the level of all other universities in the nation by giving up a proud heritage.”

Buying and wearing more Illiniwek merchandise will show those forcing this change, writes another fan who is “ashamed” of his university. Fortunately, the spirit of Chief will transcend time, don’t ya know: “The legacy, spirit, and tradition of Chief Illiniwek will go on through all of us who have held him in such high regard for so many years, and he will forever be the honored symbol of the University of Illinois no matter what.”

One fan says we should stop looking for ways to be offended by free expressions like Chief Illinwek’s dance. Here’s the twisted logic: “We can choose to be offended or we can ignore the words or actions that offend us.” That’s easy to say if you do not face such discrimination on a daily basis.

So today while reporters and columnists continue to feed on this frenzy, and fans mourn, and students drink, and the board of trustees that voted to end the Chief’s affiliation stays at home, I will sit down in front of the TV and switch off the Illinois-Michigan game and turn on “The Sopranos.” At least, I know the portrayal of Italian-Americans in this show purposely mocks stereotypes for entertainment purposes. There’s no pretense that the loyalty, honor and tradition in this show are legitimate. Besides, this show is a helluva lot more entertaining.

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