You can’t be a fan and a sports reporter

by


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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