Archive for March, 2007

All should fight for free speech

March 30, 2007


The great John Siegenthaler spoke briefly at the Center for Innovation in College Media in Nashville, Tenn. The man who fought for civil rights and continues to battle for freedom of expression said he wishes he could jump more into new media reporting.

“I’m in my 80th year, but I wish I were starting over,” Siegenthaler said. “There’s the chance to do so much with the written word that’s never been done before. I wish to hell I was your age – and not for the reasons you might think.”

Everybody needs to learn more about the Siegenthaler and the continued fight of all journalists (and citizens) for freedom of expression,. You can start by checking out the Freedom Forum and First Amendment Center site and by reading as much as you can on Sieganthaler.

(photo/Brian Poulter)

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Training offered at sports reporting institute

March 30, 2007


Here’s an opportunity for students looking to dig into sports more intensely.

Here’s the desciption from their website. Check it out (and let me know if you attend.) Would love to hear from someone attending this during the summer.

“The Sports Institute will offer an intensive four-week program of study, combining the practical and theoretical works of the sports industry. The purpose of the Institute is to train professionals and to offer a unique, specialized program in a nationally renowned academic setting.

This summer the institute is scheduled for June 4 – June 29, 2007.

Participants in the program will take four courses over the period of study, meeting a minimum of four hours a week per course. The intensive area of study will be open to current Boston University students as well as students from other colleges and universities. College students must have at least junior or above status. Graduate students are welcome as well. Professionals seeking career advancement are encouraged to enroll.

Tuition for the four week program is $4,000. Living expenses are not included in this fee. Contact Prof. Shorr for more information at fshorr@bu.edu.”

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Last Best League teaches much about baseball

March 30, 2007


Anybody covering baseball should pick up Jim Collins’ The Last Best League, a book that covers the top wooden-bat league in the nation. The top college baseball players in the country gather in Cape Cod each summer to see how they compare to other top prospects. Collins follows a team through a summer season. You’ll get a chance to see another side of professional and college baseball in this wonderfully written book.

This book also teaches much about setting, something sports journalists need to capture for gamers, features, and profiles. Setting should be more than mere background in a story, something Collins proves. Setting should help define the people we focus on in features about runners, ball players and swimmers. Head out to practice and describe athletes in their settings, both on and off the field.

Show plants blooming, hear wind whistling through an open field, and describe the salty air on a sultry night. A writer who spends time describing the tactile elements of a scene will retain readers in far greater numbers.

Here’s how Collins describes Chatham, a village on Cape Cod, Mass.:

“The days were lengthening, extending the sunlight past eight o’clock. Salt marshes greened up. Cranberry bushes and black locust trees bloomed. Some of the players had their first fun in town.”

And Collins describes the winds that frequently rake the towns and fields on the Cape through sound:

“Wind always blew here – the only question was whether high or low. When the wind was low, as it was that day, it snapped the American flag near the press box, whistled over the top of the plateau, and swirled across the diamond toward left field. The wind jerked fly balls, suddenly shifted them, gave outfielders fits.”

I love scenes where he focuses on a moment, like a photographer who frames a close-up shot:

“Chad Orvella’s hands were sweating so much that they squished in his leather batting gloves; he couldn’t swing without slipping. He walked back to the dugout with his bat under one arm, took off his batting gloves and wrung them like a sponge. D’Antona’s gray ‘Wake Forest’ T-shirt darkened with sweat halfway into his first round of swings. The players wished Schiffner would allow them to take B.P. in shorts and no shirts, the way teams did in Orleans and Bourne.”

This scene is palpable. The hands squished, the feet slipped, the glove was “wrung like a sponge,” and the T-shirt was soaked with sweat. The scene is palpable. Readers can feel the moment. Readers are immersed.

Collins shows so much more in this book as well. In particular, sports reporters can learn more about the business of college and professional baseball and about game strategy. This book is worth a read. Check it out.

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Rugby — covering games

March 28, 2007


It’s rugby season for many colleges, the time when college teams prepare for their national championships. Most sportswriters know very little about this exciting sport that has the grace of soccer, the power of football, and the speed of track.

Here’s another thing most sportswriters do not know: These rugby titles are not fully sanctioned NCAA championships, so do not write them as if they are. They are not NCAA Division I or II. Teams do not play in any sanctioned conference, such as the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast or Big Ten. These games are played by club players. And teams do not have official rankings (Alex Goff ranks teams on his rugby website, but one person’s ratings are hardly worth noting as a national ranking. The Associated Press and other polls rely upon at least a few dozen reporters who regularly cover the beats to make such assessments.)

In addition, these games are club championships, the same titles that your campus’s club hockey team or volleyball team competes to win. Usually, these other titles are run by the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA). Rugby’s championships are run by USA Rugby. So make sure you address these points properly in your stories.

There is only one men’s sanctioned varsity team in the country (California-Berkeley) and only four varsity women’s rugby programs in the country. Eastern Illinois is the only Division I program. A sport requires 40 members to earn NCAA championship status. No men’s teams are expected to jump from club status. However, several women’s teams are considering this leap – partly because it helps solve Title IX parity and partly because this is an exciting sport. Check out the NCAA’s emerging sports list to check out other sports seeking championship status.

Most reporters are attracted to the clichéd, stereotypical aspects of the game – the blood, violence, and fact that women play this sport. These angles are worn and overdone. Plus, there is not any more blood, violence or injury in rugby than in sports such as football, soccer and basketball. You can check out the statistics for yourself. (That might even be a good story to pursue.)

Despite the misconceptions, reporters have much to cover in rugby. This is an exciting sport with much more action than football and that runs non-stop like soccer. This sport is also about speed. If you do cover rugby, you need to read some rules, watch a few practices, and speak to as many experts as you can about the sport – that does not always mean the players (most of whom are learning it at the same time you are.) You might want to read Jim Greenwood’s Total Rugby or the book Rugby For Dummies to gain some basic information.

Like with soccer, you will want to takes notes on key plays and scores. Typically, there will not be any official scorer, so take detailed notes. Check uniform numbers and names before games start. If there is no official clock, bring a stopwatch to get a sense of time remaining in each forty-minute half.

To start, reporters might want to just list the scoring plays (that include the pass preceding the score along with the length of this scoring run.)

For example: “Samantha Manto took a pass from Molly Clutter and ran thirty yards down the left sideline to score the decisive try in a 90-0 victory over Tennessee.

That score was only three minutes into the game. Manto scored four more times, and Brittany Brown scored twice, to keep Eastern Illinois undefeated (4-0) on Saturday afternoon.”

Next, reporters might want to stand next to a coach to listen to his instructions. That way you can start viewing the game more like a veteran. You can also note key tackles, especially those near the end zone. Mark down the numbers for players so you can verify the names afterward (even if you have a roster).

In addition, you can check on USA Rugby’s web site to read five myths about NCAA women’s rugby.

Rugby is truly an exciting sport, one that could easily catch on as soccer did a few decades ago.

Frank Graziano, the head coach of the only NCAA Division I women’s rugby program, offers some advice below on watching his sport. Frank has served as assistant national team coach for the Women’s National U-23 program and has been National Event Coordinator and Collegiate Director for USA Rugby. Frank played at Clemson, where he also created the women’s rugby team in 1995.

“To some extent, rugby is just like watching football. For all purposes, it’s football with the free flow of ‘up and down’ like soccer. First, the forward progress is key, just like in football. Going forward – or invading the opposition’s territory – is crucial. And committing or creating turnovers while doing that shortens the field.”

“One team being able to break the defensive line is crucial, like in soccer and football. A soccer game stuck in the middle of the field is not so good, which forces soccer teams to go over the top. It’s the same with rugby. If you can not run through the opposition, then you have to kick down the field and try to gain field position, or maybe recover the ball or pin the opposition back. This is much like punting in football, where teams try to gain field position.”

“The two main set pieces – the scrum and lineout – can create a positive fall back at change of possession. For instance, if I cannot run through the opposition’s defense and choose to kick over the top to gain territory, this is a great strategy, especially if I am dominating the lineouts. (Even though the change of possession is at the lineout 40 yards down the field.) If I stand a better than even chance I can steal the lineout, then I put the opposition under pressure and remove one of their strengths, their midfield running defense.”

“As another example, if I am doing well at the scrum, then every time I ‘knock on,’ I stand a good chance to get the ball back.”

“The next key thing is athletic running ability. It’s football without pads. The team with the best, fastest, most powerful runners always has the advantages. There is no blocking n rugby so running the ball is even more crucial than in football. Good blocking in football can make even an average running back do well. With no blocking, it’s all about the running. The team with an advantage in these areas has control. Skill is very limited. It’s not that complicated a skill game. Passing a rugby ball is a piece of cake.”

Teams consist of fifteen players, whose roles are unique but also overlap. Like in football, certain players push and create spaces for the runners. These players are the front-line players (props, hookers). Unlike in football, any rugby player can receive passes and run with the ball, although the flankers, scrum half, fly half and fullbacks are more likely to run with the ball. The flyhalf is most like a quarterback, a player who runs the offense, telling people where to go and deciding when to kick the ball to set up better field position.

The scrum half is a mix between an option quarterback and a defensive back, a player who needs great hands for passing and quickness for slipping through tight places, like a ruck, scrum, or line of defenders.

Traditionally, players have been numbered according to their positions. No. 1 is typically a loose-head prop, No. 9 is typically a scrumhalf and No. 15 is usually the fullback. The sport even has a position called the Number 8 whose main role is to direct and control rucks from the rear. This player usually make a big impact in the game, but rarely gets the notice. Sometimes, this player might have the most tackles (if you track them), but, more often, than not, this is a person who does all the little things well, especially those that go unnoticed – sort of like a combination of offensive lineman and inside linebacker.

Player numbers might change, though, if the NCAA takes over. Eastern Illinois is among the teams that does not assign jersey numbers to positions, mostly because individuals are assigned one jersey number, according to NCAA regulations. So a reserve Number 8 might have to wear No. 23, otherwise there will be much confusion as to who is actually on the field.

The field is a little larger than a football field, roughly 20 yards wider and 10 yards longer. The field has a mid-field line and two 22-meter lines (although NCAA regulations might change this to 25-yard lines), two 10-meter lines, and a goal line. A player must pass across this goal line AND touch the ball down to record a five-point try. The spot where the two-point conversion, or extra point, is kicked is based upon where the ball is touched down in the try (or goal) zone. Obviously, a spot right in front of the crossbars is the best choice, so ball carriers may keep eluding defenders and running around until they get to a prime location. Of course, players can be tackled and stripped off the ball before reaching this spot, which is one reason why some scores are registered in the far corners. These difficult conversion kicks are almost always off line.

Teams may also kick field goals, three-pointers, from a spot on the field where a penalty has been assigned. Typically, teams prefer to keep going for the five to seven points when this happens near the goal area. But, in tough games, some teams will go for the easier three-point kick instead.

Below are a few more terms that might help you understand the game. Clearly, rugby cannot be fully defined in such a short space, so I would recommend reading the books listed above – and anything else that will help you understand this sport.

KEY TERMS
■ Try – Worth five points. Players literally have to touch the ball down. (Many football terms evolved from rugby.)
■ Conversion kick – This is worth two points. Unlike football, this kick is positioned on angle from where the ball is touched down in the try zone.
■ Scrum – The scrum is a contest for possession of the ball that involves eight players who lock arms and push against the other team’s eight players. The ball is then rolled into the scrum. Each team pushes forward so the scrumhalf can get the ball and put an offensive play in motion. Scrums are a way to restart play after a minor infraction (or penalty).
■ Lineout – This is also a way to restart play – in this case, if the ball or a ball carrier go out of bounds. This works sort of like a jump ball, where one team’s player throws the ball down the middle of a line. Players from both teams, who are sometimes held up like in a cheerleading move, then grab fro the ball. No contact is allowed during lineouts.
■ Tackles – Players must immediately let go of the ball when they hit the ground so that play can continue. If they stay on top of the ball, a penalty is called.

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Hey, BCS teams, play someone your own size!

March 28, 2007


Division II programs are going to be required to play fewer games against larger programs. That’s good for everybody. Typically, these are money games, where bigger programs essentially seek an ‘official’ preseason game and an easy victory. Sometimes, players at smaller programs can get hurt, which happened to Eastern Illinois’ top linebacker last season against the U of Illinois.

This new rule should force larger programs to play someone their own size, which is also good for fans. Plus, Division II programs will get more opportunities to play against one another, which should build more intense rivalries and enhance the quality of Division II sports.

Here is the lead from a posting on the NCAA website.

“In conjunction with the initiative to encourage more intra-division competition, the Division II Football Committee recommended to increase the number of games institutions are required to play within the division from six to eight contests.

If approved by the Division II Championships Committee, the requirement would take effect in the 2008 season.”

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Baseball — Covering games

March 27, 2007


I should have comments from several other baseball writers in the coming weeks, but wanted to post this right now since so many schools are covering baseball on campus. This posting also includes some fine advice from the baseball beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Enjoy.

Dejan Kovacevic, the baseball beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, says reporters need to prepare before going to games. That’s true whether you are covering a high school game or a major-league game. Read as much as you can on these teams and check for updated stats.

“The most important element is preparation, exhaustive study of trends on both sides, and written notes to accompany those,” Kovacevic says. “On a tight deadline, there is no time to look up how many home runs Albert Pujols has hit at PNC. It simply has to be at your fingertips. This way, if he does it in the 10th inning, you have time to get that information into the first-edition version of the story, even before the one that has quotes.”

LEAD ELEMENTS
Elements to put in the first several paragraphs.
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ Date
■ Team records
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the “big picture?” What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Look for a story. Do not automatically focus on a scoring play or some key stat.
■ For precedes, do not lead with the fact two teams are going to play one another; instead, find an angle that is more interesting. What’s the history between the teams? What’s the significance of this game (For instance, does it impact the conference or district standings?) Find something about the upcoming game to introduce the fact the two teams will be playing. Perhaps, this is the first game of a conference schedule.
■ Try something new each time you write, otherwise you will fall into a rut. There is no best way to write a lead but the points above might help you to develop your own creative leads to game stories. “As soon as a lead starts working for you, you get formulaic, and I try very, very hard to avoid that,” says Kovacevic. “Especially in baseball, where your annual byline count is easily 800 or more, it is important to avoid predictability.”

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ How teams scored. Each inning write a few sentences describing how each team scored so you will have this when you write the gamer later. (Make sure you also keep a good account in a scorebook.)
■ Runners each team leaves on base. You will see the stat ‘LOB’ in many box scores. Some box scores now break down LOB for each individual player. This number can be perceived at least two ways. On the one hand, a team with many runners left on base (say, 10 or 12) must have hit pretty well to get so many players on base. Even teams that score eight or 10 runs will leave higher numbers of runner on base. On the other hand, a team may have hit poorly in clutch situations. You’ll notice this when a team has left many runners on base but has scored far fewer runs (perhaps two or three). In addition, look for specific examples from the game to illustrate this, perhaps by focusing on an at-bats where a hitter failed to drive in runners already in scoring position (second or third base) with fewer than two outs.
■ Sacrifice bunts. Determine when (and how often) a team uses the sacrifice bunt in a game. Some managers rely on this much more often than others. For example, one coach (or manager) might bunt a runner over to third when the team has no outs to set up a sacrifice fly while others might prefer to give his batters two opportunities to drive the runner in with a hit. (Look for trends during the season, if this is your beat.)
■ Hitting behind the runner. Determine how often a batter hits a ball to the right side of the field to advance a runner. A right-handed hitter like Derek Jeter will often try to hit balls toward right field (or to second or first base) in order to send a runner from second to third, especially if there are no outs. This is really an unofficial sacrifice, where the batter has given himself up to help the team. As a result, the team would only need a long fly ball to get the runner across the plate. This is not considered a sacrifice, though, because the batter might also punch the ball through the infield for a hit. Still, take note of times when batters do something unselfish like this.
■ Be a stats geek. Go through box scores to analyze stats. Look for trends in hitting and pitching stats for individuals and teams. For example, you might find that a team has left more than 10 runners on base over the past six games, or that the team has averaged 2.1 runs per game during the past two weeks. (Ask high school coaches, or their team managers, if you can review their scorebooks before games. That means arriving to the game much earlier, when the teams are warming up.) You might also notice that a pitcher has not walked a batter in his past three games or that a hitter has gone nine-for-12 in his past four games. Some other team stats to consider: errors, stolen bases, and number of times a team has grounded into a double play (That’s GIDP in most box scores.)
■ Hitting streaks. As you look through stats, check for hitting streaks such as those listed above, so you can ask questions afterwards that focus on why players are doing so well. Also, check for streaks where players are struggling. Check to see if a player has gone hitless in his last nine at-bats or if he has managed just two hits in his last 19 at-bats. It is particularly interesting when excellent players struggle (in a long season, every hitter struggles at some point). Even Derek Jeter went through a streak like this a few years ago, going hitless in 20-plus at-bats. Hitting is a difficult thing to do, perhaps one of the most difficult things to do in any sport. (Someone who is successful 30 percent of the time at the plate is considered a top player with a .300 average. That would be a horrible percentage for a basketball player or a quarterback.) Do not be unfairly harsh on players when this happens, but citing stats that reveal a hitting drought is not a problem.
■ Pitching streaks. Check to see how a pitcher has performed during the past several games or weeks. Has this pitcher won or lost a number of games in a row? Has this pitcher struck out 10-plus hitters a game or walked four-plus a game? Also, see how many unearned runs this pitcher has allowed recently (or for the season). Errors cause pitchers to work harder, and, as a result, to often allow more runs to score. You can also check for other stats, such as ERA and number of pitches per game. You can also check into how many runs this pitcher typically allows in the first few innings against the last few innings, or how a pitcher does after 80 or 90 pitches. These are more detailed stats that will be harder to get at the Little League or high school levels unless you are charting every game. But as you get to the higher levels, these stats are out there – typically compiled by sports information or the major-league clubs. Make sure you speak to pitching coaches, catchers and managers to get more insights into these stats. Stats alone do not always tell the story. A pitcher might be throwing through injuries or may have lost his mechanics. Ask these questions to determine the reasons for pitchers’ performances.
■ Key plays. These plays are not always as obvious as a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth or a grand slam in the sixth inning. Look for the less obvious plays as well, such as a hard slide in the fourth where a runner broke up a double play that, in turn, allowed the inning to continue and a run to score in a game determined by a single run. Or look for a batter who fought off a tough pitcher for a 10-pitch walk late in the game that forced the starting pitcher out of a game and allowed his team to score against the reliever. Or look for a successful hit-and-run that confused the defense and allowed an easy grounder to short to roll into left field – and sending a runner in for the decisive score. Learn the game by speaking with veteran coaches and players, by reading reports on games by regular baseball beat writers, by listening to baseball announcers, and by reading the rules book, among other things.
■ Ground balls vs. fly balls. Determine how many outs a pitcher records from fly balls compared to ground outs. Pitchers and managers prefer ground outs. They can lead to more double-plays and are less likely to go for home runs. You’ll also find these outs reflect the types of pitches thrown. A sinker ball pitcher is more likely to get many more ground outs than a pitcher who relies on a fastball. Of course, any pitcher can hang a curveball that floats to the plate softly with nary a break. That’s a nightmare for all pitchers. Determine when this happens as well. The more you watch and listen, the better you will get at analyzing the game.
■ Isolate a moment. “I will say that I try to isolate on a moment or turning point in the game,” Kovacevic says. “Or, to give the game a face or personality that might make it memorable. I want the reader, even the one who attended in person, to feel it important to pick up the paper the next day to have a definition of that game.”
■ Mini-streaks during games. Did a pitcher retire nine batters in a row across four middle innings, or retire the final eight batters? Did a team score a run in five straight innings, or connect for eight straight hits? Look for these ministreaks as well. They might not be the lead, but they are interesting to note elsewhere in the story, especially if you can connect the streak to the bigger story.
■ Play by play. Start by focusing on the key plays. After that, you should usually focus on scoring in the later innings before the first few innings, the same way you would focus more on the final quarter of a football game or a basketball game. That’s when the game is much more tense and likely to shift in one team’s favorite, if the game is relatively close. For games that are blowouts, focus more on key plays.
■ Injuries – were any key players hurt or did any player recently return from an injury. (Read stories on the teams and check with coaches to determine this.)

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Use earned-run average in first reference. You can use ERA in subsequent references.
■ Use RBI in first reference. Still, find other ways to cite them. For example, you can also write that a player “drove in three runs,” not just that “he had three RBI.”
■ Batters go 2-for-3, not two for three.
■ High school games are typically six innings.
■ College doubleheaders typically go seven innings.
■ You can put records in parentheses, especially when they also reflect conference or district marks. For example, you would write that Eastern Illinois (18-10, 12-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference) is one game away from earning an NCAA bid. If you have mentioned that the game is a conference or district game, you do not need to cite that information in the parentheses. For example: Lake Brantley (15-3, 9-1) drilled four home runs to rout Lyman (14-4, 8-2) in a key district game.

CLICHES TO AVOID
■ These are games, not “contests.” That’s true for any sporting event. Pie eating? Now that’s a contest (and a tasty one at that.)
■ Runs are not “plated,” they are scored.
■ Check the Associated Press Stylebook for the spelling of key words, such as home run (being two words) and left-hander. The section is in the back of the stylebook, entitled SPORTS GUIDELINES. Keep it with you at all games.

QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS AFTER THE GAME

As you review the following questions, make sure you realize your approach is as important as the questions you ask. “Every human being is different, so my approach is different with each individual,” says Kovacevic. “Some respond best to a joke or even a jab. Some prefer it serious.”
■ Ask players what they were thinking (during a key point in the game)?
■ Ask players to comment on the opposing pitcher.
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays
■ Ask managers/coaches to explain reasons for recent trends. (Do you know what has caused your pitcher to struggle recently? Do you know what has caused your shortstop to go on a hitting streak lately?)
■ Ask how the team has played recently.
■ Ask catchers about their pitchers – specifically about ball movement, mechanics and location.

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Here’s a fine example of a game column

March 23, 2007


Columns can be difficult to write. Writing one from a game on deadline is even more difficult. A sports columnist needs to understand the topic and needs to do the research to prepare for several angles. Then, of course, the columnist needs to write the piece in a compelling manner.

Tom Keller, a columnist for Michigan State’s State News, did just that while covering the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament in North Carolina.

Keller focused on the odd pairing of junior guard Drew Neitzel and junior walk-on foward Jake Hannon, players as much alike as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.

A sports column, in many ways, is a sports news story with an opinion. Too many columnists want to offer their opinions — and too often these opinions are not informed. That is not the case here. Keller spoke with key people, researched the topic, had a clear working knowledge of the subject, revealed observations, and had a strong news angle. In addition, Keller made some interesting connections through his research, looked below the surface of the game with intellgience, and wrote it all exceptionally well.

Here’s the start of his column:

Winston-Salem, N.C. — We knew that for MSU to win in the NCAA Tournament, someone other than junior guard Drew Neitzel would have to step up.

But if you were the one who guessed that someone would be walk-on junior forward Jake Hannon, put the paper down, go buy a lottery ticket, then come back and finish reading. You are obviously channeling some serious clairvoyance.

And here’s Keller describing a key moment in the game:

Head coach Tom Izzo pointed down the bench at Hannon, who was hit with a rush of adrenaline and an incessant, overriding thought: Don’t screw up.”

This a fine example of game column-writing. Keller writes well — and reports well. I look forward to reading more of this young columnist. Check out his column for yourself.

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Working with coaches & players

March 22, 2007

Covering a beat is a challenge for everybody involved – reporters, players and coaches. Sometimes, coaches and players get upset by coverage they perceive as unfair, inaccurate or unflattering. We should not immediately dismiss this as whining or unimportant. We need to listen to everybody, including those whom we cover.

Those tensions have simmered here at Eastern during the past semester. In the past year, we have covered many stories that go outside the lines of playing fields, such as a player kicked off a team for grades, another player kicked out following a stabbing, and an associate athletic administrator charged with burglary, among other things. Needless to say, nobody loves to speak about problems.

But we have also heard concerns over less sensational matters. Coaches have shown displeasure when we cited injuries to key players, when we called athletes at home and when we commented on potential recruits. Players have also complained when we have run pictures or stories that are less than flattering. Some points are merited, others are not.

To address this, we asked to attend the athletic department’s next coaches meeting in order to speak candidly about these concerns. I’d recommend that such meetings be considered off the record. (I will not cite specific names here for this very reason.)

Here are the main concerns addressed by the coaches here at Eastern Illinois.
■ That a reporter unfairly assessed a high school recruit.
■ That we call female players at home.
■ That some reporters do not understand the NCAA rules.
■ That reporters/photographers do not verify athlete names for pictures.
■ That coaches would like set times for interviews.
■ That reporters should not enter training rooms.

By and large, these coaches have been accommodating, allowing reporters to interview players during practices, allowing reporters to travel on road trips, and speaking candidly even when their teams have not fared well. And several coaches also noted the fine coverage our daily newspaper does in covering their teams. But this was a time for listening to concerns. And that’s what we did. Afterward, I spoke with the sports editor and the sports staff to address these issues. Listening and talking are one thing. Acting is another. Have a call to action after such events. That’s what we are doing. We are going to add guidelines to our newspaper’s Stylebook and Manual; plus, we are going to build on training sessions. Below are some of the points we decided on after our sports staff meeting.

Here is how we addressed the concerns:

■ We will treat high school players differently than college and professional athletes. This is the case at most professional newspapers. These are kids, after all. Our reporter, a veteran, talented reporter did spend time going out to watch this player in action. He also looked at stats and spoke with some coaches, doing a fine job going beyond uninformed commentary. Coaches can get angry, though, when we write such stories, perceiving that we have derailed months of hard work in recruiting a player. Frankly, we are not here as a public relations staff. However, the coach does bring up a valid point about covering a young player who has not even reached campus. As a result, we will put some guidelines into our manual about covering high school players.

■ Another coach is concerned about his players, feeling that our reporters should not call his young women directly. As a father of two young girls, I appreciate his desire to look out after these other ‘daughters.’ This man is an exceptional coach and a fine person, working hard to offer access as much as possible. He has asked our reporters to call him first, so he can tell his players to return our calls. He is not trying to limit access. Rather, he believes this is about protecting players. I noted that our reporters are good kids as well. An associate athletic director noted that many of these numbers are published. The coach seemed upset when I said I would not dissuade reporters from calling his players in the future. However, I agree we should not do this so frequently. We also should not call players on road trips if the team has a rule against cell phones on buses. I also agree that we should not call players late at night or early in the morning. In fact, I would argue that we should not rely on phone calls for coverage. Instead, reporters need to get out to practices and speak to players then – either right before or after training ends. That’s when a reporter can dive into questions with many players at one place. Laziness on a reporter’s end is unacceptable. Reporters should not hassle players and coaches at inconvenient times just because we have not done our job properly. We reinforced this rule to sports staffers and will add this to our training sessions and to the manual.

■ Reporters need better knowledge of NCAA rules so they do not ask coaches about potential recruits or injuries, among other things. Coaches are prohibited from speaking about such matters. They can be penalized or reprimanded. Stop asking coaches such questions. We can report on injuries if we learn about them, and we can also comment on players set to sign. But we should not ask coaches to comment on these reports. Sports reporters also need to learn more about the NCAA’s new graduation policy that goes into effect next year. It’s going to be a blood bath at some schools. We plan to invite a coach, or NCAA compliance officer, to do a short session on rules next fall for back-to-school training. We will also add key points into our manual.

■ We have told reporters to set up weekly meetings with coaches, if they prefer that approach. That does not mean we will not also speak to coaches at other times, but it should help limit the number of calls coaches receive through the week. Regularly going to practice should also solve some of these concerns.

■ Reporters should never enter a training room, unless invited. Athletes can be half-dressed as they receive treatments. Do not enter the room, or even stand by the door, unless properly invited into the room. There’s a statement for the staff manual.

■ We also need to continue to verify names of athletes, particularly in sports like track and field where competitors do not always have numbers. Reporters, make sure you check with your photographers to identify anybody pictured from any team.

Like any reporters, sports writers need to thoroughly research columns and stories, speak with people on all sides (and teams), and present news and opinions intelligently. There will always be some tensions between players, coaches and sports reporters. But we need to do our job to make sure we solve the problems that arise from our own practices and approaches.

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Old school vs. new school sports journalists

March 21, 2007


Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, writes a terrific column on old school vs. new school sports journalism. Clark focuses on what some perceive as a dramatic shift in sports coverage.

Clark is right on the money in regards to debates between old vs. new. I have heard more than a few old-timers lament about people like ESPN’s Bill Simmons. I myself chafed until I took him as he was — a fun-loving guy who sees sports beyond the stats and standings. I also like Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who does some of the same things. Jerry Greene at the Orlando Sentinel is also an entertaining, knowledgeable sports columnist.

You also might want to check out Clark’s column on Mitch Albom from a few years ago where Clark talks about the perils of sports columnists as celebrities and franchise players for newspapers. It’s an excellent read. Check them both out.

There are also some spots left for Poynter’s sports journalism summit in St. Petersburg, Fla., next week. Click here to learn more.

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Soccer — covering matches

March 21, 2007


Scott French always brings four things to any soccer game he covers – binoculars, a stopwatch, tape recorder and a Mead flexible composition notebook. That way, French, who has covered two women’s World Cups, two men’s World Cups and Major League Soccer, can follow the games more precisely.

The binoculars enable him to gather details about plays across the field (or from high in a press box). A stopwatch enables him to accurately record the time of key plays at stadiums and fields where scoreboard clocks are not used (or available.) After games, French tapes players and coaches. During the game, he uses the Mead notebook to record key plays, comments and scoring (team-player-minute), red cards and yellow cards, starting lineups and substitutions.

French, a former senior editor for Soccer America magazine who has covered soccer for more than 40 newspapers, diagrams scoring plays to show which defenders were beaten, to record the passes leading to the goal, and to note where the shot was placed.

“In the World Cup, we’ve got TV monitors in front of us, and the replays are excellent,” French says. “As I look at my diagram of Mexico’s first goal against Iran, I’ve got three Mexicans (6-Torrado, 3-Salcido and 4-Marquez) running to the near post just before a free kick from the right wing. In doing so, they pull three defenders with them. Franco, initially behind the trio, pulls out, and Pardo’s free kick goes to him. Franco then heads the ball toward the far post, and Bravo has slipped into open space to finish. The detail is in my notes, and I wrote about it in my story. Rarely do I have this much detail.”

Steve Goff, who covers soccer for the Washington Post, says sports reporters should not focus so much on play-by-play and game stats. The fewer the numbers that appear in the story, the better. Sometimes, this cannot be avoided. Too often, reporters rely on stats when they do not understand the game.

Instead, Goff recommends telling the story that unfolds. “This is critically important in our new world of communication in which many readers have already watched the game on TV, and/or read the wire services story on the Internet; and/or scoured the box score,” he says.

Goff likes to lead with a snapshot of an important event that might illuminate a turning point in the game or that might focus on a key player – perhaps, a last-second shot or a significant penalty. But, mostly, Goff wants to explain the “big picture.”

“What does it [the game] mean?” Goff says. “How does it affect a team or a league? Are there any particular trends, or the disruption of a trend?”

Afterwards, Goff and French say to let the players and coaches explain things in their own words. “Often, the simplest question is best,” says Goff. “‘What was the difference in the final five minutes?’ or ‘What did you like about what your team did tonight?’ or ‘What does this result mean for the long run?’”

French frequently asks players to describe key plays, tactics, or the difficulties opponents gave them. “You can ask players to describe key plays, but often it is better to talk to them about the emotion of scoring a goal, or how it changed the game,” he says. “I’ve found that most players can’t describe the plays in which they’re involved; some can’t even remember them when the game is finished. Others can provide great detail.”

“One of the best quotes on tactics I received was many years ago from Paul Caligiuri, who explained how difficult it was to deal with Russia’s ‘passing triangles.’ After Mexico dominated the U.S. in the 1993 CONCACAF Gold Cup final in Mexico City, Cobi Jones talked about how the elevation sapped the Americans as the game wore on, to the point where it seemed “there were four green (Mexico) shirts for every white (U.S.) shirt. It’s nice to have an array of quotes to use.”

“If you cover a team as a beat, you’ll quickly learn who is a good quote and who isn’t. After Galaxy games, all of us writers make sure to check in with Landon Donovan (outstanding quote), Chris Albright (very good) and Peter Vagenas (very good). Generally, we didn’t talk to Cobi Jones (below average) unless he did something big or we needed to talk to him about something specific. For Chivas USA, Jesse Marsch, a holding midfielder, is a must. On deadline, you might have time to talk to two people. Unless somebody did something so big that I need his voice, I’ll go to one of my ‘go-to players’ for quotes in this situation.”

Finally, make sure you prepare to cover a game. Do your homework before covering the game by reading stories on the sport by veteran writers (like Goff and French) to see how a game story is structured, to learn the terminology, and to learn background information about the teams involved.

“Sometimes, the best learning experience comes by reading stories you normally wouldn’t approach,” Goff says. “Read a horse racing column, read a fashion story, read a business feature — anything to broaden your horizons.”

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 fifth in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during sporting events.

Soccer has a bad rap for being a game where nothing happens. Clearly, that is not the case, as French and Goff reveal. Read examples of other soccer stories, learn the rules of the game, and take many notes. Below are some additional points to consider.

LEAD ELEMENTS
■ Team names
■ Score
■ Date
■ Location (specific name of fields, stadiums)
■ Game’s significance. Does the game clinch playoff berth or eliminate the team from the postseason? Is this a conference or district victory? Does this advance the team in a tournament?
■ What’s the “big picture?” What does this game mean to the teams involved? How does it affect them? Why is the game important?
■ Look for a story. Do not automatically focus on a scoring play or some key stat.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Team alignments. Most teams play defensively, using more fullbacks than forwards. A 4-4-2 alignment means the team uses four fullbacks, four midfielders and two forwards. A 4-3-3 is also a common alignment.
■ Did the teams play man-to-man or zone coverage for defense?
■ How teams scored. About 40 percent of all goals are scored on free kicks (corner kicks, penalty kicks).
■ Location of shots. Where were players when they scored – inside the box, mostly on the right side, 30 yards out. (Diagram key shots in your notebook.)
■ Possession. Which team held possession of the ball the most? If possible, get possession stats from official scorekeeper.
■ Assists. Who fed the scorers the most? Describe the types of passes (lengthy, off left foot, arching)
■ Number of headers
■ Did the flow of play go through the middle of the field, the flanks? See where the teams pushed the ball throughout the game.
■ Describe how each goal was scored, from pass to location of shooter to goalie’s reaction
■ Types of shots (angled, curled corner kicks, drilled 20-yarders)
■ Counterattacks, where the defense steals the ball and quickly goes in the other direction.
■ Trends in either team results or within the game. The team might have won or lost its last four games by a single goal or by three goals. Or, the team may have lost the ball countless times at midfield or been called for penalties near their own goal.
■ Focus on the play of the defense and midfielders. Do not automatically give credit for a shut out to the goalie, unless he/she made a key save or stopped many shots. If the goalie was not really challenged, mention that. You can even focus on a few plays where the defense stymied runs toward the goal.
■ Field conditions. Did rain or ice-hardened fields cause any changes in the way the teams, or individuals, played?
■ Injuries – were any key player hurt or did any player recently return from an injury. (Read stories on the teams and check with coaches to determine this.)

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Time progressively adds through the match, meaning a goal in the 88th minutes is a goal made with two minutes remaining in the regulation 90-minute match. You can refer to a goal being scored in the final two minutes, but, officially, the goal is scored in the 88th minutes. Says French: “In most soccer games (but not in college, which doesn’t follow FIFA rules), the referee keeps official time. He will stop his clock, theoretically, for goals, substitutions, yellow and red cards, injuries, time-wasting, etc. When the clock hits 45 or 90, subsequent time is called ‘stoppage time.’ Don’t use ‘injury time,’ which used to be popular, because injuries are merely one of several reasons time has been extended. Keep your stopwatch going. If a goal is scored two minutes into stoppage time, you can say so. (In the first half, it’s always best to say ‘two minutes into stoppage time’ or ‘two minutes into stoppage.’ In the second half, you could say the goal was scored ‘in the 92nd minute,’ although I usually mention ‘stoppage time’ to avoid confusion for less sophisticated readers.”
■ Off-sides. A player can never receive a pass from a teammate when he is behind the last line of defenders. A defender must always be between him and the goal when he first touches a pass.
■ Yellow cards. A player receives a yellow card for a penalty or for playing too roughly, such as a player who slide-tackles an opponent with cleats up high. Two yellow cards earn a player a red card, meaning that player is kicked out of the game. Plus, that player’s team has to compete a player short. Sometimes, a player also receives a further suspension.

SOME PHRASES
■ “the forward split two defenders”
■ “A sliding right-footed shot”
■ “goalie misplayed a crossing shot”
■ “the shot bent inside the goal post”

QUESTIONS TO ASK AFTER THE GAME
■ Focus (and interview) players more than coaches, especially at the high school level. “There is a tendency, especially in high school reporting, to rely almost exclusively on the coaches,” French says. “Sometimes, this is because high schoolers are shy and getting usable quotes can be very difficult. But some patience will pay off, and your story will be better for it.”
■ Ask players and coaches to describe scoring plays.
■ Ask a player to describe how she felt after she (or a teammate) scored.
■ What were you thinking (during as key point in the game)?
■ Describe your opponent (ask a sweeper about a forward or a forward about a goalie).
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays
■ How did you adapt to the other team’s play?
■ Ask coaches about their tactics
■ How has the team has progressed over the last several games or weeks?
■ How has the team been playing?
■ With which areas are you happy? Unhappy?
■ Who has been playing very well? Who would you like to see more from
■ What formation do you use? How does it best utilize the players you have?
■ Ask about specific players, about the on-field relationship between two forwards or between a forward and a playmaker or among the backline and defensive midfielder, etc.
■ What is your impression of your opponent? What do they do well that you must counter? With which of their players are you most impressed?

photo/courtesy of Jay Grabiec, Daily Eastern News

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