College SIDs, newspapers clashing over access to players

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Before Sarah Jones can interview an athlete at Fairleigh Dickinson University, she must contact the athletic department and let them know about the scheduled meeting. As sports editor of the Equinox, Jones is required to cite the date, time and place where she will interview the player.

At the University of Texas in Austin, reporters are usually limited to speaking with athletes brought to press conferences after basketball and football games. During this time, sports information associates may even tell players: “You don’t have to answer that.”

More and more, sports information directors are trying to control access to players and coaches, requiring journalists to schedule interviews through their offices in what the SID at Baylor calls “hard-and-fast rules.”

Sports information associates also frequently listen to interviews at many other schools, serving as chaperones that can turn a private conversation into an awkward prom date. “SIDs want to micromanage interview requests,” says Jim Killam, adviser to North Illinois University’s Northern Star. “Then they get too many and don’t respond to most of them.”

Sportswriters at some schools face challenges like that at Boise State, which limits football players to one interview per week and requires sports media to schedule through the SID’s office in advance. And once the time for this athlete is scheduled, other media are allowed to attend as well. Brad Arendt, the general manager for Boise State’s student-run newspaper, The Arbiter, says his reporters are often unable to attend these sessions.

“Our problem is we make a request, first, based on our student’s class schedule to fit with the student athlete schedule, but the SID waits or ignores our requests until the bigger local daily paper requests the same athlete and then fits it around that reporter’s schedule,” Arendt said. “Often, this means our students are in class and cannot attend the interview. To be fair, this happens to the other smaller daily paper … but doesn’t affect them as much. Their reporter is a full-time non-student, and his job is to attend the interviews regardless of the time.”

Student reporters are sometimes chastised for scheduling their own interviews, which has happened at Ball State and other schools. “We’ve been told by the flak folk that they ‘don’t work after 5,’ which is usually when we’ll need something, so that becomes a hassle as well,” said Vincent Filak, adviser to Ball State Daily News. “We’re usually OK to call coaches on our own, but they guard the kids like crazy.”

And that access is getting tighter than ever, thanks in part to policies that advisers and college sportswriters have called arbitrary, rigid, and a violation of free speech that limits the athletes’ ability to speak their minds. Sports information directors say these accusations are not fair, that they take their role as liaison between athletics and the media seriously, but that their primary responsibility is to student-athletes, assisting them with time management and education. Even more so, sports information directors say their role is to control the image of their athletes, coaches and programs. Listening to interviews is just a way to protect this appearance.

“They [college sports reporters] don’t take the time to know/understand who we are and what our jobs are,” says Luke Reid, assistant sports information director California State-Chico. “They don’t get that we work for the university. They don’t get that a relationship goes two ways. In order to get a little, you need to give a little, in other words.”

Eastern Illinois University sports information director Rich Moser echoes this sentiment that the SID’s obligation to the student-athlete trumps the needs of the news media.

“Young men and women are attending a school to, first, get an education and, second, to participate in their given sport,” Moser said. “To ensure they are also getting a solid academic basis, having access to student-athletes at all hours of the day is not fair to them. There needs to be some down/off time for them to be college students. Setting parameters and time frames for interviews with these athletes and coaches can help to contribute to a positive collegiate experience.”

That rationale does not appease reporters scrambling to report stories, nor student editors who are struggling to maintain staffs with reporters who also have to balance their own classroom responsibilities, work other part-time jobs, or both. Matthew DeGeorge, sports editor for Saint Joseph’s The Hawk, says the athletic department is mostly helpful but access to some coaches is a challenge. The small Hawk staff is, forced to rely on the sports information office to set-up interviews with athletes and coaches, a process he says can take days. “I understand their responsibility to protect athletes,” DeGeorge says. “The best way to minimize the need for their intervention would be to set up a give-and-take with them, their coaching staff, and the beat writer where trust is established that things will be done responsibly and the writer can just go up to the coach and say, ‘I need to speak to so-and-so.’”

But trust, or truth, is a also a major concern for sports information directors who face growing pressure from fans posing as online journalists. Frankly, they do not know whom to trust. Doug Dull, associate athletics director for media relations at the University of Maryland, says stalkers have posed as journalists to try to get phone numbers and email addresses of female players. Many policies, he says, are implemented to protect players, not to cause problems for legitimate reporters, and SIDs have to err on the side of caution. “I’m more than happy in that situation to trade accessibility for security,” said Dull, the first past president of the College Sports Information Directors of America. “A reasonable journalist who walks a mile in our shoes would feel exactly the same way.”

Dull said sports information directors do help sports journalists in other ways, especially when it comes to interviewing skills. Many SIDs offer media training to ensure coaches and athletes speak in complete sentences during interviews. “Once in a while, we’ll have a student-athlete who shows up on (ESPN) SportsCenter babbling incoherently with bad quotes,” he said. “But with some preparation and training, we can ensure that reporters have positive experiences with our folks, rather than having to cobble together stories with horrible sound-bytes or unusable quotes.”

But that form of coaching also has a flip side, says Mike McCall, sports editor for Florida’s Independent Alligator “They program athletes to only say things that follow with the company line, leading to the usual quotes that appear in every paper, every day,” he says. “It’s tough to get people to open up and be honest when they know they’ll get a lecture afterward if they speak their minds.”

SURVEY SAYS
A survey of 71 college sports editors and 79 sports information directors more graphically reveals a growing chasm between those who cover college athletics and those who manage college athletes. Nearly 20 percent of college sports journalists surveyed indicate they have a negative relationship with their university’s sports information office, calling it, among other things, “terse,” “strained,” “uncooperative” and even “parasitic.” More than half said they had a good relationship with the SID office, some going so far as to call it “excellent” and “awesome.” Similarly, more than half of sports information directors surveyed characterized their relationship with the college newspaper as good. But about 16 percent of SIDs in the survey called the relationship poor, characterizing it as “rocky,” “strained,” or “tense.”

Many of the problems can be attributed to access – particularly to rules, policies and procedures implemented by athletic departments that prevent reporters from talking directly to athletes and coaches. These problems, though, are exacerbated some when college sportswriters fail to call sources earlier, decline to attend practices, or urgently need comments when news breaks. Whether the urgency of such calls is justified or not, those situations build the tension between the two sides. At times, a reporter may look for contact information on Facebook or MySpace, pages that are accessible by anybody with an account. That may anger athletics departments when students use those sites as a resource, and reporters say they have been chastised for using these sources.

“We have normal access times that we manage in order to make things easier on both the media and our student-athlete and coaches,” the University of Maryland’s Dull said. “Although there are certainly extreme circumstances in which reporters need access to coaches at off hours, I can think of few instances in which a reporter can’t plan ahead to use a normal window of accessibility to get their work done.

And Dull says that rule of thumb applies to news media across the board. “It’s naive to assume that any media relations professional, in sports or otherwise, would allow 24-hour access to our sources and clients,” he said. “If that’s a hindrance to those people who can’t plan ahead or work with us to manage accessibility, then so be it.”

Sports information associates blamed inexperienced reporters (83.9 percent) as the biggest problem in regards to coverage, followed by inaccurate reporting (52 percent). Unlike the survey with sports editors, SIDs were allowed to check more than one problem area. “One difficulty we have at our institution is the student newspaper does not assign beat-writers to sports,” writes on sports information director. “Instead everyone ‘gets a chance’ to write on various topics.”

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed blamed small staffs and inexperienced reporters for erratic or poor coverage. “I’d love to have a staff,” the sports editor at Brevard (N.C.) College wrote. Another editor said he struggles to find reporters to cover games, much less practices. “Oh, to have a staff,” he lamented.

The larger universities with bigger sports programs have different challenges, say some editors. “The hardest part about covering sports was getting writers to pick up stories (outside their beats),” said Merisa Jensen, sports editor for Southern Cal’s Daily Trojan, which sports a staff of approximately 20 reporters. “Each is assigned a sports beat,” said Jensen. “When other stories pop up, it is hard to get one of those writers to take them on. A specific instance was when the soccer team, which had just won the national championship, was holding a press conference to announce a game with the Mexico women’s national team. I did assign a writer, who for some reason did not go, and the SID for soccer was upset we didn’t cover it.”

For all their complaints, the sports information directors who responded to the survey indicated that college newspapers covered their athletic programs fairly, or objectively. Only 16.4 percent of those surveyed said coverage of their programs by the college press was somewhat, or mostly, negative, while 59.5 percent called coverage mostly, or somewhat, positive – and 24.1 percent called coverage neutral.

A similar number of college sports journalists believed their coverage was slightly more positive – 63.5 percent calling it mostly, or somewhat, positive. On the other end of the scale, few college sports journalists characterized their coverage as somewhat, or mostly, negative. Just 5.5 percent believed this to be true, about a third as many as in sports information offices. “We feel we offer an independent voice,” writes one sports editor. “We call it as we see it. When our teams do well, we make a big deal. When they are losing, we report that, too. Our baseball team, for example, had lost 19 straight games. How can we report that without asking the coach, ‘what’s gone wrong?’”

Also contributing to the friction is that many student reporters are undergoing Journalism 101 on the fly. One editor said newer college reporters usually come in with a far less objective approach, more freely mixing opinion with their stories. Whether this can be attributed to the popularity of shows like ESPN’s “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption” is unclear. Perhaps, another survey can address this. But there is no doubt that young journalists are seeing more and more of their role models vent, argue, opine, and yell on the air. “Our young journalists usually want to be either rah-rah or mud-sling,” writes another sports editor. “But we can usually train them within a month or to be neutral and to ‘call it as they see it.’ We are very good about teaching not to cheer in the press box and about not editorializing in stories.”
Even in the best of circumstances, staffing shortages, scheduling conflicts and publishing cycles contribute to the difficulties in meeting the expectations of many sports information directors.

“We all have to handle class work with our beat reporting and sometimes we miss an event or an interview session and that is hard to make up,” said Tony Dobies, sports editor for West Virginia’s The Daily Athenaeum. “Our sports information department does, however, make a strong effort in allowing us to interview in other ways than on the assigned media day.”

Regardless of the causes, student sports journalists can borrow trouble by not maintaining a consistent reporting presence. Just one-third of those surveyed admit to regularly attending practices, a number that may be slightly high considering the comments made by sports editors in other sections of the survey and considering the perception of sports information directors, who say only 51 percent of college beat reporters usually attend practices – although they say an additional 26.9 percent sometimes do so. Beat coverage is dependent on checking in each day at practices with players and coaches. And athletes are available before, during or after more than 90 percent of all practice sessions.

McCall said the Independent Alligator staff does not have access to practices for Florida’s football team, and, like the rest of news media, must wait until practice concludes. “So we wait outside the gate and the SIDs come around with pads to write down our requests,” he said. “These requests are usually pointless since we grab the players ourselves, so it seems they only do it to get an idea of what we are after and dissuade us from talking to certain people.”

Still, failure to attend practices can create some tensions between reporters and sports information associates, especially when sports staffs turn to cell phones, email, and Facebook/MySpace to get information. Reporters, though, often use these other methods even when they do go to practices and games. And why not, students may argue, if this is how the younger generation communicates in all other ways.

Text messaging caused some problems last winter at Western Illinois University where a sportswriter for the Western Courier could not tell whether a women’s basketball player had hurt her ankle or foot during a game and the coach refused to offer more details. “The coach refused to even say what she had injured,” said Courier adviser Moreno, “and kept repeating that the player was day to day.”

So the reporter texted the injured player, who asked her coach if she could reply. The coach turned the message over to the sports information director who sent an email to the Western Courier staff stating that all interview requests need to go through his office.

“The student paper was contacting players before going through us,” said Jason Kaufman, assistant director of athletics for media services and broadcasting. “That was a pattern. We tried to curb that and have them go through us. This is really to protect the student-athlete. Their reporter said, ‘But I’m a student and they’re students, so I should have direct content with them.’ But I asked, ‘Are you acting here as a journalist or a student?’”

Richard Moreno, adviser to the Western Courier, says the university’s SID cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which was intended to protect an individual’s medical records but has created confusion for many state and federal agencies, as a reason for not offering more details. Kaufman counters that athletic departments can offers some details, such as the location of an injury and the athlete’s playing status. “We told the Western staff that this player had a foot injury and that her status was questionable,” Kaufman said.

Moreno says that when the sports information office fails to return his staff’s calls, it forces reporters to seek information by other means.

“This is just the latest run-in we have had with our athletic director and his staff,” Moreno said. “They absolutely believe they do not have to cooperate with the media unless there is a guarantee that the stories are positive and promote the athletic departments. I’ve instructed the students here to continue being as enterprising as they can be, even if that means overlooking the SID’s instructions.”

And if the SIDs and student journalists more or less agree on the overall positive nature of their sports coverage, they’re leagues apart concerning whether or not the reporters look good while they’re doing it. Clashes can also arise from other professional behavior, or unprofessional, depending on the point of view regarding appearance, such as such as a student reporter covering games in a t-shirt, ragged shorts, and sandals. While the reporters argue they are just students, they also say they should be treated just like professionals covering the beat, the ones who are dressed in slacks and collared shirts. Students admit they do not typically dress professionally for interviews or while covering games. Only 6.8 percent say they always dress professionally, while 39.2 percent say they usually do. Just over 20 percent admit they never or rarely dress professionally compared to 33.8 percent who say they do sometimes. Sports information directors hold a different sartorial view, that students dress far worse, claiming 54.2 percent never or rarely dress professional compared to 7.6 percent who usually or always do.

The nature of the collegiate press, even at its best, puts it at a general disadvantage in emulating its professional counterparts. And the increasing control that sports information departments are exerting to control the flow of information exacerbates the tensions that would exist under the best of circumstances.

This Rashomon-like moment may best depict the fundamental differences in world views of those who would report the news and those who would manage it: The two sides can’t even agree on personal greetings. Asked how frequently reporters properly introduced themselves before interviews, reporters said 86.5 percent of the time. The SIDs? Barely 29.

This article was originally published in College Media Review last month. Check out the College Media Advisers website for more information on collegiate journalism. Thanks to Robert Bohler for helping with this article.

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6 Responses to “College SIDs, newspapers clashing over access to players”

  1. Nate Owen Says:

    This is a really interesting piece. I’ve been involved with the sports section for the Huntington News at Northeastern for almost three years. While we aren’t a top tier DI team, we play in a very competitive Hockey East conference and are a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. I’ve found virtually every SID, along with the head of Sports Info., to be incredibly helpful. For most interviews, I either grab players after games or get their numbers from them. We have a database of athlete and coach phone numbers, and for the most part, contact them on our own. On the flip side, because I have so much access, I always try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I make sure to call at decent hours and always ask if this is a good time to talk. When interviewing, I always, always, identify myself. As far as dressing for games, I don’t usually dress up for most home games, especially non-ticketed events, but any road game or major game I always try to look professional.

  2. College sports reporters and SIDs clash « Says:

    […] sports reporters and SIDs clash 20 11 2008 Here’s an interesting blog post I found about how college sports reporters often find themselves clashing with Sports Information […]

  3. Access still a struggle for college media | Sports Field Guide Says:

    […] really. When did universities start curtailing access and inhibiting speech? When they started to allow athletic departments to act somewhat […]

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  5. Working with that sports Info director behind the curtain… | College Media Review Says:

    […] “It used to be that sports information directors were there to facilitate coverage. Now they’re there to protect a corporate image. It’s bad for fans and athletes,” said Gisondi, who has previously written on the issue of access and athletics for College Media Review. […]

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