Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The new normal in sports media coverage

2007 Media Day 005
pennstatenews via flickr

I usually enjoyed chatting with John Fox when he was coach of the Carolina Panthers. He was always congenial in our conversations and occasionally thoughtful and articulate.

Fox was easy to like. But only when he was talking off the record.

On the record? Fox was one of the more difficult coaches to cover. He wasn't as belligerent as some. He wasn't a jerk like others. But Fox was deliberately and maddeningly vague, bland and unresponsive to even the most obvious questions one might ask a head coach of a major professional sports team. He said nothing. For years. He offered no insight to even the most banal questions. I think if I had asked Fox on the record what time it was, he would have said, "it is what it is."

So I can't say I'm particularly surprised by the restrictive new rules for media covering the Chicago Bears during training camp with Fox now in his first year there after stints with Carolina and Denver. According to reports out of the Bears camp, all interviews with players must be requested 24 hours in advance. And reporters aren't allowed to write about what they see in training camp -- even though fans are allowed to tweet whatever they want.

The excuse offered by the Bears is that this will somehow prevent scouts from learning about opponents. Hogwash. If coaches are motivated enough to learn another team's secrets, they don't need the media to help them. See Bill Belichick.

So this isn't about helping the team win. It's about controlling and limiting the media. And whether this was Fox's idea or not, I suspect he doesn't give a hoot if the media's job is suddenly a lot harder.

In Europe, it happens all the time, as The New York Times reported today. One professional soccer team even banned the local media because the owner didn't like the coverage received.

The phase out of independent media coverage of sports teams isn't quite that extensive in the U.S. But it is happening here. Chicago shouldn't be viewed as an aberration, but more likely a trendsetter.

It didn't use to be this way. For years, sports teams and leagues had a symbiotic relationship with the media. Teams needed media coverage for marketing to build interest and sell tickets. Newspapers needed the coverage to help drive readership. It was a win-win no matter what the tone of the coverage. Back in the day, the New York Giants used to provide travel arrangements for some reporters. When I covered the Hartford Whalers years ago, I occasionally took the team's charter flight and the Whalers routinely booked a hotel room for me on the road (the flight and hotel were paid for by the newspaper).

Of course, the internet changed all of that. Teams now create their own content for marketing and can bypass the media to reach directly to the fans. And they are increasingly limiting independent media in favor of their marketing partners like ESPN, Fox Sports, etc., where coverage is more friendly and controlled.

The media still needs sports content to drive readership. But teams and leagues now seemingly view independent media as parasites. So there is a pressure on reporters to build strong relationships with teams through positive coverage. Those who don't adhere to the company line will be increasingly cut out of access to athletes and coaches.

It's even happening in sports like Nascar, which used to be media friendly but has drastically reduced access to drivers in the last year or two. These days, stories need layers of public relations approval before interviews are even scheduled. And it's not unusual for PR reps to ignore emails from media deemed unfavorable.

This is the new normal.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

I did that to a Nascar driver?

Jersey is not just a state of mind, it's a way of driving. When you are Jersey, you never know -- and maybe don't care -- who you wind up angering on the road.

Unless, of course, someone pulls up alongside of you on the highway with a grin on his face and you realize the guy in the pickup truck you just rudely tailgated is a Nascar driver.


James Marvin Phelps / Foter / CC BY-NC
It was back in the fall and I had just finished attending a press conference at the Nascar Hall of Fame in uptown Charlotte, where drivers in the Sprint Cup postseason playoff had met with the media to discuss the dynamics of the next round. I was headed home on I-77, a highway that is miserable to drive under the best conditions -- too much traffic, not enough lanes. And it's guaranteed to be a slow haul anytime it's close to rush hour, as it was that afternoon.

The only way to get through it was to be aggressive. Be Jersey.

So after entering the highway and quickly maneuvering into the left lane, I found myself behind an older Chevy pickup truck that was going a tad too slow for my liking. I edged to my left to see that the truck was not the problem; there was a slower car ahead. First chance we got, we both moved into the middle lane to pass the ass on the left.

I fully expected the truck to move back into the left lane right away, but it didn't. Instead, it stayed in the middle lane and I was boxed in just long enough for my eyes to narrow and the blood pressure to rise. Maybe two or three seconds.

Anyway, the truck finally pulled just far enough ahead to give me a tiny opening. And of course, I took it. I pulled my little Honda Fit up almost to the truck's bumper. If I was a bit too close, I rationalized that it was his fault because he should have moved back over to the left already.

So the moment I cleared the car on the left, I jerked the wheel and accelerated, zipping back into the left lane and speeding away. I left the slowpoke and the pickup truck far behind -- one small battle won.

Or so I thought. I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed the truck suddenly hauling to catch up to me. It quickly pulled up next to my car on the right. I glanced over and the driver was looking down at me and smiling.

I just did that to Ryan Newman?

I had no idea it was Newman in that pickup truck. The next time I saw him, I made sure to apologize.

He laughed. But really, what was he going to say? It's not like I came out of nowhere and put him into a wall or something.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The long and short of it

When I was a sports reporter at the start of my career, I worked at a newspaper that held a Secret Santa gift-giving exchange one Christmas. Funny what you learn about your coworkers -- and what they think of you -- when anonymity offers a shield. Office Twitter before Twitter.

The gift I received that Christmas? A framed portrait of Herve Villechaize. For those who don't remember the name, he's the guy from "Fantasy Island" who would point up at the sky and shout, "The plane! The plane!" Villechaize was what people today would call a little person -- someone diagnosed with dwarfism.

I was amazed that anyone would go through that much trouble to publicly humiliate me just because I happen to be 4-foot-11. But it wasn't the first time my height was the subject of jokes, nor the last. Honestly, I've had to put up with short jokes all of my life. I've even told a few myself, if only to have people laugh with me instead of at me from time to time.

I've never really thought it was funny to insult people because of their physical appearance, though. Try mocking an African American because of his skin color and you will be called a racist. Make fun of short people and that's somehow OK?

As I wrote in an article for OZY.com today, studies show short people are paid less and get fewer C-Suites. Russia just adopted a law banning short people from driving certain vehicles. If you saw "The Wolf of Wall Street," you'll probably remember the midget-throwing contest. I guess it was supposed to be funny.

You know what? It's not funny. It's offensive. It shows a lack of respect. And it hurts.

So please stop. I don't want to hear it anymore.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Moves Magazine: NFL players on notice

Mike Morbeck/flickr
Leave it to LeBron James to deliver the slam of the month when he told ESPN.com a few weeks ago that he would not allow his sons to play football. Too dangerous, he said. Little LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus can play basketball, baseball or soccer instead.

James isn't the only one. Some NFL players have said the same thing about their kids. And it's an open topic across the country these days.

None of that is good for the NFL ... Read more at Moves Magazine

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Michael Sam, the media and that shower question

A reporter I respect immensely called the ESPN story on Michael Sam’s shower habits as “nothing more serious than the death of journalism as we know it.”

I hope somebody can explain that to me, because I’m not sure I understand the kerfuffle that has erupted over Tuesday's report from the St. Louis Rams training camp.

Here’s what I know: For years, the fear of a gay athlete in the locker room and shower has been at the center of arguments against acceptance of a gay teammate. It is such an important issue that out former football player and executive director of the You Can Play Project Wade Davis addresses it directly when he meets with teams.

And it’s enough of a question that the noted gay sports website Outsports.com ran a full column from a gay former football player explaining why straight athletes need not be concerned about gay teammates in the shower. That ran in February.

So now we finally have the arrival of Michael Sam, who is hoping to make the St. Louis Rams roster this season and become the first openly gay player in the NFL. The team has been in training camp for about a month, long enough for both Sam and his straight teammates to get comfortable around each other.

Isn’t it appropriate for a reporter to ask how it’s going? Isn’t it worth reporting that the fear surrounding the shower issue for so many years turned out to be completely unfounded? Isn’t it a good idea to let people know it’s a non-issue in the Rams training camp as several players indicated in that ESPN report?

Are we suddenly so evolved on this issue that has roiled sports for so long that it is now verboten to even ask about it? 

If the reporter hadn’t asked the question, then Rams teammate Chris Long never would have tweeted this:

And from now on, that single tweet is going to be referenced every time the issue of professionalism in the locker room comes up.

Here’s why I think that’s important: There are no doubt other gay football players who are watching and waiting to see how Sam is treated by his teammates, organization, fans and the league. If teammates come out in support of Sam, that sends a powerful message to those closeted athletes that they might be supported, too. And perhaps it is a step forward for those who would like to come out as well.

Shouting down the reporter for asking the question inhibits conversation rather than fosters it. And we need to keep talking about these issues. Because this isn’t over. Sam’s arrival is a beginning, not an ending. The more Chris Long’s who come forward to tell their teammates it’s not an issue, the more welcoming the locker room will be for gay athletes. And the sooner we will be done with this as an issue once and for all.

But we're not there yet. We're not even close.

When ESPN reporter Josina Anderson asked the question, she got the answer that every gay or straight person who cares about acceptance should have been thrilled to finally hear: The shower is not an issue.

So thanks for asking …

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nate Ryan's love-hate-love story

USA Today motorsports writer Nate Ryan is getting married in August. Have you heard the tale? It's your classic love story -- all except the part about Nate's fiancee once hating his guts. Oh, and that 16-year stretch when they didn't even talk to each other.

But maybe you have to love someone to hate them that much, don't you think? So that’s where we’ll start and end this little story that deserves to be told about two well known sportswriters who fell in, then out, then back in love again. We’ll get to all that messy stuff in a minute.

Nate met Jodie Valade of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland back when they were both journalism students at Northwestern University in the mid 1990s. Nate was a senior, Jodie a sophomore. He was her editor at The Daily Northwestern student newspaper and they had a class together as well. 

"I remember purposely missing class so I would have to call him to find out what happened that day,'' said Jodie, who mustered the courage to overcome her own shyness and asked Nate to her sorority spring formal in 1995.

That was the same spring Nate bought a brand new red Toyota Tercel, graduated from college and drove to California to take a job covering sports for the San Bernardino Sun. They dated for nearly two years while Jodie was still at Northwestern.

The distance was tough; their youth made it tougher. Couple the ambition to follow their own career paths with the realization that Jodie was on a fast track to a major metro while Nate was going to take longer to get there, and that was one too many obstacles to overcome.

Nate ended the relationship in 1997. Jodie couldn’t forgive him for the longest time.

"It broke my heart,'' she said. "I guess I thought he was my true love. Turns out, I was right."

But it would take years to get there.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why Jimmie Johnson's surgery is news

Amy K. Marbach/Flickr
Six-time Nascar champion Jimmie Johnson revealed on Sunday that he underwent offseason surgery to repair three non-sports related hernias, a procedure that he acknowledged affected his preparation for the 2014 season.

New information on a popular public figure? By any measure -- in just about any newsroom in the country -- that would qualify as news. And yet, on Monday there was some dispute among fans, Johnson and even a few members of the media as to whether it should have been viewed that way.

Here's what Johnson told the media after he won the Sprint Cup race at Dover on Sunday: "I didn't realize it was one, a secret, or two, public information. Have you had any surgeries lately? Is there any procedures -- when did you have your teeth cleaned?"

To which I would answer ...

Monday, March 3, 2014

The wrath of Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart via flickr/AmyKay1974
Back when I was a hockey writer in Hartford, Conn., I once inspired an entire arena to laugh at me.

I was covering a minor-league championship on a night when I didn't have time to wait for players to get to the locker room for interviews following the game. As they lingered after the celebration was mostly over and my deadline quickly approached, I decided to go out onto the ice to talk to them.

You can probably imagine what happened next. I slipped and fell on my backside and the fans roared. 

Fortunately, a very kind player named Joe Day skated over and helped me back on my feet. I tracked Joe down recently to thank him once again and he actually thanked me back for treating him well during his professional career.

For some reason, his email made me smile and think of Tony Stewart.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Nascar joins the national conversation

Nothing I have written on jersey/slant has generated more page views, discussion, misunderstanding and utter vitriol than a post entitled, "Nascar's silence on Jason Collins says it all."

It was written last April, the day after N.B.A. veteran Jason Collins became the first professional athlete in one of the four major team sports to come out as gay. I wrote about the reaction to the news, including a phone call from President Barack Obama and tweet from First Lady Michelle Obama. But more specifically, I noted the sports world reaction, which included support from athletes in the N.B.A., N.F.L., Major League Baseball as well as other sports.

As I pointed out in the column, there was no public statement from Nascar or any of its drivers (although a Nascar official did respond to a request for comment). I wrote that it was a missed opportunity for the sport to join the national conversation and sent the wrong message to those within Nascar who are gay. For that, I was vilified.

Of course, gay rights remain a contentious, ever-evolving issue in this country. There continue to be opportunities to take a stand. And so it was on Wednesday when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced she vetoed Senate Bill 1062, which would have allowed businesses to legally discriminate against gays in the state.

Brewer came under significant pressure from politicians on both sides of the aisle and business groups who were against the bill. There were also indications the N.F.L. would have considered moving the Super Bowl, slated to be played in Arizona in 2015, to another state if it became law.

When Brewer announced she had vetoed the bill, there were many who went public with their approval of the decision. Among them: Nascar. With the Sprint Cup series about to shift to Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, spokesman David Higdon released this statement on Wednesday night:
"We are pleased with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of SB1062. Nascar actively strives to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the motorsports industry. Nascar has a zero tolerance policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, race, gender, national origin, age, color, disability, religion, or other factors which deny the essential humanity of all people."
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