Covering Sports; Different Time, Different World

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Covering Sports; Different Time, Different World
Dec 7, 2018

A recent program at the Newseum co-sponsored by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and the Freedom Forum Institute asked the question, “Sports Writers: Are We Also the Enemy?”

The topic was a takeoff on President Donald Trump’s characterization of the media – with the blessing of many in his base – and punctuated by monthly rants from the likes of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and many of his brethren.

Leave it to The Washington Post’s Liz Clarke, who quickly tempered the topic, noting that while the landscape of sports coverage has changed over the years, “we are not the enemy in the way very courageous journalists” like “murdered Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi are.”

Nevertheless, panelists Greg Aiello (former NFL communications executive), David Aldridge (editor, The Athletic DC), Leonard Downie (former executive editor of The Washington Post), Pepper Rodgers (retired head football coach at Kansas, UCLA and Georgia Tech) and television commentator Christy Winters Scott all agreed covering sports has changed.

There was a time when schmooze-loving coaches, like Rodgers, encouraged coverage of his teams at practice. Former TCU coach Abe Martin once asked great sportswriter Dan Jenkins to accompany him on a pregame stroll to the field while his team warmed up before a big game.

Downie, as a student editor of the Ohio State Lantern in the early 1960s, did postgame interviews with then-Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes, who was covered only in a small towel (not pretty). Hayes was gruff, but available.

The growth and development of sports into a billion-dollar industry during the past 25 years is the main reason for the shift in how the media is viewed by the rest of sports world, as well as the general public. Gone are the days when colleges and NFL teams sent publicists to cities in advance of games in hopes of getting stories in the local newspapers to SELL tickets. Nowadays, why bother selling a few tickets when television guarantees professional and college teams millions in revenues for just showing up.

While TV income to clubs and athletic departments increased substantially, so did the number of media members covering teams, resulting in coaches and teams (college and pro) reducing access. Many NFL teams, for instance, restrict the number of days the media can work inside locker rooms. Aiello said the NFL had to force some teams to provide “any” access to players during the week.

Most big-time college football programs are even more restrictive, limiting access during the week to brief practice coverage and very scant availability of players and coaches. The University of Maryland, for instance, has for years limited the time (usually the first 30 minutes) in which the media can watch practice – even less time to interview players and coaches. In the aftermath of the heat stroke-related death of Jordan McNair last June, ESPN in August reported on a “toxic” culture inside Maryland’s football program that resulted in the resignation of strength coach Rick Court (several trainers were not retained, as well, after McNair’s death). Later, head coach DJ Durkin was fired and the university president, Wallace D. Loh, announced he would retire at the end of the school year.

Had Maryland had a more “open” policy with the media in regards to practice and player availability, would Court’s alleged excessive behavior toward pushing and berating players been reported and possibly curtailed? Who knows? Will Maryland change its media policy with its recent hiring of Mike Locksley, who comes to College Park with a 3-31 record as a head coach (mostly at New Mexico) but with recent success as Alabama’s offensive coordinator (winner of this year’s Frank Broyles award as the assistant coach of the year)? The Dec. 6 “news conference” at Maryland’s indoor football facility announcing Locksley’s hiring felt more like a pep rally. There were cheerleaders, a pep band and applauding boosters, as well as reporters. At least The White House doesn’t have a pep band or cheerleaders at its news conferences.

Damon Evans, Maryland’s athletic director, said Locksley is someone “who can bring us together.” In the years since Locksley’s disappointing record at New Mexico and brief stint as Maryland’s intern coach after Randy Edsell’s firing in 2015, Evans pointed to “life’s lessons” learned by Locksley. Those lessons include Locksley’s own son, Meiko, shot and killed in 2017 in Columbia, Md., and a longstanding relationship with Jordan McNair’s father, Martin McNair

Locksley, 48, an alum of Towson State, said all the right things during the initial gathering in the converted Cole Field House – a football facility that once housed Maryland’s successful basketball teams under Lefty Driesell and later Gary Williams.

“This is a dream come true for me,” Locksley said of the Maryland job. “Every decision I make with these kids will be made as if they were my own child.”

Locksley grew up in Washington. He said he’s read The Washington Post for Maryland, Redskins and Ballou High School coverage and The Baltimore Sun for Towson and Ravens stories all his life. Last May, I asked Durkin, who came to the Merrill College to talk with students three straight years, what sports coverage he read. “I don’t read anything,” he replied. So, Locksley already had Durkin beat in that department.

And while we’re complimenting his reading habits, here are some suggestions regarding the news media:

- Open practice to the media for the whole practice.

- Be available to the media more than allotted periods.

- Talk to reporters, don’t issue written statements.

- Make your players available to the media more than once a week. All players.

- Call Pepper Rodgers.

Homepage image: Maryland head football coach Mike Locksley and athletic director Damon Evans (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

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