Thursday, March 22, 2007

Working with coaches & players

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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