Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Fans, coaches also challenge player attitudes

Sports Illustrated columnist Stewart Mandel writes that coaches challenge their players' attitudes all the time. Urban Meyer called his tailbacks 'trash' before their title run, but nobody called to chastise him. Yet, a reporter offers some criticism and fans rush to the defense of the poor student-athlete.

Mandel writes:
"As I wrote on Sunday, Gundy's general point about treating college athletes differently than pros -- one which might have been taken seriously if not for all the SCREAMING, STARE DOWNS and FINGER POINTING -- is a valid one. But let's not kid ourselves about the real reason much of the public is siding with Gundy. It's certainly not lost on me, a columnist, that there's a wide-spread resentment amongst most college football fans toward the media. I'm sure for many people it was a treat to watch a football coach put one of us "know-it-all" writers in his/her place. Because that's the only possible explanation why Gundy -- not Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden, mind you, but career 13-15 coach Mike Gundy -- could perform such a bizarre act and somehow come out of it the hero."

You'll have to excuse me if I don't buy that most of the people empathizing with Gundy are doing so out of genuine concern for the treatment of college athletes. If fans are really so sensitive to personal "attacks" on players, then how come I can go on any message board of any disgruntled fan base right now and find criticisms of certain players that are 100 times more scathing than anything Jenni Carlson wrote about Bobby Reid? Some of the most vicious posts are often directed at recruits -- high school kids! -- who spurn someone's school. These people are doing the same exact thing Gundy says he's so peeved about (and even worse, anonymously), and they're doing it in a public forum. How is that any less hurtful or embarrassing to the player and/or his family?

And what about those stories we always hear about some kicker who misses the game-winning kick or a tight end who drops a wide-open touchdown and gets flooded with nasty phone calls and e-mails. That doesn't sound to me like a case of people acknowledging that the guy's "just a kid." As to Gundy's insinuation that a writer shouldn't dare question a player's attitude -- coaches themselves do so publicly all the time as motivation. Was there any outrage when Urban Meyer called his tailbacks "trash" in the spring of 2006? Of course not -- Gators fans ate it up. However, if a local columnist had suggested the same thing ... oh man, would there have been hell to pay.

Check out the rest of Mandel's commentary by clicking here.

Brad Schultz, editor for the Journal of Sports Media, says coaching blowouts are nothing new, just more easily accessible (as Gundy's was through YouTube.) We've all seen Bill Parcells or Bobby Knight explode, but that may be just a small percentage of coaches who lash out, says Schultz."

"Coaches love to use the new media," writes Schultz. "especially the Internet, because they can control the message (see how much of OSU's web page is devoted to Gundy's blowup). Most "official" school websites are nothing more than propaganda outlets and recruiting tools. But when coaches can't control the message they often get into trouble, no matter how hard they try to sweep it under the rug.

It used to be that if coaches won enough people didn't care what they said or how they acted. But Knight and Woody Hayes showed us that people do care and coaches need to control themselves. A warning to all coaches and players out there--someone is watching.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Oklahoma State coach's rant shows that women are not equal

Oklahoma State football coach Mike Gundy makes a fool of all the rational coaches out there, which is most of them. Don't think this coach's spewing is normal, or acceptable. Gundy unfairly attacks the woman columnist for the Oklahoman in a three-plus minute tirade, saying the writer can't understand the issue because she does not have kids.

This rant was clearly spit out by someone who has no clue about journalism, modern media, or YouTube, where more than 200,000 people have watched his childish bombast. This is also someone who has no clue that kids get picked on, teased, and called names far worse than ''fat boy.'' Kids, and adults, get their hearts broken all the time. We've all been kicked when we were down. It's the getting back up that defines us.

Like athletes, student-journalists get their fair share of criticism. Just last week some egocentric, petty graduate students posted 'graded' copies of the staff editorial all over campus because they disagreed with the stance. Last spring, my students got throttled over another editorial -- on Greek life. On message boards, our editor in chief was called words far meaner than 'fatty.' Journalists understand criticism more than most people, coach.

Here's all Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson did:

1. She offered some observations about the player, the Cowboys' quarterback.

Bobby Reid stood near the team charters last Friday night, using his cell phone, eating his boxed meal.
It would've been normal post-game activity but for one thing.
His mother was feeding him chicken.

That scene in the parking lot last week had no bearing on the Cowboys changing quarterbacks, and yet, it said so much about Reid. A 21-year-old letting his mother feed him in public? Most college kids, much less college football players, would just as soon be seen running naked across campus.

And what of the scene television cameras captured earlier that evening of Reid on the sidelines laughing with assistant strength coach Trumain Carroll? The same cameras showed him throwing his cap in disgust after a missed play earlier, but to be laughing in the final minutes of an embarrassing loss is bad form.

2. She reported comments made by the player himself.

I get sweaty palms. I get the butterflies in my stomach. I sweat lot,” he said then. "I've been playing this game for 15 years. And I can honestly say every game I've played in, I've been nervous. It's not so much me being scared; I just get to a point where I start worrying about a lot of things I can't control.

3. She offered some fair commentary.

A lot of guys get nervous, some even puke before games. How you handle the nerves is important, though, and Reid hasn't always managed them well. He has gotten off to some extremely slow starts, putting the Cowboys in some holes. Some, they dug out of, with Reid often wielding the biggest shovel, and some, they couldn't.

Then, there have been the injuries. No doubt some of Reid's ailments have been severe, including an injured shoulder that required surgery and forced him to redshirt. Other times, though, Reid has been nicked in games and sat it out instead of gutting it out.

Injuries are tricky, of course. You don't want a guy to put himself in harm's way if he's really hurt, and yet, football is one of those sports in which everyone plays hurt. Aches and pains, bumps and bruises are part of the gig.
This infuriated Gundy. Like other coaches before him, Gundy played demagogue, playing on popular prejudices and making false claims to promote his main idea, that this player was unfairly picked one. Gundy said three-fourths of the article was fiction, but failed to point out a single instance, preferring, instead, to glare and pause between his exhaustive rant last Saturday. Two days later, he again declined to support his claims.

Gundy also unfairly attacks a woman journalist in this case. As Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Slezak points out, it is difficult to imagine Gundy calling out a man for not having kids:

I can't imagine Gundy screaming during a press conference about a male writer's lack of offspring. I can't imagine him substituting ''daddy'' for ''mommy'' in his rant. I also wonder, as one of the few -- or perhaps only -- women in that room, if Carlson didn't make for an easy target in Gundy's mind. Watching the video, I sensed a subcurrent that gave me an uneasy feeling. As if what Gundy was really thinking was, ''How dare that bitch criticize one of my players. She shouldn't be writing about football. She should be home making babies.' '

I'd have to agree with Slezak on this one. Like many other fathers of daughters, I'd be inclined to jump in and face off with anyone talking to my little girl in this rough manner, no matter her age. ("Do you have any daughters, Gundy!" Pause. Glare. "Have you ever had your daughters come home crying because some boy called her a 'Slut," or had some boss demean her skills because she is a female?) Unlike you, coach, I hope you never have to face those situations.

Gundy brings up another point, that college athletes are not professionals. That's true. But more and more these young athletes are treated like pros by sports information directors, local media, and broadcasters. In a way, they are being paid. Full tuition each year is a pretty good salary for slinging a football or knocking down some baskets. Still, we should not demean people on a personal level. On the other hand, we also should not be intimidated to write only fluffy, promotional pieces. (Even though, sadly, that's what some fans want.) More than 89 percent say that Gundy's rant was justified in one fan poll. Sadly, these fans are blinded by loyalty to a sports program. That's who Gundy pandered to last week.

Gundy is not the only coach who is out of touch, though. Colorado coach Dan Hawkins believes fan should not even boo his team's performances. (Clearly, he has never visited Philly.) "If you're not happy with what's going on, don't come to the game, or leave," Hawkins said. "It's like my grandmother used to tell me, 'If you can't say anything nice, don't say it at all.' But I understand those values are a little old fashion and people don't take those to the ballpark anymore."

Thank goodness for coaches like Bill Callahan of Nebraska who told Sports Illustrated: "People have their opinion and I respect that," Callahan said. "In America, people expect excellence. I don't think anybody likes to be booed. You've got to deal with it and don't let it get to you."

Sports journalists, like Carlson, work hard to explore reasons for actions. In this case, she set out to tell readers why Oklahoma State coaches decided to switch quarterbacks. And Gundy could not take it that a writer (a female sportswriter) tried to explain 'his' decision. Thus, came the ridiculous rant by someone who acted more like a pouting kid than a 40-year-old man.

That's all I have to say. Right now, Gundy makes me want to puke.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Covering HS football

Writing a game on deadline can be a challenge no matter what sport you cover. But high school football may be the most challenging of all. First, night games typically end less than an hour before deadline. That means getting quotes from players may be more difficult, unless you grab a player before he heads in to hear the coach’s post-game speech. You might also be forced to walk the sidelines in severe weather, thanks, in part, to press boxes filled with announcers, stat assistants, and friends of the program. Press box is a misnomer at many fields across the country.

However, compiling stats on deadline may be the most daunting task of all, something that confounds most new sports reporters. Unlike college and NFL games, high school football stats are not hand delivered between quarters. In many cases, the stats are poorly recorded by student managers or volunteer parents who care little about the visiting team’s stats.

More and more, newspapers are starting to put more emphasis on prep coverage, something smaller papers have done for years. ESPN, cbs.sportsline and others already focus on national sports news, but these national news outlets do not focus on community sports on a regular basis. Instead, readers go to local newspapers for their prep sports coverage. Expect to cover many more high school games than pro games in your career. (And, frankly, that's much more exciting for someone who wants to break news, not emulate what every other news source has offered.)

"I would say that a newspaper's high school coverage is far more important than its major college or pro coverage," says Bryan Black, high school sports editor for The Virginian-Pilot.

And prep football coverage is far more challenging since you'll need to record, verify and compile pretty much everything. "With a major college or pro event, you have professional PR people supplying you with info -- you can be pretty darn lazy and still write pretty good stuff,” Black says. “With a high school event, it's all on you. No one is going to hand-deliver you anything. Every bit of information you gather is on you. You might even have to figure out the roster yourself. You're going to have to double-check name spellings yourself. If you get it wrong, it's on you. And, with a high school event, if you make a mistake, you're likely going to get called out on it. With a major college or pro event, you're just another media hack out there doing a job. If you make a mistake, the guy's mom or dad isn't going to call you. But make that same mistake with a high school event, and you're likely going to get calls from the kid's mom, dad, grandparents and coach.”

So, if you want to cover prep football, you need to develop a precise, efficient system for keeping stats, one that enables you to compile them quickly.

“We train our reporters and football correspondents to also be official statisticians for games,” Black said. “We have a lot of football coaches who love to inflate their players' numbers. In addition, our deadlines are so severe that there's no way we could get high school football stats from games in the paper unless we kept them ourselves. So our reporters and correspondents are trained to do stats by official NCAA stat procedures as well as to keep a play by play. Our staff writers also are adept at making notes for themselves while keeping track of all this. It's an extremely fast-paced and hectic way to work, but our very best reporters love it. The get an adrenaline rush out of it. There's nothing like covering high school football, especially when there are talented athletes on the field. And we have a lot of those in South Hampton Roads.”

“This (keeping stats) is a bigger deal than one might think,” says Jim Ruppert, sports editor for the Springfield (Ill.) State-Journal Register, “especially when the football press box is filled with non-press -- more times than I'd like to remember I have asked school officials why they call it the press box if there's no room for the press -- and the reporter has to walk the sidelines in the rain. It is not possible to cover a game without statistics, and in a lot of ways I think it's more important to have a person more proficient in keeping stats than writing on high school coverage.

“Most of my young stringers are scoretakers who have earned a shot,” says Art Kabelowsky, prep sports editor for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “It’s a meritocracy, though; if you don’t pan out, you don’t pan out. Working for a smaller paper will help you improve your game. Even if you are writing for a weekly, find out what the daily paper’s deadline is and try to write your story to meet that deadline. It’s good practice.”

There are many ways to keep score during games. I still use a system shown to me more than 25 years ago by Joe Arace, former prep sports editor for the Fort Myers News-Press. This system enables you to do several things at the same time -- record play by play, calculate player stats, and note key plays. You can either create a pre-printed page like the one below or you can simply draw lines down some line paper. My comments, of course, are not nearly as clean as the typed ones below, but they work nonetheless. In the first column (far left), I cite the number of the player who ran, passed or caught the ball. On the second column, I cite total yards gained or lost (along with a brief description). In the third column, I record the down and yardage needed. The fourth column reflects the line of scrimmage for the play. As you can see below, I invert the location for information when possession changes. I also use two different colors to record the information so I can more easily follow change of possession as I review this while writing. I might use blue for one team and red or black for the other.

At the same time, I record stats for every runner, passer and receiver, updating them on each play. You can get a sense of this system by looking at the stats below.

The only difference is that I cross out the previous number before adding the next one. As you can see, No. 20 ran for 90 yards below on 13 carries (each number denotes a carry). And No. 32 below ran for 28 yards on nine carries. You would also create rows for receivers and quarterbacks for each team. For team stats, you could also create rows to more easily add stats for punting, penalties and first downs.

There is really no reason to do this at college and pro games, where sports information and public relations folks offer stats and complete play-by-play. You should take notes in other manners for these games.

You will also need to do several other things to write a solid game story. Editors want stories that are tight, that include quotes from local players and coaches, include key stats, and that include very little play by play. Instead, editors prefer stories that tell a story.

"The game story should tell you a little about the status of each team and the thoughts and emotions of the coaches and key players who made tonight's events happen," says Kabelowsky. "Anecdotes and good quotes are better than play by play. You can communicate how much a team dominated on the line with some quick statistics. If there was a lot of scoring in the game, try to sum it up by saying 'Bill Smith scored three rushing touchdowns' and then say why he was able to do so well. Inexperienced writers are especially prone to writing box-score stories that fail to reflect an understanding of the big picture and the emotion and humanity that come to light through high school sports."

“For our game coverage we want tight and bright," says Ruppert. "Tell us who did what, provide some quotes from the key combatants and make deadline. But while you're covering the game, look for human interest angles for a good feature next week. There are all kinds of good stories out there, but those stories don't often fall in your lap. Talk to the PA announcer or the trainer during halftime or even during the game. Get to know one of the assistant coaches who can provide insight into the "people" stories on the team. Game coverage is a necessary evil, and I'm not big on the "featurized game story." Cover the game or write a feature, but it's tough to do both at the same time.

Here are some tips for covering your next football game.

Make sure you arrive early for games. Give yourself time to find the field, if you have never been there. Plus, you want time to get rosters, speak with team managers and statisticians, and find a place to cover the game. I’d recommend getting to get games at least 30 minutes early, but would strongly encourage you to get there an hour beforehand. That way, you can also scout the locations for the locker rooms and find a suitable parking spot. You’ll also want to check with the official statistician, managers and coaches to ensure the players and numbers match up on the program. At high school games especially, verify the class standing and any team and individual stats for players on both teams. Record full names, numbers and class standings of all players before these games. … Also, make sure you have read past stories on both teams to find potential angles leading into this game.

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?

■ Avoid holiday leads. Football games covered on Halloween should not be filled with players galloping or flying like ghosts or about a monstrous defense or a ghoulish finish to a game. Please, avoid these. Readers will get bored with so many references in so many games and copy editors will not tear out tufts of hair with each a succession of trite, clichéd references. Find a more creative way to approach the game.
■ Sometimes, the best lead is the straightforward approach that focuses on a key play or key stat, along with the game’s result. The Associated Press follows this formula when filing its initial game story for NFL and college games, knowing that many newspapers rely on these tight stories for roundups, where only the first 1-2 paragraphs are used. Only later does AP file the more featurized game lead. So, feel free to write a straightforward lead like the following, especially if you are filing your story for the next day’s editions or for your online editions.

“Tony Romo threw touchdown passes to Jason Witten and Marion Barber as the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Chicago Bears 34-10 on Sunday night.”

If you are writing a story that will be published a few days later, find an angle that focuses on why or how your local team fared. If you are writing for online editions, you can still use most of the original story. You can just revise the lead elements and keep the remaining analysis and play-by-play.

A few other straight leads from NFL games this weekend:
“Randy Moss had touchdown catches of 45 and three yards as New England posted its third straight rout, a 38-7 win over Buffalo.” … “Joseph Addai ran for two scores and Adam Vinatieri kicked three field goals to lead Indianapolis past Houston, 34-20.” … “Donovan McNabb threw for 381 yards and four touchdowns, Kevin Curtis had 221 yards receiving and three scores as the Eagles earned their first win.”


■ Success inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, something that is now regularly referred to as the ‘red zone.’ It never hurts to explain the red zone to readers, some of whom may not know such terminology.
■ Total yardage. Compare teams’ total yardage, addressing any major differences or on a team’s particular prowess (400-plus yards) or inadequacy (100 total yards).
■ Tackles. A team that has more tackles either played a much better game, or was forced to play longer on defense because it’s offense played poorly. Determine the reason for the number of tackles. You can also focus on players who have more than 10 individual tackles in a game, describing a few key tackles and offering reasons for this player’s prowess. Perhaps, an inside linebacker kept plugging holes up the middle to stop the opposing team’s running backs – or, perhaps, a cornerback had to tackle running backs that kept slipping past linebackers for longer gains. Remember, stats can show both success and failure, so don’t assume a high number is always a good thing. Clearly, a cornerback with more than 10 tackles is usually something coaches fret over.
■ Key drives. Include number of plays, yards and time expired, especially if the later two elements are significant. Drives that last more than 10 plays, that cover more than 75 yards and that run off more than eight minutes are particularly interesting. That’s what you would focus on a key drive in the Jaguars’ win over the Broncos. So you could focus on the key drive by writing:
“Jacksonville started with a methodical 80-yard, 18-play drive that lasted 11 minutes, 44 seconds, which was capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from David Garrard to Reggie Williams.”

■ Key plays. There were several key plays in the Giants’ victory over the Redskins. This writer also included a trend:
“The Giants converted seven straight third downs to put together three touchdown drives in the second half, the last a 33-yard pass from Eli Manning to PlaxicoBurress with 5:32 to go. Washington responded by driving to the Giants’ 1-yard line in the final minute, but running back Ladell Betts was stopped on third and fourth down runs.”
■ Turnovers. See how many times a team, or player, fumbled the ball, particularly if these turnovers led to opposing scores or if they halted a drive inside the 20-yard line. Check past games to see if this is unusual, or a trend.
■ Trends. Perhaps, a quarterback threw several interceptions during the game, which allowed the opposing team to score and/or halted scoring drives. Maybe, a defensive lineman made several key plays, tackling running backs before they could get first downs and sacking the quarterback. Or maybe a player lost his composure:
“The Panthers came up with the victory largely because DeAngelo Hall lost his cool. Atlanta’s Pro Bowl cornerback picked up three penalties for 67 yards on Carolina’s tying drive.”
■ Isolate a moment. Consider this play in a game between the Browns and Raiders.
“As Phil Dawson lined up for the potential winning field goal, Oakland coach Lane Kiffin told the line judge he wanted to call a timeout before the kick. He had watched Denver coach Mike Shanahan use the same strategy to beat his Raiders in OT the week before. So Kiffin decided he’d try it himself. The move paid off when Tommy Kelly blocked Dawson’s last second attempt, allowing the Raiders to snap an 11-game losing streak.”
■ Match-ups. Determine one-on-one and team match-ups. For example, determine how one team’s defensive backs fare against the other team’s receivers? You can also assess how one team’s all-conference linebacker fared against an opposing all-conference running back. [Note: Avoid calling players ‘stars’ in games.]
■ Time of possession. High school and college games are typically 12 minutes, while the NFL plays 15-minute quarters. Teams that control the ball typically win the game for many reasons. That means a team kept driving the ball. That also means the other team had the ball less frequently to do the same. This could also result in one team’s defense getting worn down, especially in the fourth quarter. So a team that controls the ball for 39 minutes in a 60-minute NFL game is usually going to win. (The same holds true for a high school team that held the ball for 30 of 48 minutes.) If the ball-controlling team does not win, focus on the reasons for this. For example, the other team may have capitalized on some turnovers or made some quick, lengthy scoring plays. Either way, this is an interesting aspect of the game.
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the game and the opponent’s record, somewhere in the story. Unless the game is pivotal, such as a playoff match-up or a game that can determine a conference champion, you can cite the next game near the end of the story. You might also create a fact box that lists the next opponent as part of all game precedes stories.
■ Check to see what the team’s all-time series record is against its opponent.
■ Show, don’t tell. Show how a freshman was the player of the game by describing how he played in key moments. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how this player performed better than everyone else.

■ You can put records in parentheses, especially when they also reflect conference or district marks. For example, you would write that Eastern Illinois (9-2, 8-1 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 (8-1, 6-0) scored four times in final quarter to rout Lyman (7-2, 5-1) in a key Class AAAA, district 8 game.


Essentially, you want to offer fans some perspective they cannot get by watching it in the stands or on television. That means asking players and coaches how they felt, what they saw and why did they acted as they did. Speak with as many people as possible – and make sure you speak with players and coaches from both teams to get a well-rounded perspective. Otherwise, the reader will be stuck with a single perspective, typically the home team’s POV. That won’t impress fans or potential employers.

Interviews go much differently in high school, compared to college and the NFL, where players brought out for press conferences. At high school, you’ll have to scramble to speak with players and coaches before they hit the locker rooms. “The entire atmosphere of a high school game is less structured than the pro/college setting,” Ruppert says. “On the high school level, you're on your own to get interviews with players and coaches. You have to remember you are interviewing 16-17-year-old kids who might not realize how their words will look in the paper the next day.”

“At the end of the game, grab the most important player right away for a couple of quotes,” Kabelowsky says, “then tally your second-half stats for a couple of minutes while the coaches address their players. That’s when you can approach the coaches with some intelligent questions about the big play, the game, what worked and didn’t. Usually, game coverage is on deadline, so you need to know your main points and ask about them right away. Neither of you has time for a rambling conversation.”

Here are a few questions that might help get your game stories rolling.
■ Ask players and coaches for roster changes. For example, you could ask why Ravens quarterback Steve McNair was removed from a game in the fourth quarter. “I could tell he was favoring it a little bit,” Baltimore coach Brian Billick said.
■ Ask offensive lineman about the opposing defense, seeing the game through their perspective.
■ Ask defensive lineman about the opposing team’s offensive line or running backs. As a result, you may get a response the following that ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

But the Buccaneers were surprised not to see the Rams stretch the field.
“I really thought they would try to go down the field more with their talented receivers,” said Bucs defensive end Kevin Carter.
“The one thing I was surprised about is they didn’t go downfield more,” Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud said. “Because that’s kind of what their passing game is known for – the real deep digs, the deep comebacks.”

■ Ask players how they were able to come from behind. Even if the rally falls short, this is worth a question. Here’s a comment from Houston cornerback Dunta Robinson after a Texan rally fell short: “It’s a new team. There’s no quit in us. in the past, the game might have got out of hand. But now we expect to win football games, no matter who we are playing, no matter who is injured.”
■ You can also ask players to describe disappointing starts to seasons. Yes, it is difficult to ask people why they have failed, but that is part of the job. Here’s what LaDainian Tomlinson said after the Chargers lost to go 1-2. “It’s still a long season. But I mean, right now we just -- I don’t know. I’m lost.” This tells readers much about the mindset of the team.

■ Spell out RB (running back), WR (wide receiver) and QB (quarterback) in first reference
■ Here are some spellings for commonly used football terms: ball carrier, end zone, handoff, touchdown.
■ Hyphenate nouns when used as adjectives, like field-goal attempts, and goal-line stand, but write field goal and goal line are not hyphenated when used as nouns.
Use numerals for yardage. So you would write 9-yard line, 8-yard pass, and he ran in from 4 yards. You would also use numerals for downs, such as fourth-and-2 and second-and-8. But check with your local sports editors to make sure local style does not usurp AP Style.
■ 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.)

■ Avoid playing off team nicknames by writing that the Panthers were on the prowl or that Warriors are ready for their next battle.

Some final advice: “With covering major or pro sports, it often gets to be about the writer/reporter's ego,” says Black. “With high school sports, you need to stay in closer touch with your audience. It's not about you, and it's never going to be about you. It's about the kids you cover and their schools. And, for high school reporters who think it is about them, they're on the wrong beat.”

photo/Nora Maberry


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More tips for volleyball coverage

The other day, a student asked how to score points during change-overs in volleyball, when, for example, the serving team hits the ball out of bounds. He did not realize that high school and college teams no longer use the side-out format, where only the serving team could score points. That system was discarded six years. Colleges (and now high schools) use a rally scoring system where a point is scored on every single serve, regardless who serves. Teams still get to serve after winning points and must win by two points. College teams also must play to 30 points now in all except the final game in the best-of-five scoring system. (Fifth games only go to 15 points.) High school teams typically play to 25 points in a best of three or five game setup, with the final set also going to 15.

Those who have not watched volleyball over the past several years might be surprised by a player wearing a different colored shirt than her teammates. The libero, meaning free in Italian, is a relatively new defensive position player who can play the back row only. The NCAA introduced the position in 2002. The libero can replace anybody on the back row so long as she sits out for one play in between changes. The libero can serve as well. "This player is a handy player to have on the court," says Eastern Illinois volleyball coach Lori Bennett. "Typically, she is one of your better passers and defenders, so it's nice to have her out there."

Here are a few other reminders Coach Bennett offered to my class the other day:
■ Players no longer call balls that bounce off the forearms 'bumps.' Instead, she says, call them 'passes.'
■ Avoid using the term 'spike,' replacing the term with 'hit' or 'attack.'
■ A ball hit more softly over the net is called a 'hit,' not a 'dink.'
■ A 'lift' is called when a ball is held too long, sort of like a basketball player palming a ball.
■ Players cannot hit the ball twice except when returning a serve -- and only if this is incidental, like when a ball bounces off a forearm and a shoulder. This counts as two of the team's maximum three hits on each possession.

You can learn more about writing volleyball by clicking here.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

West Chester wins historic game

Here's a shameless plug for a story I wrote that just posted.

CHARLESTON, Ill. -- Jamaris DelValle had never heard of rugby before she started playing three years ago in Jupiter, Fla.

Like most Americans, the teen knew little about the sport's rules, traditions or strategies. Still, she was drawn to a sport where she has the opportunity to hit someone in a game, just like the boys do over on the football field.

You can read the rest of the story by clicking here.

photo/Brian Poulter


Friday, September 14, 2007

Point out stupid, crazy fan behavior

Michigan fans want Lloyd Carr's head. And why not? Michigan sucks right now, losing to Appalachian State and Oregon to start 0-2. This is Michigan football, after all, a team rich in tradition, a team that just doesn't lose to Division I-AA schools. Go big Blue!

What the hell has Carr done for Michigan lately? Sure, he won 113 games entering this season, but what of those 36 losses. He's lost 24.2 percent of games he's coached. Plus, he has captured only one national championship (one more than Bo Schembechler.) But you'd think he'd have more titles after guiding the team to bowl games 12 straight years and being ranked in the AP Top 25 for all but seven games. Sure, he is the first Wolverines coach to win four consecutive bowl games, but what has Carr done this season? He has to go, absolutely.

The only fans who might be more rabid than Michigan's reside in Philadelphia, where fans have booed Santa Claus and thrown garbage at players. But why do fans get so damned upset when their teams lose, their desire to live drained and their desire to lash out inflamed?

That's what Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick ponders in today's column. He makes some great points, such as:

"When did all these wildly whooping young men decide to paint their faces each week and live out the blood-curdling finale of Braveheart?
When did the Eagles become the linchpin of their existence?
If, as a lot of social commentators have posited, sports is the new religion, then these scary people are its radical fundamentalists."

Check it out; it's a terrific read.

As sports journalists, we need to be the voice of reason, calming readers still filled with rage after a loss (that damned umpire cost my son a little league game!) and pointing out idiots who fail to restrain themselves (by running out on a field or by posting comments online). Make sure you do not get caught up in this rabid, unthinking loyalty when you write. Be a journalist first, a fan second (or ninth). There's worse things than losing a friggin' game. Let's make sure we remind readers there's life outside of sports. Really.


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Women's rugby makes its push for NCAA status this weekend

Buzz is building for the first sanctioned NCAA women's rugby team. Perhaps, buzz is the wrong word. Instead, it's more like a low hum. USA Today wrote a brief story on the match-up between Eastern Illinois University and West Chester (Penn.) University, a game that might attract more than 1,000 fans to Charleston, Ill.

EIU coach Frank Graziano says that several local newspapers have also called, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and some Chicago area newspapers. I will be covering the game for I may be more excited than most, having spent two years covering the team for a project I hoped would result in a book on these women pioneers. I am still writing and working and hoping.

Women's rugby is on the NCAA's emerging sports list, along with squash and handball and a few other sports. Typically, a sport must build enough programs (usually 30) to have a national championship within 10 years. Right now, the sport has about four more years, meaning the sport could be denied if progress stalls. Only two other teams are considered NCAA right now -- Maine's Bowdoin College and Southern Vermont College.

Clearly, many people are hoping this game on Saturday will generate enough media coverage to jumpstart interest among fans and athletic directors. Rugby is an exciting sport, but, like soccer, is considered more European than American even though American football owes its development to rugby.

There are many reasons rugby could become the next big college sport, but there are just as many reasons the sport could cease to exist beyond club status after a few years. Rugby has the speed of track, the power of football and the grace of soccer. Fans easily get hooked once they watch a few games. Plus, rugby could help offset football's overwhelming number of scholarships. Title IX justifiably requires that women must receive an equal share of athletic opportunities. Rugby could help universities in this regard, since the sport could generate as many as 30 scholarships, more than any other sport beside football. On the other hand, athletic directors usually have few dollars to spend on a new sport, especially one with a somewhat tarnished reputation.

At Eastern, the sport has a stellar reputation, thanks in part to its coach, Graziano, a former USA Rugby coordinator and national coach who see no reason rugby should be treated any differently than any other sport.

Many club rugby teams chafe at the thought of going varsity, believing the NCAA will change too many rules and take control over 'their' sport. Two players at North Carolina went apoplectic a few years ago, yelling when I asked whether NCAA status would improve their program. One player claimed UNC was just as good as anybody moments after being routed, 86-7, by EIU.

"The only possible advantage is you will have medical and get things funded," the player said. "But it will strip the fun out of the game. We already have the best of both worlds. We only have to practice two times a week. We do this because we love to do it and want to win. I think it would become a chore having to practice every day. That we show up twice a week when we don't have to builds your heart."

Another player jumped in: "I don't like the Americanized varsity idea. I could hear their coach scolding their players. I didn't get the sense their coach cares about their players. Some of what he said was downright mean. The pressure isn't there with us now. The money isn't there. You can't be kicked off our team. I like that there's no pressure."

Clearly, these players never heard UNC's basketball coaches (or any other professional coaches) during a game or practice. Pat Summitt is not exactly a nun either, yet her players respect her -- and her players learn and win like no other women's basketball program.

Several coaches and players hate that NCAA rules would prohibit post-game socials after games, a staple in the rugby community. Last week, Purdue's coach was not interested in going NCAA, saying she would love the funding. But, she said, she did not want to have to worry about under-age drinking after games.

Say what you will about the NCAA, but no organization does a better job organizing, marketing and promoting athletics in this country. The NCAA's support could turn rugby into the next great college sport. Varsity teams would grow in high school campuses across the country, feeding college teams in Illinois, Florida, Nebraska and elsewhere.

But it all starts, really, with Saturday afternoon's game in Charleston. The winner, really, is not as important to those playing. The real rewards may come years later when these young women can point back and remind people they played in this historic game. Hopefully, they won't have to remind their grand kids that rugby is a sport.

You might want to do some research on your own campus, asking players and athletic directors how they feel about elevating women's rugby to varsity status. Attend a practice, observe how they work out and ask the tougher follow-up questions. There might be a nice story in it for you.

I posted information on ways to cover rugby last spring, which you can find by clicking here.

photo/Brian Poulter


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

College sports blogs are mostly blah

The Daily Pennsylvanian does a pretty good job with its sports blog, offering daily updates on both soccer and football. The sports staff at the newspaper understands the role of a blog for its print publication - offering news, analysis and entertainment. The Daily Pennsylvanian focuses more on the news and analysis parts. The beat reporters are more restrained in their posts, something many readers will appreciate. The beat reporters offer careful analysis supported by reasons and examples.

Sports reporter Sebastien Angel offers this assessment on the men's soccer team:

"The men are difficult to pin down, especially since they've yet to play at home. The bad loss to Seton Hall was a surprise, but Fuller's teams have started slow before - last year's 2-0 defeat to Lehigh comes to mind. (In fairness, Lehigh went on to have a great year.)

I think even less can be pulled from this weekend's performance in California. The optimist might be tempted to read a lot of good things into a competitive 1-0 loss to No. 7 Cal; it's easy to say you were one goal away from a tie - of course, it's much harder to actually get it.

A good barometer will appear this weekend at the Penn Soccer Classic at Rhodes Field. Penn's two opponents, Hartwick and La Salle, gave the Quakers close games last year. A couple of wins - or even a win and a tie - would set them on the right track. The important thing will be to avoid getting swept, though. The chances for non-conference wins and momentum are running out."
The post includes a clear statement, offers some history, and analyzes a recent win rather evenly (no 'homer' comments here.) He also looks ahead to some games later this week.

Two other reporters add to this sports blog that included eight items during 13 days. Most posts where fewer than 300 words. But even the longer post, a 600-plus word piece that outlined Penn's football depth chart, was written concisely.

This is the best of the dozen sports blogs I've reviewed so far. This paper uses three reporters to cover three beats, offers news and updates about its sports.

Blogs, of course, can contain a wide variety of elements, such as more opinionated columns and more in-depth assessment. There's nothing that says blogs need to be mostly notes packages.

Some papers have started to offer game blogs, which, really, ought to be named glogs (or live game logs.) Check out and for terrific examples of live game reports on the MLB, NBA, NHL and other sports. golf editor Jason Sobel even glogged four days of the Master's, something that was a witty, informative and entertaining read -- and exhausting to Mr. Sobel.

Younger sports reporters need to check these out before diving into this area, otherwise they will be left with bloated, cliche-ridden writing and boring play-by-play. One college publication's live game blog called next week's game against a conference opponent a "must-win," a game that "will be a gut-check." Then, the reporter added: "Yes, there is plenty of football to be played." Blogs are not an excuse to bust out wit da slang and cliches, brother. Instead, they are a place to offer short, informative takes. Don't mistakenly believe that slang and cliches equate to witty, interesting writing.

Make sure you have something to say in the game logs. Offer play by play, but mix in some analysis at the same time. Glogging can be difficult for this reason -- the blogger is expected to be both play-by-play announcer and color commentator. (But isn't that also the role of a sports columnist?)

The Michigan Daily did a fine job offering a running commentary during the Wolverines' loss to Oregon:

First quarter, 5:29 Henne connects with Arrington in the back of the end zone on a short third-and-goal to put Michigan on board. Great throw by Henne to catch Arrington cutting across the back, and Arrington jumps up to grab it. Capped off a solid 10-play, 71-yard drive, highlighted by some nice runs by Hart and 17-yard Manningham reception. Michigan kicks the extra point and is up 4. Michigan 7, Oregon 3

First quarter, 4:40 Wow. That was quick. On Oregon’s second play of the drive, wide receiver Brian Paysinger beats cornerback Brandon Harrison on a fade and takes it 89 yards for the touchdown. One two-point conversion later, and Oregon has a four-point lead. Michigan 7, Oregon 11.

Do not waste space in your glog, as one school did last weekend: "Nothing new to report here as the offense remains ineffective..."

Make sure you are writing for your readers. Do not be self-indulgent, writing about yourself or offering your predictions. Who cares who you picked for the week (or even the score you cited?) Instead, analyze the week's match-ups by comparing one team's passing game against the other team's secondary. Offer comments from players on both sides, from coaches who have played both teams, and include stats that support your statements. Don't just write some general comment and offer a score. Nobody really cares.

The blog for one college publication was particularly self-absorbed. During the past week, one reporter tried to defend a column, another writer made some NFL predictions, calling the local team "our boys." And another posting made sportswriters look like a bunch of free-loading slobs:

"If there’s one thing I enjoy about being a sports reporter, it’s all the free stuff – especially the food.

With two meal tickets redeemable for a hot dog or bratwurst, unlimited soft drinks and coffee, it’s a cheap college student’s dream. Sure, I have to “work” to earn these amenities, but it’s well worth it.

After two 24 ounce Mountain Dews and two bratwursts smothered in mustard and chopped onions, I was feeling adventurous. Considering I only slept two hours Friday night (really, morning – from 6:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m.), I decided to go for the free cappuccino.

Real nice. Credibility shattered. Stereotype strengthened. Thanks.

One final note: Don't be a homer. Create some distance betwen you and the team, even in columns and blogs. Don't write 'us' or 'we.' Sure, you may love your college, but that does not mean you have to be an apologist. Reporters across the United States love our country but still attempt to deliver the facts in a more objective manner. Just as there is no cheering in the press box, there is no rah-rahing or swearing allegiance to one's school in a blog. ("I bleed green and ...")

Learning something new can be difficult. Learning something that is still evolving is even more challenging. So read and assess respectable, professional sports blogs to develop an approach to blogging. You'll need to learn this skill sooner than later because blogs are here to stay for a while.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Legal scrum: Media win important battle vs. oppression

I learned the power of the press at a pretty early age. As a teen working for the Fort Myers News-Press, I covered a lot of football and watched a lot of talented players, like the always explosive Deion Sanders. Rarely, did anybody cause any problems. Once, though, a woman at the gate at Cypress Lake High School refused to allow me into a game, perhaps believing I was some high school senior trying to sneak in for free. She said I would have to pay. I repeated that I was a reporter and showed her my notebooks and legal pads. She said I would have to pay like everybody else. I told her not to expect any coverage in the next morning's editions.

Fortunately, a track coach at the gate who knew me, told her to let me in. I'd like to think that coach reamed her out, but this woman probably never gave it a second thought. The press, she believed, should not get any special privileges. But, you know, sports reporters are not there eating hot dogs, downing popcorn, and sipping sodas as we watch our teams march down the field. Instead, we are busy keeping stats, taking notes, and hoping like hell we do not miss any key plays because there are no darned replays in high school football (at least, not in most schools.)

Reporters serve the public's interests. At times, that also helps business interests. We cover mall openings not because we want to promote a business but because we want to let the public know about another shopping opportunity. We cover a college football game for the same reason, to offer information to readers who could not attend. Sure, sports help sell single-copy editions of the newspaper, but the school board also gets something in return, its message sent to thousands of people. The reader, meanwhile, learns more about local schools.

No businesses have a more symbiotic relationship than sports and journalism. They need one another to thrive. News stories create fans who attend games and buy merchandise, and sports help sell many, many copies in print (and send many more to a paper's online site.)

Yet, some sports organizations don't get it. That is forcing news agencies to fight back. The world's top news agencies won a very important battle yesterday in Paris, a day before rugby's world cup was set to begin. The sport's international governing body had tried to control coverage of the event, much like the NCAA had tried to prevent blogging in last spring's college world series.

This is another example of a sports governing body believing it can control everything, including a free press. These sports bodies forget how they found success, through free media coverage. Without media coverage, a sport will lose fans. Without fans, a sport will lose advertisers. Without advertisers, the sport will go out of business. There's really only one reason these things happen: Greed. Pure desire to squeeze every last penny out of their ventures.

In this case, the IRB tried to limit the number of photos a news agency could post on its site to 20 per half, or 40 overall. That would be like the NFL limiting the number of photos a news agency could post on its website. (The NFL has prevented newspapers from running video longer than 45 seconds.) So the news agencies responded by boycotting all events sponsored by the IRB, including a news conference staged by Visa International. The empty room was too much for the event's prime sponsor, which forced the IRB to negotiate.

The IRB is probably concerned that news agencies and papers will usurp its own web sites by posting dozens and dozens of pictures of the matches. They are fearful they will lose control of the sports. But, in reality, sports are really owned by fans -- who should be able to receive their news from as many places as possible. The IRB would like fans to flock to its own website, not to L'Equippe, France's leading sports magazine, or to publications served by the Associated Press, Reuters and the Agence France-Presse. But that's the price of business. This additional coverage will create more fans who, in turn, will watch the sport and respond to advertisers. More may even go the IRB website. That's the way of the sports world.

How important is media exposure? Ask the beleaguered NHL, a league fighting obscurity after some lengthy labor disputes. The league's ratings (and national media coverage) are barely discernible. The league is doing whatever it can to create interest, even allowing Google Video to put them on YouTube.

"When web users are searching for diverse video content, Google Video is the first place they go, just as is the first place hockey fans go when they want NHL video," Keith Ritter, President of NHL ICE said last winter. "The combination of our content and Google's massive reach is a terrific pairing, and we're excited to add fan-generated content to the mix."

The NFL, on the other hand, forced Google to remove thousands of video clips last winter. Earlier this summer, the NFL also told news agencies online game video can be no longer than 45 seconds and cannot be archived, reduced sideline credential by 20 percent, and tried to require all photographers to wear vests with advertising logos.

Success dims one's memory, or so it seems.

In any case, we need to fight against the greedy nature of organizations like the IRB, who are glad to get coverage when it serves them, and equally glad to push aside other news agencies when the going gets good. (Any ad exec will tell you that a company should advertise even more when business is good to play off its name recognition. I don't see McDonald's or Coca-Cola cutting back on advertising. The same goes for media coverage.)

So, bravo, to those news agencies who battled for freedom of the press. Fans (and journalists) across the globe thank you.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

This NCAA rule makes no sense

Ron Dayne ran for 7,125 yards in his days as a bruiser in Wisconsin's back field. But the NCAA counts only 6,397 of them. That's because the NCAA did not count yardage from bowl games in its total when Dayne played, meaning the Badgers runner loses out on the 738 yards in four games. Dayne rushed for more than 200 yards four times. (Still, Dayne's total is the most ever by a Division I-A back.)

A few years ago, the NCAA changed its rules to include bowl yardage. But the yardage is not included retroactively. So Dayne's yards do not count for the overall record. This makes no sense. The NCAA does a terrific job organizing, marketing and assisting thousands of college athletes across the country. Few organizations do more for athletics in this country. But rules like this flabbergast fans and journalists alike. Andy Baggot, a sports reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, says his temples are pinging over this rule. He revealed the ridiculous nature of this rule in a story published a few days ago.

You also might want to re-evaluate football records at your school, seeing if some records might be broken now that the rule is in effect. Either way, keep checking the NCAA web site for new (and occasionally bizarre) rule changes.


Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ask follow-up questions

Athletes do not practice speaking in cliches any more than sportswriters attempt to write them. But, you know, sometimes a good cliche is worth a thousand words. You can take that to the bank. But cliches can also be confusing -- even to a hard-nosed fan, someone who is a gamer, a serious student of the game and a go-to guy for sports trivia.

Cliches are not any one's friend, despite what Crash Davis says in Bull Durham (perhaps, the funniest movie ever produced on sports.)

Crash Davis: It's time to work on your interviews.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?
Crash Davis: You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: "We gotta play it one day at a time."
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Got to play... it's pretty boring.
Crash Davis: 'Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down.

We should not interview athletes and coaches for quotes. Instead, we need to speak with them to get a better understanding of a game or play, to get explanations for decisions, and to add a little flavor to a story. Quotes should answer questions, not create them. That means asking the all-important follow-up question if an athlete or coach offers a statement that is vague or unclear.

For example, what does this quote mean? “Once we have balance, we will be a very deadly force.” In what ways does this team need balance? How will the team be deadly? Ask this coach to explain. I know sports reporters, especially newer journalists, are uncomfortable asking these follow-up questions, feeling this either challenges an authority figure or makes the reporter look like a dope. Actually, reporters look foolish when they fail to fully understand everything about a story, game, or profiled person. Ultimately, coaches and players will appreciate that you want to get it right.

Here are a few more quotes that could use some clarification.
“We are extremely eager to get back at them, to avenge our first loss of the season.”
• What particularly has this person upset about the loss? Teams lose all the time, so why is he so upset?

“Everyone is working hard to help the team win. You want to do well because you want your team to do well.”
• How hard are these players willing to work? Get some details regarding this training. Show, don't just tell. Then offer these details to a reader who can determine if these players are really working hard.

“Winning is always the goal,” she said. “But on the way to winning, the goal is to just play our game. We will need to play together as a team and do our jobs individually to be successful.”
• In what specific ways does this team need to play together better? Ask f0r some examples.

“We have a lot of chemistry,” she said. “One would think it would have been difficult to develop with more new players than returning players on the team. But I actually think it’s turned out better. We all get along great and are definitely ready to start the season. We have a lot of confidence.”
• Get some examples that reveal that the team has chemistry. In what ways are the players getting along? Ask for a story or two.

“My bat isn’t as hot as it was a couple weeks ago, but I’m just focusing on staying consistent day in and day out. If I keep bringing energy every day, I think it will only [help] continue my success.”

• How is this baseball player trying to stay focused? Is he doing yoga (or just reading hitting tips from Yogi?) Is this player taking an extra 30 minutes or 100 pitches each day? Get the details.

The Griz swept the three doubles matches, picking up their sixth doubles point in seven matches. “We’ve had a pretty good doubles streak,” said freshman Danni Paulson. “We lost against (MSU) but prior to that we won most of our doubles points this year, which I know they didn’t do last year, so our doubles is definitely strong.”
• How is this doubles team particularly strong? Is one player great at the net and the other a terrific server? Are the players psychic? How is this team winning most of its double points? Ask.

“I think it’s going to give us some good momentum going into conference,” she said.
• This is as cliched as it gets. It says nothing when it appears to say everything. How does a victory or good performance help a team in its next game? Is this team now confident it can rally from behind in the fourth quarter? Did a point guard start making some tough passes inside? Ask for particular details so the reader can understand how this one game might assist the team in the future.