Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Where have you gone, Steve Kilkenny?


I'm always sad when I read headlines like this: "Honus Wagner card sold for record-setting $2.35 million." I can only think about all the cards I sold to pay the rent in college, all those cardboard Aarons, Mays, Clementes, Mantles and Roses sold off for another couple of months in a dingy apartment or for a few more credits at the community college. (As if education is as important as pictures of childhood heroes.)

Collecting those cards were some of the best times of my life. I learned to negotiate by trading with the neighborhood kids, gladly handing over the Mets' Rusty Staub and Cleon Jones for the likes of Steve Carlton, Harmon Killebrew or Bobby Murcer. I learned to organize by putting cards in order both by team and by numbers, depending on my mood. And I also learned to finish what I started by trading for even the most obscure players (like Cleveland Indians pitcher Steve Kilkenny) because I needed a complete set in 1972.

I also pored over statistics on the back of these cards. As a result, I understood more about baseball, football, hockey and basketball -- especially about baseball. I learned that a 3.00 earned-run average and a .300 batting average make for pretty impressive seasons. And a 4.0-yard per carry average and 1,000 total yards is equally impressive, especially back when the season lasted 14 games, not 16. (Nobody was better than Jim Brown, who regularly averaged 1,000 yards during a 12-game series.) I can still recite Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average (.367) and that Lou Gehrig has hit more grand slams (24) than anyone else. Of course, some other records have been erased along the way, like the amazing new strikeout mark by Nolan Ryan and the new record for hits by Pete Rose.

I still have thousands of cards, but I have very few of the years that mean most to me -- football and baseball cards from 1971-74. I might have to start putting a set together. I don't have many of those cards left, but I do have some great memories. (And a college degree, too, I guess.)

I can't wait until the new set comes out so my daughters and I can compare ERAs, batting averages and runs batted in as we sit and watch the Yankees on satellite TV.

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Dear Fans: Stop Storming The Courts

Storming the court is a fine way to celebrate a big victory. But fans need restraint when their school defeats a lower-ranked team, even if the game had been close, writes a columnist at Loyola Marymount. Unlike a columnist at Michigan State, Allison Hong writes that racing onto a field or court does not always create excitement.

Hong implores fans at Loyola Marymount to stop storming the basketball court after every victory. Running onto the court after a major upset is fine, but fans should not run out after a win over, say, Santa Clara University, she writes. In an open letter to fans, she writes: “Please stop storming the court. We've done it three times and now it's just getting old.”

Sometimes, columnists need to take on their readers in order to affect change, especially when it can cost the school money. Hong does a fine job doing that for a good read. Check it out.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Sports columnists should force readers to think, act

A good sports columnist should offer meaningful insights, cover sports ignored by others, offer cultural criticism, and analyze games in considerably more depth than the average fan. A sports columnist should, at different times, afflict and comfort us. A sports columnist needs to write with style and grace, should have strong opinions (but be willing to sharpen them with facts), and should offer fresh perspectives. Most of all, a good sports columnist needs to be an excellent reporter.

As the great Red Smith once wrote: "The guy I admire most in the world is a good reporter. I respect a good reporter, and I'd like to be called that. I'd like to be considered good and honest and reasonably accurate."

That’s a tough job description to fill. But many student journalists are cutting their columnist teeth on campuses across the country. And many are doing a pretty decent job. A review of more than 50 online newspapers across the country yielded several strong sports columns, some of which I list below. College newspapers are the place where young sports journalists can learn to mix reporting and opinion writing – and where they, subsequently, can enjoy the wrath of readers, coaches and athletes (and that’s after writing a good column).

The learning curve for young sports columnists can be difficult, something I noticed this past week. More than a few young columnists offered considerable opinion but very little reporting. Other columnists focused more on national sporting events, forsaking campus sports for the alluring lights of the NBA, NFL and MLB. As a result, these columns typically yielded stale second- and third-hand perspectives.

There’s no need to write a column on the top baseball transactions during the past off-season or to cite the reasons the Bears or Colts should win the Super Bowl. Unless you regularly cover these beats, you really have nothing new to say. These columns might be fine if you go to football camps, interview baseball experts, and regularly speak with these athletes; however, that is not frequently the case. Write local. That’s what your readers expect and that’s what will impress potential employers. Prove that you can cover your local beats first.

(One piece of advice to online editors: label your sports columns to distinguish them from your regular sports news. Online readers do not get to see the column sigs and the page design. Clearly denote your opinion pieces for your online readers.)

There were several excellent columns during the past week, but none better than one written by Ethan Conley of Michigan State’s The State News. Conley has always enjoyed watching movies. But recently he noticed that some of his favorite flicks have been sterilized by the PC police. Conley has also noticed college sports are also getting sanitized to the point where students can no longer rush a basketball court when their team wins.

Here’s the lead:

“One of my first childhood memories is of watching "E.T." with my parents when we bought our first VCR. I have no idea why this sticks with me. There's something about that wide-eyed alien who says "Ouuuuch" that resonates in my brain.

So you can imagine my excitement when the film was re-released in 2002. I couldn't wait to see it on the big screen for the first time. Much to my dismay, it ended up being terribly disappointing — the FBI agents who line the street as Elliot rides past on his bike are now holding walkie-talkies instead of guns, Elliot's mom no longer tells Michael he looks like a "terrorist" on Halloween and Elliot's ‘penis breath’ insult is conspicuously absent. Apparently, that kind of language could slip by in 1982, but it's too profane for the 21st century.”


Conley’s column rises well above most of those I’ve read over the past week, mostly because the writer has looked beyond the surface of sports. Too often, columnists address the obvious or the superficial. In this case, the sports columnist, like a poet, made a connection between two disparate things – movies and college sports. It’s an excellent read. Check it out, along with the other columnists listed down the right side of this blog.

Several other columnists also did a fine job this week.

I’m always a sucker for good baseball column. Matt Watson of the Arkansas Traveler starts out with a pastoral column on baseball, but he then brings everything back to his college team’s chances this season. College columnists need to remember to keep their focus on local sports, as Matt did.

“As temperatures rise, which the weatherman says isn't going to last much longer, the dead of winter slowly fades away and the sweet smell of spring gets closer and closer. This can mean only one thing:

Baseball.

Beautiful, American baseball.

You won't hear a "crack of the bat" officially until April 1, in a National League Championship rematch between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals that kicks off both the major league season and the Cards' World Series title defense.

But the "pings" are in full swing in Fayetteville.”


Here’s a few other good columns:

Shawn Garrison, of Missouri’s Maneater, reveals how his grandmother taught him some of life’s best sports lessons.

“When I was a kid, I bought baseball cards by the boxful. I still have hundreds of thousands of them lying around my closet and room. One time, my grandma alphabetized my entire collection for me. Every single card was sorted according to sport, team and player name. Of course, it took me about three days to have them strung back out all over the place, but maybe someday I’ll get those reorganized.”

Ban Barkawi of Cal-State Chico’s Orion, offers a unique perspective on American sports, one that was cultivated in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where he was raised.

“When someone asks where I'm from, it takes me a good 10 seconds before I can explain it in the most convenient way. I'm Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, but I lived in Saudi Arabia until I somehow ended up in Chico.”

■ Brady Henderson of Western Washington uses his column to profile a walk-on football player. Some good reporting is included in this piece.

“Western senior outside linebacker Taylor Wade didn't take the conventional route to becoming a college football player.

Despite a stellar career at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo, Wash., Wade garnered no attention from college scouts and doubted his ability to play at the next level."

Matt Daniels, of Eastern Illinois, does a fine job analyzing the reason the men’s basketball team failed to qualify for the Ohio Valley Conference tournament. He offers specific examples to prove his point. He starts by citing a few of the plays that helped ended the team’s season prematurely.

“A missed wide-open layup at the buzzer at Eastern Kentucky.

A questionable charge call with the game tied in regulation against Austin Peay.

A missed 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game against Tennessee State.

All three of these endings happened in the month of January for Eastern men's basketball.

And when one looks back at the Panthers' 2006-07 season, this month stood out the most - for all the wrong reasons.”

You, too, can focus on specific games and plays but you need to have an over-riding theme. Here, Daniels revealed the problems the team faced through several key plays during a tough final month.

Writing a column is not easy, as anyone who has written one can attest. You can’t claim anonymity or objectivity. The words are your thoughts and beliefs. The words are you. So, before you head out to write your next column, consider some of the points addressed at the start of this piece. But also know: To find great columns, you’ll need to put in some time – on a beat, at practices, and at games. Coaches and athletes will then see that you are as dedicated as they are, not some reporter stopping in for a quick peek. You’ll get much better insider information this way. Watch intently. Speak (and listen) to not only the athletes, but to the trainers, groundskeepers and trainers hanging around the fields. And make sure you do the research.

Writing a sports column can be challenging and time-consuming. But your efforts can make a difference in the lives of your readers. That’s what drove many of today’s top sports columnists (like the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke) to start writing.

"Like most of us, I became a journalist because I wanted to touch people,” writes Plaschke. “I wanted to make them laugh. I wanted to make them cry. I wanted to leave them angry. I wanted to make them think.

“In some professions, one might not elicit that range of human emotions from a customer in 20 years. In column writing, it can all happen in the same 20 inches. Such is the beauty of our craft. One can not just examine and report on a landscape but, however slightly, change it. One can not just touch readers, but embrace them and shake them.”

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Here's a chance to cover the Women's Final 4

Here is a great opportunity for college sports reporters to cover the NCAA Women's Final Four. I have posted the information below that was forwarded to me by Eleanor Dombrowski, the program's Internship Director & Special Events Coordinator. You can send her a note at e.dombrowski@csuohio.edu>

PRESS RELEASE
Cleveland State University is pleased to host the U. S. Basketball Writers Association's Sports Writing Seminar and Scholarship Program. This program has been held for the past five years in conjunction with the NCAA Men's Final Four. This is the first year it will be held at the NCAA Women's Final Four.

The program begins on Friday, March 30, 2007, with a panel of national sports writers. Journalism students will compete for media credentials to cover the following NCAA Women's Final Four events at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Four teams practices & press conferences - Saturday, March 31, 2007
Semi-Final Games - Sunday, April 1, 2007
Championship Game - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

All journalism students are invited to attend the panel presentation on March 30. To compete for a media credential, students must submit a published writing sample by March 15. For complete details and to download an application, visit Cleveland State University's School of Communication website

For more information on the NCAA Women's Final Four events, visit www.womenrockcleveland.com

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mix in some reporting to your sports blogs

As a former sports reporter and sports copy editor, I have more than a passing interest in sports journalism. I read as much as I can in print and have recently started to scour the Internet for fresh voices and new insights on issues related to sports. Professional beat reporters and columnists are typically more informed than the average fan whose commentary often reads like a poorly written letter to the editor. But that’s no surprise.

Too often, average-fan bloggers spend too much time debating who should start at quarterback or berating the work habits of an athlete they have only read about elsewhere. You need to attend games and practices to properly evaluate players and coaches. Many posts on regular fan sites read like rants heard on second-rate sports radio. Many of these fan-blogs are all opinion and no research.

Of course, that’s the point with some fan web sites – acting as a continual message board. Letting fans speak is important to any news media. It’s fun and enjoyable. But sports bloggers should inform these conversations with reporting and research.

Professional beat reporters have the most to report online. And professional columnists say it the best, using more polished prose. Both professionals offer reliable information. These are the people we attempt to train in journalism programs across the country. Certainly, one does not need a journalism degree to be an excellent blogger, but some training sure doesn't hurt.

Sports bloggers need to know how to interview, research and observe more carefully before they start writing online. Frankly, I do not want to read uninformed posts. I prefer to read bloggers who offer compelling insights not offered elsewhere, who take on important issues, who break real news, and who address issues with passion, empathy and great skill. These are the blogs I want to read regularly.

So do not just rant, rave, blather, bloviate, bluster or boast. Instead, offer something your readers will want – real news and thoughtful commentary. So get out of the house. Report. Interview. Observe. Or do some real research at home. Either way, find something worth repeating. That’s how you attract readers.

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Nominate sports columnists for the Weekly College Top 10

I am accepting nominations for the Cool College Sports Columns: Weekly Top 10, a feature that will begin next week. Send nominations to me at jgisondi@gmail.com. My e-mail is also listed under my profile (to the right). Blogs are also welcome for submission.

This way college sports journalists can learn style and techniques from one another; plus, you can see what issues columnists are addressing.

I cannot go into the web sites of every college newspaper, so I am going to rely on referrals by advisers, student-journalists, moms, dads and roommates. (Suggestions by ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends will not be considered, although they should make for an interesting read. Would love to see them.)

I'll pick 10 columns/blogs each week, listing them by columnist and college publication along the right rail (see Cool College Sports Columns: Weekly Top 10).

Eventually, I would like to add other sports categories. But, for now, I'll start by reading college sports columns/blogs. I just need the URL sent to me.

I am also fielding questions for a Weekly Sports Reporting Q&A that will respond to your questions on anything related to sports reporting, from how to deal with irate coaches to how to structure a better lead for game stories. From time to time, I will refer these questions to sports editors and reporters across the country. Send your questions to jgisondi@gmail.com.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Swimming -- covering meets


Covering sports can be daunting at first -- watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and players. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the third in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during the game.

Swimming is a much more individual sport, unlike basketball, football and baseball. Reporters frequently focus on team results in game stories for team sports. In sports like swimming, tennis, and track & field, reporters should focus more on individual results. The team winner is not typically significant in dual and tri-meets. Instead, you should focus on the top individual and relay performances. Even in meets where a team winner is significant, reporters can first focus on individual performances. If the school from your area wins the regional or state titles, place that information higher in the story. But local results typically trump all other results. That’s what readers care most about. So, if you are covering a meet where no swimmer from your area finished higher than third, that should still be your angle. Focus on your local swimmer’s performance, describing how she kicked it in, or faltered, at the end to take third. You should still cite the overall team winners, but it should not be your main angle.


LEAD ELEMENTS
Here are several ways to find a lead angle for your story:
■ A single performance (someone who broke a long-standing record).
“Kevin Boyle set a national record in the 100-breaststroke …”

■ An individual’s performance (someone who won several events in a dual meet or invitational)
“Patrick Vitt won three individual events and anchored another to lead …”

■ A key match-up (a final race or relay that yielded the overall team winner)
“Dan Renick kicked it in during the final 20 meters in the final event to hand
Eastern its fourth consecutive Ohio Valley Conference title …”
■ Put a face on the event by featuring one or two swimmers.
“When Dan Woike’s right leg was ripped off by a bull shark, he was certain his life was about to end.
When a lifeguard rescued him, he knew he’d never walk or swim again.
At best, he figured he would be able to relax in a shallow pool.
Nine months later, Woike never dreamed he would win compete in a state high school swimming title, but that’s exactly what he did Friday night, finishing eighth in a 100-meter breaststroke prelim race.
Jacksonville Bolles, meanwhile, captured the boys high school title for the
ninth year, compiling 49 points to edge Miami Lakes (45) and Sarasota
Riverview (42) in the Florida High School Swimming and Diving
championships.”

■ You should also cite how the team fared somewhere in the opening paragraphs. That could mean revealing whether a team or individual advanced to the next level of competition, meaning a swimmer at the district meet advanced to the regional meet; or, that could mean simply citing the key scores in a dual meet or invitational.
■ You can cite dual-meet records somewhere in the story, but there is rarely a reason to lead with this record, unless a team has a lengthy winning streak.
“Eight different EIU swimmers took first to lead the Panthers to an easy victory in the Big Blue Invitational.”
Don’t forget to include some of the following information in the introductory paragraphs
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ Meet's significance. Does any individual performance clinch a postseason berth? Is this a conference or district victory? Does the team have a chance to win at the next level, based upon the number of swimmers who just advanced?

WHAT TO LOOK FOR
■ Is the pool a fast or slow pool? Ask the coaches, check the times.
■ Focus on the finals unless someone set a significant record during qualifying. There are many types of records, so don’t lead with a record time for that facility or pool or a team record. Those are not nearly as interested as a state or national record.
■ How many swimmers advanced to the next level of competition for the postseason.
■ Check on a swimmer’s splits for race more than 50 meters. Did a swimmer go faster in the second half of the 100-meter breaststroke or 1,000 freestyle?
■ Look for races that were the most competitive, which typically means the races where the times were the closest.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ The events should be referred to in lowercase, thus the 500-meter freestyle, 100-meter breaststroke, 200-meter butterfly or 50-meter backstroke.
■ All races should be run in meters.
■ Individual Medley relay – consists of the following races in this order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. Referred to as the IM in second reference.
■ Medley Relay – four different swimmers compete over one-fourth of the prescribed distance in the following order: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle.
■ Swim meets are often held in natatoriums, enclosed swimming facilities.
■ Compare a team and individual results to previous year and to earlier in the season to find interesting angles
■ Swimmers train so they have their best performance at the end of the season. A swimmer wants to peak in the postseason, not during early-season dual meets. Dual meets are often competitive practices.
■ Cite diving heights in numerals. For example, Erin Miller captured first in the 3-meter diving competition by earning 345 points.

SCORING
■ Dual meets: Relays go 11-4-2-0 points. Individual events go 9-4-3-2-1-0 with only the best three for each team eligible to score.
■ Tri-meets: same scoring system except only the top two for each team eligible to score.
■ Championship meets (6 lanes): Relays go 14-10-8-6-4-2; individual events go 7-5-4-3-2-1
■ Championship meets (8 lanes): Relays go 18-14-12-10-8-6-4-2; individual events go 9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
■ Scoring varies for championship events using 12 and 16 lanes.
■ False starts – A swimmer who starts before the gun sounds to start a race. As in track, a swimmer is typically disqualified after prematurely starting twice in a row.
■ Qualifying – At the HS level, swimmers typically qualify for the state meets by finishing in the top four or six across several postseason meets, which can mean districts, regionals, and, sometimes sectionals. At the college level, swimmers qualify for the national championships by recording a certain time prescribed by the NCAA the beginning of the year. But these are still only provisional times. If too many swimmers record the provisional times, the NCAA will adjust the times to limit the number of swimmers competing at the national meets.
■ Typically, athletes must compete in qualifying heats before they can compete in the finals. Usually, the top eight racers compete in the finals.

WRITING STYLE/ORGANIZATION
■ You need to spell out minutes and seconds the first time you cite raced times. Afterwards, can rely upon using just numerals.
• For example, you would write that someone won the 1,000-meter free in 6 minutes, 12.45 seconds. But the second-place swimmer finished in 6:18.25.
• Franklin notched her ninth provisional time of the season by clocking 1 minute, 5.2 seconds in the butterfly, good for second place.
• Samantha Jordan finished strongly in the 100 fly, touching the wall .04 seconds ahead of Brittany Johnson in 1 minute, 12.8 seconds.

■ After you focus on the main stories of the meet, you can list several other interesting results by bulleting them.
Eastern also fared well in several other events:
•Ryan Terrell clocked in at 53.4 seconds to take second in the 50-meter freestyle.
•Dori Niemann took third in the 200-meter fly in 2:01.2.
•Chris Sobut anchored a 200-meter medley squad that finished third. Dan Woike, Laura Griffith and Matt Stevens teamed up with Sobut to finish in 1:43.9.

■ Citing team scoring. Don’t list every team’s scores in the story for bigger meets. Let the agate reveal all 21 team scores in a district, regional or invitational meet – and post key teams in a fact box. You should cite the top team scores somewhere in an earlier paragraph, unless you are writing a feature story on the event.
Eastern had clinched the invitational about half-way through the meet, compiling 729 points, 98 more than runner-up Valparaiso. Evansville took third with 411 points, followed by Lincoln College (321), Bradley (298), and Marquette (245).


INTERVIEWS/RESEARCH

■ Arrive early for the meets to get programs, speak to officials, and verify factual information with coaches and officials. In longer meets, you can arrive during the prelims to give yourself perspective on leaders and to determine which finals races will be most significant or interesting.
■ Read as much as you can on the teams involved so you can find interesting angles and so you do not just repeat what has already been written.
■ Go to ncaa.org and click on swimming for records, provisional times and rules, among other things.
■ How many swimmers returned?
■ How many swimmer graduated the previous year? Who were the top swimmers/divers lost?
■ What were their accomplishment the previous year?
■ Who are the leaders on the team? How is that revealed? Try to get a story that illustrates that. Feel free to put that story in your own words.
■ Swimmers might say that they felt especially strong in the event or meet. Ask them how they know that? Did they feel they were breathing easier, or that their strokes were stronger? Get specific reasons and details.
■ How many times did this team win this meet? “Florida captured its seventh straight Southeastern Conference title.”
■ When was the last time this team won this meet?
■ Make sure you speak to several coaches and athletes, but do not wait until the end of the meet to do so. Interview swimmers and divers as they complete their competition in order to compile a list of possible story angles and a longer list of solid quotes, insights and stories.
■ Interview opposing coaches as well. Readers will appreciate this additional, and typically new, perspective.
■ Ask what the athletes were thinking during their specific swimming events or right before they made a key dive.
■ Ask divers to explain their dives and to cite which dives they thought were the most difficult. Cite reasons for their comments.
■ Cite career-bests for athletes, when this is significant.

PHOTO CREDIT: Eric J. Hiltner/Daily Eastern News



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You can't be a fan and a sports reporter


Jim Gray was vilified about eight years ago when he asked Pete Rose a tough question at the World Series. Rose, banned from baseball for gambling, had just been named to major-league baseball’s All-Century Team. Current players flocked around Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Nolan Ryan. But fans in Atlanta cheered for Rose the most, the man dubbed “Charley Hustle.” Some fans wept during this celebration. Not Gray. He wanted to know whether Rose was willing to admit to gambling on major-league baseball (something Rose finally did in a book a few years ago.) But in 1999, Rose was adamant. He had not gambled.

As fans were wiping their eyes, Gray tossed a hardball question that would have made Warren Spahn proud. "Are you willing to show contrition, admit that you bet on baseball and make some sort of an apology to that effect," Gray said.

"Not at all Jim. Not at all," Rose replied. "I'm not gonna admit to something that didn't happen. I know you get tired of hearing me say that. ... I'm just a small part of a big deal tonight."

For the next two-plus minutes, Gray peppered Rose with similar questions. Some fans said he harassed him, some media folks even said he badgered Rose. If fans or NBC honchos wanted an emcee, they should have hired someone like Ahmad Rashad – and not put in a journalist trained to get to the truth of the matter. There’s a world of difference between a sport announcer and a sports journalist. You’ll have to decide which you want to be.

Fans and players called for Gray’s balding head. Some fans even created websites dedicated to getting Gray fired. NBC did not flinch, much to the chagrin of several executives at other networks. A few weeks later, CNN’s news boss told me he would have hired Gray in a heartbeat had NBC been stupid enough to fire him. Those in charge at the network understood what it takes to be a sports reporter. Young reporters need to understand this as well. Be courageous. Ask tough questions. Be a journalist, not a fan.

As a sports journalist, you need to know a few thing about your role before heading out to fields, tracks and locker rooms.

Don’t be a fan.
As a reporter, you are supposed to remain objective. If you want to cheer, buy a ticket. There is no cheering in the press box or in your stories. Even if you cover the college team on your campus, keep your rooting out of stories. Report on your teams as if you were an off-campus observer.

Don’t create heroes or villains
Athletes are people. Some are wonderful, some are jerks. The public likes to think they know athletes, but they do not. You are not expected to report on every little oddity or infraction of these players, but you are expected to report on the big problems like drunken driving or any arrests. Don’t protect players, but don’t make an issue of a player’s off-field behavior either unless it affects his/her play on the field – or unless this player broke a law. So a player has a child out of wedlock – is this really news? Not unless this person is a spokesperson for a ‘Just Say No’ celibacy group. Don’t pander to readers’ lurid curiosity.

Also, athletes and coaches are in a position to demand respect without giving any back. Don’t let yourself be pushed around. I’ve seen high school coaches who thought they were talking to one of their players during a post-game interview – and I’ve had to remind a few that I was not one of their kids. If a guy’s a jerk, stop talking with this player or coach. You do not have take verbal abuse for any reason. In my experiences, though, the vast majority of coaches and players have been terrific. A few are heroes, a few are villains, and many are somewhere in between. Don’t create a character; instead, reflect the character in people. Seek truth and report it.

Don’t look for friends.
Don’t cover sports to find friends. Have a courteous professional relationship. After years on a beat, you might become true friends with a select few – however, make sure these friends know that if they screw up, you will have to cover it. If this makes you uncomfortable, pick another beat. If you are honest and fair with your sources, they will offer the same back to you. A reporter should seek respect for a job well done, not friendship. Also, do not go into sports journalism to be a celebrity yourself. We are information-gatherers. That’s what we should do best. Spend time behind the scenes. That’s where the best stuff is anyways.

Don’t take freebies.
No shirts, sweaters, golf clubs, free trips or tickets to the game. Even if you pay full price, you are really acting unethically. Sure, you can argue, you paid full price for that box seat at a World Series game. But that’s something few others would have been able to do. Most likely, you were offered those prime tickets because of your position as a sports reporter. Refuse any special treatment, gifts, or favors.

Professional teams in the NFL and NBA regularly offer buffets to those covering games, knowing reporters will not have the chance to leave the stadium. NFL beat reporters, for instance, will arrive at least a few hours before kickoff and depart at night after interviewing players and filing stories. So buffets are set up in most press boxes. Some newspapers send a check to these teams, estimating how much food their reporters will eat during a season.

Note to college reporters (Advisers and professional journalists skip to the next paragraph. There's nothing to see here. Move along now.): Eat up at your college games. Most college kids are poor and hungry. You are spending much time at these games, working hard to file your game stories, columns and side bars. Get some necessary sustenance. That’s what I tell my college sports reporters. This is my sole exception, one that others might not agree with. Eat up at these games, but do not do so when you are covering stories off campus. Make sure to ask editors about this policy at any news company that hires you after college.

Hey advisers! You can start reading right here. We were just chatting about pop music and tuition fees.

Many years ago, I refused to wear my high school alma mater’s jacket when temperatures plummeted during a football game. I froze. The winds blew and my hand trembled as I recorded game stats. The assistant coach, a close acquaintance, implored me to wear the jacket. I told him the coach on the other sidelines might not understand. I was glad when that damned game was over.

On the other hand, some gifts are offered innocently. If somebody sends you flowers as thanks for a story or profile piece, you do not necessarily need to send them back. That could be rude. If this is someone you might not ever interview again, keep them and appreciate this gracious act. If this is a source you regularly deal with, you can keep the flowers – but do gently remind the source that you are not allowed to accept such gifts, even one as nice as flowers.
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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Good riddance, Chief

Students are livid. Alumni are furious. Fans are so angry they are peppering websites with angry messages. The University should be ashamed for bowing to pressure from the NCAA, they write.

Now, people all over Illinois are stunned and deflated as they prepare to say good-bye to the Chief, the school’s American Indian mascot for the past 81 years.

No longer will fans get to see a University of Illini student make a mockery of Native American culture. No longer will students get to see a 20-something white male jump around as if he had ants in his pants. No longer will people in the arena get to see the most ridiculous and insensitive portrayal of an ethnic group anywhere. Thank God.

The Chief is relatively new to me. I grew up in Florida where we have our own version of the Chief. But that’s where the comparison ends. Before football games, Chief Osceola and his horse, Renegade, ride out to the center of the field and throw a spear into the middle of the field. Afterward, this chief pretty much sits on his horse, riding up and down the sidelines a few times. Chief Osceola does not do a mocking dance, nor chant nonsensically.

Unlike at U of I, Florida State has the support of the local Indian tribe. The Seminole Tribe officially sanctions Chief Osceola and the use of its name. Plus, the Seminole Tribe seeks the connection to the university. It’s am “honor” to be associated, says Max Osceola, the chief and general council president of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Of course, the university pays the tribe for the use of that mascot. Still, there is a difference between the two chiefs. The chief at Florida State is quieter and treated with respect. At the U of I, the chief is a spazz who mocks Native Americans. What in the world does that dance have to do with anything that Illini, or any other Indians, find spiritual and sacred? Isn’t a university supposed to stand for reason and knowledge? Illinois is one of the finest research institutions in the country, yet it is remembered more and more for the Chief’s dance. The decision is a no-brainer for such a revered educational institution.

How about we use Sambo as a mascot and have him do a black-faced dance a la Bojangles? The Chief’s dance is just as absurd. What’s just as sad are the comments on message boards and in interviews cited on TV and in newspapers. Many fans and alumni are attacking the university and the NCAA for forcing the end of the chief’s escapades.

Fans invoke such weighty words as honor and loyalty and tradition, but they fail to mention that the chief ridicules these very same words for Native Americans everywhere. [By the way, how in the hell does the NFL allow such a mean-spirited word as Redskins to remain as a team nickname?]

“The chief is an honored symbol,” writes one fan. “I am ashamed of the University of Illinois. The Chief is much more than a ‘mascot.’ He is a respected and honored tradition who has spanned generations.”

Another writes: “I love the Chief and the honor, loyalty, and tradition that he stands for. … The University has now lowered itself to the level of all other universities in the nation by giving up a proud heritage.”

Buying and wearing more Illiniwek merchandise will show those forcing this change, writes another fan who is “ashamed” of his university. Fortunately, the spirit of Chief will transcend time, don’t ya know: “The legacy, spirit, and tradition of Chief Illiniwek will go on through all of us who have held him in such high regard for so many years, and he will forever be the honored symbol of the University of Illinois no matter what.”

One fan says we should stop looking for ways to be offended by free expressions like Chief Illinwek’s dance. Here’s the twisted logic: “We can choose to be offended or we can ignore the words or actions that offend us.” That’s easy to say if you do not face such discrimination on a daily basis.

So today while reporters and columnists continue to feed on this frenzy, and fans mourn, and students drink, and the board of trustees that voted to end the Chief’s affiliation stays at home, I will sit down in front of the TV and switch off the Illinois-Michigan game and turn on “The Sopranos.” At least, I know the portrayal of Italian-Americans in this show purposely mocks stereotypes for entertainment purposes. There’s no pretense that the loyalty, honor and tradition in this show are legitimate. Besides, this show is a helluva lot more entertaining.

-30-

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hey, I'm famous!


This blog was just mentioned on a site dedicated to innovation in college media. Check out what they said about several journalism professors who have started blogging.

You can now post comments!

You no longer need a Google account to post comments online. I changed the settings (actually, I just realized I could change the settings.) I guess I'm still a blogateur not a blogxpert. Please, submit your responses to the posts to keep the conversations going.

Basketball -- covering games



Covering sports can be daunting at first -- watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and players. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the second in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during the game.

Add color and give insights to the reader when you cover any athletic event. In basketball that means watching the game closely to find themes and trends so you can reveal them to readers. Below are some ways to find these themes and some tips to invigorate your reporting and writing of basketball games.

[Thanks to photo-journalist Jay Grabiec for the picture shown above.]


LEAD ELEMENTS
■ Team names/nicknames
■ Score
■ 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?
■ Can focus on a key play, particularly if it took place near the end of the game
■ Can focus on an individual’s performance
■ If the game is blow out, focus on how and why one team dominated
■ Focus on a coach’s decision or strategy
■ Can focus on a stat leader, if the stat is truly worth addressing such as 30 points or a triple double. [Sports roundups, which are a series of 2-3 paragraph game stories, typically lead with a stats leader.]
■ Records. Put team records in parentheses within the first few paragraphs. Try to add it after you cite the school’s name, not the school’s nickname. And make sure you add conference or district records as well, when they are relevant.
Eastern (8-2, 4-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference) capitalized on eight second-half turnovers to rally in the final minutes.

LANGUAGE
■ Avoid jargon and clichés – especially those you hear on TV in prime time, baby. While they might be entertaining to someone who just viewed the play, such phrases are equally vague and confusing to those reading about the play after the game. So avoid writing that a player “found the bottom of the net,” “made two shots from the charity stripe,” “buried a 3-pointer,” or “dumped in 20 points.” Instead, you should write that a player made a short jumper, made two shots from the free-throw line, made a three-pointer and scored 20 points. You can be creative by finding unique angles, by focusing on an otherwise overlooked but key play, and by writing tight sentences.
■ Do not repeat the phrase “during the game” or “on the night” throughout the story. It is assumed that a player scored her 24 points during the game on that night. You can just write that Mindy White scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Also, there’s no need to write that a player scored 18 points in 24 minutes of play. Delete the final “of play.”
■ Avoid adding “a game” or “this season” every time you write “she averaged.” Average are per game or for the season.
Becky Carlson averages 20 points and Brittany Brown averages 18.2 rebounds.

■ Avoid playing off team nicknames by writing that the Panthers were on the prowl or that Warriors are ready for their next battle.
■ Avoid the cliché of saying the team needs to rebound from a tough loss in a story. Do the reporting to find a more specific, unique angle for precedes and other feature stories. Cite how the team is going to attempt to halt its losing ways.
■ Hyphenate compound nouns like field-goal attempts and free-throw line and compound-modifers like fast-break offense and slow-down defense.

Some other cliché phrases to avoid:
■ “Treys” – instead, use 3-pointer
■ “knocked down” a jumper – instead, use “made a jumper”
■ “came up big” in overtime – instead, she played well in overtime (and show how exactly the player did play well)
■ Boards – instead used rebounds
■ Avoid "got." Write that a player recorded her fourth foul or scored 20 points, not got the fourth foul and got 20 points.
■ Avoid tag lines on quotes. Let the quotes speak for themselves by using only "said," a neutral word the further allows the reader to focus on what was said, not how the words were said.
“It was almost the same kind of game as last year,” said Butler coach Beth Couture of the exciting finish. “I was happy with our composure down the stretch.” You would have already established that the game was exciting through descriptions of key plays.


“We played 13 minutes with a lot of heart,” said coach Brady Sallee, speaking of the overtime and last few minutes of regulation. “I look at the other 32, and that’s what will keep me up at night.” A quote like this should follow some description of the game, so the reader should easily understand the context of the quote.
■ Games are not wars. Referring to them as such trivializes the magnitude of true life-and-death struggles. Avoid calling rallies or mistakes as fatal, for example.
■ 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, cliched references. Find a more creative way to approach the game.
■ Passive words, such as was/were and are/is add unnecessary words and weaken your sentences. So get right to the point with active verbs.
Original: That lead was thanks to some excellent long-range shooting from guards Ellen Hamilton and Jackie Closser, who each hit a three-pointer during the 8-0 run in the second half.
Revised: Guards Ellen Hamilton and Jackie Closser each hit three-pointers during the 8-0 run in the second half that gave Butler its first lead with eight minutes left in the second half.
THINGS TO FOCUS ON/LOOK FOR
■ Match-ups: How a team that presses fares against a team that plays zone, for example. And also look at individual match-ups, a guard against a guard, or a center against a center.
■ Adjustments: How does a coach make adjustments? Rarely, does a game plan have legs for the entire game. Coaches usually have plans B, C, and D. How do coaches adjust to minor and major changes in their original game plans. For example, did a coach have to adjust to how to defend against a trap on a ball screen, or to a defensive alignment by the opposing team. Try to see if a team changes its defense, from a man-to-man to a zone, for example.
■ Pivotal moments in the game. Game-changing moments.
■ Assists. Who fed the scorers the most? Describe the types of passes.
■ Offensive and defensive alignments.
■ Trends in either team results or within the game. The team might have won or lost its last four games by a single goal or by three goals. Or, the team may have lost the ball countless times at midfield or been called for penalties near their own goal.
■ Determine how a coach recognizes match-ups. Ask them, along with some players, afterward.
■ Leading scorers. (Cite the reasons for this player doing well, such as a defensive mismatch, or exceptional skills, such as the ability to make three-pointers at a high percentage or the ability to drive the lane and create shots.)
■ Is this the team’s worst loss, or biggest margin of victory? As always, seek to find out the reasons for such a great victory or terrible loss. You can also cite the last time the team lost by such a margin. (Check newspaper archives and speak with athletic directors/sports information directors.)
■ Locations of shots. Keep a chart to see where the team took (and made) most of its shots in a quarter, half or game.
■ Look for streaks in a game, such as those 8-0 or 12-2 runs. Cite the key plays and performers during the streaks.
■ Divide stats by half (or by quarters). Did a team do much better statistically in one period than the other?
■ Put summaries of key scorers near the end of the story. Only list the top stat leaders, if at all, since the agate will already list these in the summaries.
■ Look for stat trends. For example, tell the reader if one team has averaged 20 three-point attempts during the past six games. Find out the reason for this as well. Reading archive stories will help in finding such trends.
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the game and the opponent’s record, somwhere 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 precede stories.
■ Check to see what the team’s all-time series record is against this team. See if you can find anything interesting in the numbers.
■ Show, don’t tell. Show how a freshman was the player of the game by describing how she played in key moments. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how a team appeared fatigued down the stretch by describing the action.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ College basketball games typically last 40 minutes in two 20-minute halves. High school games typically go 32 minutes over four eight-minute quarters.
■ Show up early for the game to record the lineups in your own scoring book. Check with the official statistician, managers and coaches that the players and the numbers match up. 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 the game
■ Record the names of the game officials in case anything unusual happens in the game. Also, interview them afterward in such instances. I covered a state high school basketball game where a coach chased the officials off the floor and into their dressing room.

QUESTIONS TO ASK PLAYERS/COACHES AFTER THE GAME
■ Ask what coaches, players were thinking during a key play in detail.
■ Ask what they were thinking during a key point in the game, such as a rally?
■ Ask them to describe your opponent, particularly those they guarded.
■ Ask players and coaches to react to key plays.
■ How did they adapt to the other team’s play?
■ Ask coaches about their tactics.
■ How have these teams progressed over the last several games or weeks.
■ Introduce yourself to coaches before the game whenever possible so they will expect to speak with you after the game. This is especially important for high school and amateur games. You can also ask the coach his goals and how he expects the game to go, which could lead to a nice angle for your game story.
-30-

Monday, February 19, 2007

Volleyball - covering games


Covering sports can be daunting at first -- watching the action, keeping score, writing effective notes and then talking with coaches and players. Then, you must organize and understand these notes before writing a story under deadline pressure. This entry is the first in a series created to help reporters focus on key information and statistics, both before and during the game. At the end of this post, I have suggsted some general questions to ask players and coaches. (I plan to keep adding to this entry, so, if you have suggestions, please send them along.) I plan to create a web site where you can download these tips in printable cheat sheets. I'll post that site on this blog. I hope this helps in your sports reporting.

LEAD ELEMENTS
■ Score
■ Key play or player
■ Significant trend
■ Impact of game on conference or district standings or on postseason possibilities. Does this game put the team in position to reach the postseason, eliminate them from a tournament? Mention that in the opening few paragraphs.
■ School names (do not feel compelled to put the nicknames until second or third reference).

KEY INFORMATION
■ Rally scoring – A team scores a point on each serve, regardless who's scoring.
■ Winning score – Teams need to win three of five games that go to 30 points. The fifth game, though, only goes to 15 points.
■ Libero – a relatively new defensive position player who can play the back row only. This person, who can be substituted for any back-row player, is primarily a passer and defender. The libero can replace anybody on the back row so long as she sits out for one play in between changes. The libero, who wears a different colored jersey, can serve as well.
■ Time outs – teams are allotted two per game.
■ Teams must win games by two points, meaning they will have to go beyond 30 points for some wins. Thus, a team might have to go 33-31 in order to get ahead by the requisite points.
■ Setter – this player is much like a point guard or quarterback in that she runs the offensive schemes. This player must be able to read opposing defenses and offenses to determine what plays to call and how to implement them.
■ First contact – the first hit by the opposition off a serve. All other touches are considered second contact.

KEY STATISTICS
■ Digs – Back-row players with four-plus digs a game have performed well.
■ Kills – Front-row players with four-plus kills have performed well.
■ Assists – Players with 12-plus have played exceptionally well.
■ Servers – Players (or teams) with an equal number of aces and errors have played pretty aggressively and pretty well.
■ Hitting percentage – Players with an average above .200 have played well. Those over .300 have played tremendously well. Outside hitters typically have a lower percentage than an inside hitter. A team with five players hitting over .200 has done very well. Address that somewhere in the story. [This percentage is determined by taking KILLS minus ERRORS divided by TOTAL BALLS ATTEMPTED]

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Coaches typically will not call time outs when the score is at 29.
■ Momentum – Volleyball is a gem of momentum. Teams typically go on many runs during a match, whether it is an 8-0 run or 10-2 run. It is unusual for teams to mount major rallies after they've fallen behind by large margins, especially now that games rely on rally scoring. A team ahead 20-10, for example, will usually win. If a team does find a way to rally, focus on the reasons for the shift in momentum.
■ Key plays – Focus on key plays during any rally. Sometimes, this key play could be a solid serve, a block, a dig or a tricky set.
■ Trends – Did a team score more often for certain servers? Did a team rely heavily on a certain player or play? Did one team, or player, have many more blocks than the opponents?
■ Time outs – cite the moments a coach calls time outs. What is the score? Did she call them more after they opposition rallied?
■ Focus on setters at times, not just on the big plays.
■ Strategy – Did the team set more to the outside hitters? Send two blockers to the net against certain hitters or in certain spots?
■ Ball control – Coaches refer to narrow focus and wide focus when speaking about players on the court. A narrow focus elements would concern passes while a wide focus means how a player sees what's coming at them from the other side of the net.
■ First few points of a game. Some teams rely more heavily on emotion, which is most evident at the start of a game. Emotions can much more easily help a team go on an early run; however, teams have difficulty retaining intense emotions throughout an entire game, much less through a three to five-game match. Ask coaches about this afterwards.
■ See how a team plays when its front-row hitters are forced to the back row. Can they set as well?
■ Weak middle blockers. You can determine this if you see holes between blockers. Look for spacing between players.
■ Determine how front-row players hit at the net. A player who leaps off one foot is much more difficult to defend since they can jump at angles as they hit the ball, which means defenders are less certain where to go to block such hits. Players who leap off two feet typically go right to the ball only.
■ Double blocks. See if this is successful or whether it opens other spots on the field.
■ Front row. Which players get more elevated. Check the height of these players before the matches to see if a team has a clear advantage. Then, determine if the team took advantage of its height advantage, or did the opposing team do a great job compensating for its lack of height.
■ Remember, defense is the result of hard work, much like in other sports.
■ Short hits, or tips, that fall over the front line for points.
■ Spinning balls. This means a player hit the ball off two hands, which is considered a lift on second contact.

QUESTIONS TO ASK AFTER THE MATCH

■ What was the turning point in the match. (Ask the coach to describe a play that defines this turning point. Compare this moment to your own notes.)
■ Did you think the team was focused during the match? Follow this up by asking a moment that revealed this focus (or lack of focus).
■ Did anything surprise you about today's match?
■ How well did the opposing team adjust during the match?
■ Ask a player to comment on someone who played directly opposite. So, front-row hitters can comment on one another. Plus, a back-row player can speak about the velocity and angles of slams from the opposing front line, as well.
■ Ask who runs the offense and defense.
■ Always ask why a coach pulls a setter from the game. If that happens, something is drastically wrong because a team typically has difficult adjusting to a new setter.
■ Ask players to describe key plays.
■ Ask front-row hitters to describe the play of the setter.

PHOTO CREDIT: Eric J. Hiltner/Daily Eastern News

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Sports need gay superstar

Sports need a gay role model, if only so we can stop debating something so silly as one's sexuality. And so we can stop hearing idiots like Tim Hardaway spew hateful messages.

I wish someone like Peyton Manning were gay. He could pull out the cheesy mustache he wore in those Sprint commercials, offer some support as he does in the MasterCard commercials, and speak out against inequality.

Peyton’s a great role model for everybody -- house movers, latte servers, waitresses, paperboys. (“That’s all right, Bobby, you still have the best arm in the neighborhood!”) Peyton is also one of the most popular and well-liked players in the NFL, according to a league referee I know. It will take someone of the caliber and prestige of Manning for anything to change.

For now, all we have are a few mediocre players who have already retired, not the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Tennis legends Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are gay, as is Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. But team sports in the United States remain closed to gays, apparently. The list of gay players in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL is brief and unimpressive. (Check out ESPN’s history timeline of gay athletes at http://espn.go.com/otl/world/timeline.html.)

Add John Amaechi to this list. This week, the five-year journeyman NBA player announced he was gay, something that would have been forgotten had Tim Hardaway not flamed out in a radio interview. Clearly, Timmy will not be bringing Meech, or any other gay player, out for dinner and a movie.

“I hate gay people, so let it be known,” Hardaway told Dan Le Betard, a Miami Herald sports columnist and radio show host on WAXY-AM. “I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I’m homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world.”

Apparently, Le Betard was so stunned by Hardaway’s tirade that he failed to ask any follow-up questions; instead, he went right to a commercial break. No matter how much time you prepare as a reporter, you can’t predict such craziness. “I didn’t know how to handle it,” Le Betard told Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander. “I should have asked ten more minutes’ worth of questions.”

But who expects to hear such hateful, ignorant comments, especially from a person who is in the public eye? Hardaway said gay players should not even be allowed in the NBA’s locker rooms.

“First of all, I wouldn’t want [a gay player] on my team,” Hardaway said. “And, second of all, if he was on my team, I would really distance myself from him because I don’t think that is right. I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we are in the locker room. I wouldn’t even be a part of that.”

After a game, a locker room is not exactly a Playboy Mansion. It’s more like the YMCA, where you see dirty towels on the floor, smell dirty, rank uniforms and socks, and hear vulgar language. That was my experience, at least. That’s why I’m always shocked when I hear anybody argue against women in locker rooms. Women reporters are not there for the sights – unless they are masochists. Neither are gay athletes.

Gay players are not lurking near shower stalls. But, make not mistake, gay players are in locker rooms, only they feel compelled to keep their sexuality a secret from morons like Hardaway. Let’s see, Billy Beane, a former major-league baseball player – and now Amaechi – are the only gay athletes ever to have competed in professional team sports. Not a chance.

More athletes have to come forward in order to make this issue a non-story. Perhaps, Amaechi’s book, Man in the Middle, will help educate us all. I plan to read it. I hope reporters do not try to “find” other gay athletes, though. Let athletes decide for themselves whether they want to announce their sexuality because undue pressure can prompt ridiculous press conferences like the one major-league baseball star Mike Piazza had in 2002. The New York Post had suggested a Mets player was gay. Rumors persisted that it was Piazza, the Mets’ future hall of fame catcher. At the hastily prepared conference, Piazza said: “I’m not gay. I’m heterosexual. I can’t control what people think. I date women.”

Five years ago, Mets manager Bobby Valentine went so far as to say baseball was ready for an openly gay player. "The players are a diverse enough group now that I think they could handle it," he said.

Phillies manager Larry Bowa disagreed. "If it was me, I'd probably wait until my career was over," Bowa said. "I'm sure it would depend on who the player was. If he hits .340, it probably would be easier than if he hits .220." Piazza, one of the game’s great sluggers, would have had the credentials to be The Guy.

So, for now, all we have is former journeymen athletes, not Peyton Manning who is the face of the NFL the way Michael Jordan was for the NBA. Peyton would be the ideal spokesperson (if you like 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterbacks with a laser arm.) Yeah, that guy would have been pretty good had he been gay. But he's not. There must be at least one star athlete in one sport who is gay. Not that the events of the past week inspire anyone to step up.

So, for now, we are stuck writing about John Amaechi, a classy, hard-working player hardly the level of superstars like Peyton, Jordan or Derek Jeter. Yet, I’d pick him every time over Tim Hardaway. You see, I hate homophobes and morons and do not want one on my team. I don’t like ignorance and intolerance either. It shouldn’t be in the world.

-30-

Friday, February 16, 2007

Why newspapers publish objectionable ideas

Some students and faculty on campus were angry our college newspaper published a letter to the editor that promoted a white supremacist stance, so I spoke at a public forum explaining the importance of free speech. You can read the letter at our website.

More than 300 people showed up for a forum intended to address challenges of racism on campus. You can read the story published in the Daily Eastern News.

What’s the role of a newspaper and why do newspapers publish objectionable ideas? That’s rooted in the First Amendment, but I will not give you a lesson tonight on the 45-sacred words that give us so many of the freedoms we hold dear today.

Instead, I would like to focus on another role newspapers serve, the one playwright Arthur Miller wrote about: "A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself."

We as a society must have a dialogue on who we are, what we want to be, and where we want to go. We must discuss the important issues of the day publicly. These conversations are usually found in the press – in print, radio, TV and online. We should discuss issues that are important to us and that we want to talk about. Even more importantly, we need to discuss issues and topics that make us feel uncomfortable because these are the issues that are not so easily solved, and these are the insidious issues that continue to eat away at our society. Most of the time, we do not even realize it. That means we need to speak out about abortion and sexual abuse and drug abuse and racism – especially if that makes people uncomfortable. (There’s another old saying about journalism: "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." That’s apparently what this letter did.) We need to allow all people to speak, even those whose views are filled with vitriol, spite and malice. Let these ideas be vetted in the public eye. Let these ideas (I hope and pray) be the touchstone of change, compelling folks like yourself to get together and address problems that have remained unspoken for way too long.

That’s our job, to get the conversation rolling. A newspaper is a public forum where all are invited to speak. Many people did speak this week, saying mostly that the ideas promoted by this letter writer were repulsive and uninformed. You can read those letters yourself in the Daily Eastern News. You yourself can do the same, writing a letter and speaking out against ideas that you believe foster prejudice and hatred. You can even get involved with the newspaper, learning the craft and theories of our business so you can go out and report on such issues. News rooms need to be diverse as well. That’s where you can step in and do something. But, perhaps, that’s another topic for another day.

Tonight you are speaking out about racism in and around campus. You all are here to discuss ways to address this problem. Having a forum and speaking out publicly is a good first step. But one meeting will not solve anything. You need to continue to speak out and discuss this issue. We all need to continue to speak out and discuss relevant issues like this. And that’s where we come in. We report on such issues and allow you all to keep the conversation going. Write a guest column, send in a letter to the editor, speak to one another through this great forum of democracy. Let’s get a conversation going on campus where we can speak to one another. Foster free speech, don’t smother it – even when you find the ideas reprehensible. That’s where the conversation should begin, not end, with discomfiting ideas. I invite you all to join in this discussion. As adviser to the Daily Eastern News, I thank you for the opportunity to serve you and the rest of the campus community.

FIRST AMENDMENT
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Sledding doesn't get the respect it deserves



Bobsledding is an Olympic sport but those athletes have nothing on kids flying down hills across the country this week. At least bobsledders have burrowed out lanes. The kids on most hills can go flying off into trees, creeks and train tracks. It's easy to find religion when you're spinning uncontrollably down an icy hill on a cheap, circular piece of orange plastic and uncertain if you're going to slam into some teenager's head, get spiked by the edge of metal runners, slide into oncoming traffic, or show up in an online news item subtitled "Darwin Awards."

Anyway, enjoy the stunning views from Chucktown.



Fave teams & players


For disclosure's sake, here are my favorite sports teams and athletes.
1. Baseball: Yankees (see picture above)
2. Football: NY Giants
3. Rugby: Eastern Illinois University women
4. Softball: Charleston Chill
5. Soccer: Charleston Blue Bombers and EIU women
6. Tennis: John McEnroe
7. Golf: Francis Ouimet
8. Basketball: Orlando Magic but waning now that I have left town
9. Track & Field: Edwin Moses, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Michael Johnson
10. Hockey: Orlando Solar Bears (of the now defunct IHL).

Baseball is by far my favorite sport -- as a fan, a writer and a player. We took the photo above from Yankee Stadium in 2005, the morning before the Yankees rallied from a 10-1 deficit to defeat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, 20-13. The Yankees scored 13 runs in the eighth inning and hit about five homers in the inning, several of which landed near us in the left-field bleachers. My girls went crazy seeing such a dramatic rally.

At home, we watch the Yankees on Dish Network and visit stadiums near our home in the Midwest (in St. Louis and Chicago. We have adopted the Cards as a second team, but they are a distant second.) My girls also have a ball signed by the great Mariano Rivera and Tino Martinez. But they missed getting signatures from Jeter and A-Rod because of several older fans who never grew up. These 30-, 40- and 50-year-old men bumped my daughters aside, stretched their hands just a little farther out from the stands, and yelled for these players' attention like some 11-year-old kid. (If this is you, grow up and give some kids a chance for their own memories. You can always get something else signed for your basement wall down in mom's house.) Disgusting. Fortunately, both Mariano and Tino saw my girls' struggles and told these squealing middle-aged men to let my girls hand out their baseballs. (Man, I love those guys.)

My childhood heroes included Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson. (Best wishes to Bobby as he battles brain cancer.) I still remember the day he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Bobby Bonds.

Enough about me.

I'll post some tips for covering games soon. Check back soon.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Keep Away

The following post will give you an idea of what sorts of things I might address here -- and it explains the challenges an overly competitive dad has raising daughters.

Keep away is a game most children know. Two or more kids throw an object, like a ball or a toy, to one another while a single child leaps in the air or runs and tries to grab it. The game is known by several other names (Monkey in the Middle, Pickle in a Dish) and is played in a variety of ways. Sometimes, the game is organized so one person (the monkey, pickle) is standing in the center of a drawn circle while the rest of the kids stand outside the circle. The kid in the middle tries to steal the ball when the ball is tossed among the kids outside the circle. If your pass is the one that is stolen by the person in the middle, you are sent to the middle. So the person who takes the most chances, or is the least talented, gets punished and sent to be taunted (or mocked) by those in the middle.

The game, in some ways, is like reverse Dodgeball, a game where the weak and the less savvy are picked off. Keep Away is much more insidious, rewarding those who are more crafty and cunning in their choice of tosses or passes of the ball. Where Dodgeball rewards physical strength, Keep Away rewards those who fake (deceive) passes or who expediently (cunningly) toss the ball well away from the monkey in the middle. The crafty kid might even set up someone else by passing the ball to a player more likely to take a chance himself (someone who would pass the ball nearer to the person in the middle).

Played among friends, Keep Away can be a joyous, shrieking adventure. Played among enemies, it can prompt physical pain and heartache. I’d like to say I could never be so cruel as to steal one’s confidence in this manner, but I’d like to say a lot of things.

As an eight-year-old, I had been the frustrated, sad person when Danny Mancini took a kickball away during a game one summer evening at the community pool. Danny did not know his running away with the large, rubber ball was no longer a game (although I suspect he had never acted in such ignorance). He may not have known that his taunting had irritated me. And he probably did not realize that I would act on my feelings. Why would he? After all, he had pummeled this scrawny kid many times before.

There are moments in one’s life when we act viscerally, stepping out of our personas to fight for what is right – even if we are unsure what that means. We are sick of being the person in the middle. On that day, more than thirty years ago, I kicked Danny’s butt – throwing haymakers and upper cuts and smashing my hand into his nose until I was pulled off, yelling and screaming the whole time. Parents and older siblings looked at me, shocked that Danny, and not me, splayed on the ground crying and bleeding.

There are also moments when we receive ungentle reminders that we are the ones doing the keeping. At a new high school, I had befriended the wrong sorts of teens, the types of kids who would steal a classmate’s hat, toss it around while the boy chased it, and then hide it away quickly, forcing the classmate to go home without his prized possession. The next day, I received my own penance when this boy walked right up, asked for the hat, and tossed a right cross when I failed to supply it. I lost consciousness, but not from any blow to the head. I was told I had simply lost control during the fight, tossing some pretty good upper cuts and fighting my way out of a brawl against the much larger farm boy. At first, I was livid, wanting to lash out at the injustice of having been struck without warning. I was hurt and out of control. Even the assistant principal had to duck to avoid a left cross meant for anybody who walked in my way. Later, testerone prevented me from feeling the swift whacks of a paddle in the office. The bumps and welts fell back into my body years before the message did. The gentle boy who had raged against friends stepping on spiders, had nearly cried when others were disciplined, and had tried to help friends with homework had become the bully, a lesson that struck me as hard as any blow to the head.

Through the years, I went to school, worked as a sports reporter and then taught at a junior college. All the while, I gave little thought to childish games. (But we never really leave the playground. The vicious games are both more refined and more blunt when played among adults fighting for power in board rooms, offices, political offices and bed rooms. That’s why the birth of a child can be such a blessing; it can trick us into believing that our own youths were so much better, that the games were only games.) When my daughters were born, I tried to escape by rushing back to innocent days spent on swings and looking at planes crossing overhead as the sun set and of mornings spent catching tadpoles and breaking off cattails while wandering along a creek. I brought my girls to the park often where we would swing up and out near a hill that overlooked the Little Wekiva River. We would arc so high I feared we’d fall backward onto the ground. My girls also dug in the sand near the river, the act itself treasured more than anything they could unearth. And we would go headfirst down slides into the sandy ground.

But I soon learned that I could not protect my daughters forever. One day others would exclude my little girls from games and social events. As always, I worried. So I threw them into sports, where one is judged more on performance. (Or so I thought.) And I raised them like tomboys, much to my wife’s chagrin, believing eschewing frills and primping would make them tougher and more competitive. If nothing else, I understood being competitive and persistent. (My wife twice broke up with me and declined six marriage proposals before caving in.) Even as an adult, I hated to lose. In a game of kickball, I had thrown the large rubber ball so hard at my twelve-year-old nephew that he flipped and fell on his side. (But he had not reached first base.) At a family gathering, I had given no mercy during a game of croquet, hitting my mother-in-law’s ball so hard that it flew out into a nearby cow pasture. In recreational softball games, I had dislocated fingers, remained in a game after chipping a bone in my right ankle and had dived over a catcher in order to escape the tag at the plate (but I had not escaped regular visits to a grateful chiropractor.)

My daughters had to learn what it took to succeed, so I made them earn their victories whether that was during a game of tag or while playing board games. My youngest daughter, Sarah, inherently knew how games were played. She also hated to lose. When we played tag in the house, Sarah’s eyes dilated and her body trembled when I came near to tagging her. Even at four years old, she learned to kick it in when she needed, running a little faster when I closed in on her. She rasped and barely exhaled and feared me – as if I held a knife in my hand, about to stab her. Sarah played everything hard and well, a natural-born athlete with the physique and skills to match.

I was more worried about her sister, Kristen, who was eighteen months older. Kristen liked to play sports as well, but she did not appear to get upset over losing. But she still played pretty hard and obeyed directions. I believed Kristen had inherited the competitive fire until the day I nearly made her cry.

That was when I told her she had played poorly after her first soccer league game – at age seven. After the game, we sat in her bedroom and talked. Soccer, she learned during our conversation, was a metaphor for life. One needs to play more aggressively by running into a scrum of girls, kicking the ball away, and sprinting down the field.

“You do not just stand around and watch others kick the ball,” I said. “You need to get in there and play harder. Don’t you want to do well? Don’t you want to win.” Kristen looked intently, trying to comprehend – and trying to be the girl I wanted her to be. Her eyes moistened but did not drip. Kristen thanked me for helping her into bed. “I promise I’ll work harder,” she said, tightly tucked under the covers. “I love you papa,” she said before hugging me and kissing me on the lips. I paused at the doorway, where I watched my innocent little girl fitfully try to fall asleep. I was sure I would now be going to hell. Clearly, I did not know how to raise daughters – or probably even boys, for that matter.

I paced the house, and, when that did not work, walked outside and watched the stars, which prompted me to lapse into a reverie of my own youth. I thought of my own days on the baseball and soccer fields, playing for all I could, racing to steal a soccer ball and sliding hard into second base for a double. I especially lived to play baseball. I loved every part of the game. I was certain I’d be the next Joe DiMaggio, as my father used to say. On the field, I’d lay down on the sweetly mown grass in the outfield. I’d put my mitt over his face and take in the blend of leather and tanning oil. I also loved to hear my own father’s praises; and I responded immediately to admonitions. I lived to please my father on the field. My father cajoled me when I missed perfection, instead going three-for-four. But isn’t this how one pushes his kids to work harder?

Lying on a driveway in a cool autumn night, I was not sure what to do. But this uneasy feeling was not new to me. A few years earlier, I had a different conversation with Kristen, when pushing her to work harder seemed to make sense. Then six years old, Kristen kept losing her grip and falling off the monkey bars. She cried and said, “I can’t do it.” Each time she fell, I told her to keep working. “Believe you can do it and you will,” I repeated. One afternoon at Sanlando Park, she made it across the bars. “You told me you don’t want quitters,” Kristen had told him.

A few months later, Kristen took second place in a half-mile race at Bear Lake Elementary, but I knew she could have won. She had the ability to win, if she had worked just a little harder at the end. (Kristen would occasionally run three miles with me at night. She could run faster, for sure.) “She’s just too nice,” my wife said. “She might not have that same competitive fire that Sarah has.” Sarah had won her half-miler by finishing nearly two hundred yards ahead of the next kindergartner.

I decided I would apologize to Kristen. She had not played that poorly on the soccer field. I left the stars to other gazers and returned inside, not sure whether nature or nurture had developed this wonderful little girl. At breakfast, I managed to apologize. “But you were not too tough on me, you were just trying to help me,” Kristen said between spoonfuls of Cheerios.

Kristen played harder in the next two games – racing after each ball, and aggressively stealing and kicking soccer balls from even the much bigger girls. I praised her, telling her how proud I was at her efforts. In the fourth game, Kristen twice raced down the field on breakaways after stealing the ball, but she did not score. Her shots either rolled straight to the goalie or the ball sailed wide of the net. Kristen waited for words of praise after so noble an effort. But I found my words a little flatter that afternoon, knowing that had she dribbled the ball better, she might have scored a goal. “Good job,” I forced out. She smiled and raced off to play with her best friend.

A few years ago, I realized I had my work cut out for me. My wife does a tremendous job neutralizing my competitive fanaticism, but I needed some more role models. Fortunately, I found some on our college campus. In many ways, I had no clue how to raise girls. But I knew I had to try. After all, I do hate to lose in anything – but even more so when it concerns two people so dear to my heart.

-30-


On Sportz

This is the first post for my blog on sports -- from kids playing softball and soccer to journalists covering professional sports.