Friday, December 21, 2007

Covering wrestling - pinning down a technical sport

Politicians are flocking to Iowa, trying to gain an edge in the nation’s first primary for president that will take place in two weeks. Actually, Iowa holds a caucus, where voters gather in precincts to determine which politician they like best. There’s no denying what sport Iowans hold dearest. Sure, 70,000 fans may attend an Iowa football game, but where else in the country would 9,000 attend a wrestling dual meet? That’s how many watched No. 3 Iowa defeat top-ranked Iowa State, 20-13, in Ames two weeks ago.

Politicians would be well advised to spend time on the mats at local high schools to help in their own maneuverings. (Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney may know national politics, but they need to learn more about the heart of the Midwest. That starts with sports like wrestling.) Like politics, wrestling can get confusing for casual observers, which is why we need to translate as much as we can. Like politics, wrestling also usually has a clear winner at the end (unlike the Bowl Championship Series).

Still, few sports are as technically oriented as wrestling, which has its own language and relies on very specific rules and guidelines, most of which readers care little about – not even in Iowa, arguably the cradle of wrestling in the United States.

“Wrestling is a very unique sport,” says Jim Leitner, sports editor for the Telegraph Herald in Dubuque. “Even here in Iowa, where it is very popular, there are a lot of people who have no idea what the sport is about and what some of the finer points are. So, you have to strike a balance in your story. You have to write a story that will appeal to the die-hard wrestling fans, and, at the same time, you can’t make it so technical that a casual sports fan can’t follow it. If your story hinges on a very technical storyline, you have to be sure to explain it well enough so you don’t confuse the casual fan.”

That’s why Des Moines Register sports editor Bryce Miller looks for emotion and odd details in wrestling coverage. “Only the most hard-core wrestling fans understand and want deep, deep wrestling detail with the tongue-tying language of the sport,” says Miller, who covered University of Iowa wrestling as a beat at five NCAA Championship tournaments and at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “Instead of focusing on cradles and inside-trips, talk about the people stories behind the game or match. That type of story pulls in more general-interest readers. If you’re too wrestling-specific, it’s a niche audience and you slam the door to a bigger group of readers who might want to know that not only did Bill Smith win 2-1 — but the victory came on the one-year anniversary of the death of his former roommate.”

Readers want mostly basic information, such as who won a dual meet or a tournament and how specific wrestlers performed in these competitions, says JR Ogden, sports editor for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Like other sports editors, Ogden says readers prefer human interest stories in sports game coverage – particularly in less publicized and more technical sports like wrestling.

“I try not to get technical because most readers don't understand one move from another,” says Ogden, “and, for the most part, the same move or hold can be called several different things.”

Lehigh University coach Greg Strobel says wrestling is very simple. “Don't get too involved with knowing the names of moves, just watch the struggle to overcome the opponent,” says Strobel, a two-time NCAA champ and coach of the 2000 Olympic team. “Wrestling is really very simple. Try to take your opponent to the mat, try to turn him over, try to control him. On the converse, don't get taken down, get away, don't be controlled.”

Some more tips for covering wrestling are offered below.

TAKING NOTES
Taking notes is essential to all game coverage. Find a system that works well for you. You might take notes on each match by putting names on two sides of the page, putting the running score down the middle of the page. Or you might just put the names of the two wrestlers a the top of the page and then record observations as the match progresses.
■ Miller keeps a running play-by-play that records points scored and the time points were scored “so I can explain key moments in many ways — chronologically or in different ways — but also keep room to the side to explain details and observations about words, facial expressions, crowd reaction and the fabric that really puts readers in the crowd.”
■ Ogden also keeps a running play by play but he covers tournaments differently. “In tournaments, I try to watch as many matches as possible that involve the teams I'm interested in,” he says, “then catch up with the others once the meet is over.”

PREPARING BEFORE MATCHES
Miller says reporters should prepare the same way for any game coverage. “My rule: Never come to the event empty-handed,” says Miller. “Always have a couple unique facts in your notebook, some unique sources ideas. If a wrestler is going for 100 victories, can you talk to mom and dad before coming to the match?”

LEAD ELEMENTS
Make sure key information is high. “Many times, writers and reporters sacrifice clarity and what-you-want-to-know detail at the tops of stories in exchange for flowering, over-indulged prose,” says Miller. “It’s always important to remind writers that on spot events, particularly in sports not commonly on television, readers depend on us to tell them what happened first and foremost.”
■ Add team names/nicknames
■ Include team scores
■ Focus on a key match, particularly if it altered momentum or secured a team victory
■ Focus on an individual’s performance, particularly if this ties to a human interest element
■ If the match is blow out, focus on how and why one team dominated. Did one team record pins in six matches or were five matches determined by two points or fewer?
■ Focus on a coach’s decision or strategy. Was a wrestler moved up a weight class or did the match begin at a mid-weight class?
■ Focus on a stats leader. Did a wrestler pin his ninth opponent or did a wrestler win his 10th decision by two points or fewer?
■ Records. Put team records in parentheses within the first few paragraphs. Try to add them after you cite the school’s name – and not the school’s nickname. Also, add conference or district records for high school competition.

LANGUAGE
■ Pin – when a part of both shoulders are held down for at least two seconds.
■ Near fall – when wrestler has control of opponent and a pin appears imminent
■ Takedown – when a wrestler takes an opponent to the mat
■ Escape – when wrestler escapes from a down position
■ Reversal – when a wrestler escapes from under an opponent and controls him in a single move.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON
■ Find stories – especially those that take place beyond the mat. “The goal of a newspaper story, especially in the 24/7 information age of online, is tell people something they couldn’t know without reading the story,” says Miller. “We talk about these key words high in stories — first, biggest, only and most. If you can use any of those words, it means your reporting has identified the uniqueness in the event. Newspapers also have the chance to take you into locker rooms, into interview areas and places quick, radio/TV sound bites do not. If readers only needed the basics, we would all run Associated Press stories. Tell them things they don’t know with perspective-driven information and reporting and unexpected sourcing.” Ogden also recommends looking for a story: “This could be a match that turns the dual one way or another, an athlete's or coach's assessment after the meet, or a big match-up on paper that turned out to be a dud or lived up to his hype.
■ Key momentum swings – either from an individual match or team standpoint. “If it’s a blowout, team-wise, we’ll focus on a great match or featurize the whole story,” says Leitner. “We take a more featurized approach to covering every sport, not just wrestling, so our readers have come to expect good human interest elements.”
■ Match-ups: See which matches feature ranked wrestlers. Check records and past performances for each athlete so you will be prepared to add these details into the game story. Details, such as the fact one wrestler has never pinned an opponent in 10 wins, will help you look for details during the match.
■ Did a wrestler make an adjustment during a match? Did a wrestler who was nearly pinned win the match? Speak with athletes and coaches afterward for more insights.
■ Determine how a coach recognizes match-ups.
■ 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.)
■ Cite who the next opponent will be, including the location of the meet and the opponent’s record. You can also do this for key, ranked wrestlers, offering the name and record of the next person he will face.
■ 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 key wrestler by describing how he performed. Don’t just write that the freshman was “the player of the game.” Show how a wrestler appeared fatigued down the stretch by describing the action.
Check the numbers for key statistical streaks for teams or individuals.

THINGS TO KNOW
■ Weight classes for colleges. The NCAA uses the following weight classes in its championships – 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 174, 184, 197, heavyweight (183-285 pounds).
■ Weight classes vary for high schools. Most high school associations offer several lighter classifications. Florida, for example, uses the following 14 weight – 103, 112, 119, 125, 130, 135, 140, 145, 152, 160, 171, 189, 215, 285 (heavyweight).
■ Wrestlers cannot wrestle below their weight, but they may compete above their weight classification. Rules vary for how much higher athletes can compete. In Florida, for instance, an athlete cannot compete more than one weight class above, meaning a 119-pounder can not go beyond the 125-pound class.
■ Growth allowances are usually granted for high school athletes. In Florida, that means a wrestler can gain two pounds midway through the season (That’s set for late December this year). These rules are created so wrestlers won’t go on crash diets or starve themselves.
■ Weigh-ins – Wrestlers usually verify their weight about an hour before meets. This may be two hours before matches at NCAA tournaments.
■ Sudden death – when wrestlers are tied after three regulation periods. In college, a winner is determined by the first wrestler to score a point during the one-minute overtime period.
■ Wrestlebacks – Usually, tournaments are double-elimination, which means wrestlers who lose can “wrestle back” into the later rounds until they lose their second match.
■ Scoring during matches – Near fall (2, 3 or 4 points), takedown (2 points), reversal (2 points), escape (1 point), time advantage (2 points).
■ Scoring for team scores. Points are awarded to teams whose wrestlers win by the following methods:
6 points – fall (or pin), default, forfeit, disqualification
5 points – technical fall (if near fall was already awarded to winning wrestler)
4 points – technical fall (if near fall is not recorded by winning wrestler)
3 points – for a decision
■ Tournament scoring. Scoring changes based upon how many places are awarded, according to the NCAA. If eight places are awarded in a tournament, scoring goes as follows: 16-12-10-9-7-6-4-3. For six places, scoring goes 12-10-9-7-6-4. For four places, scoring is 10-7-4-2.
■ Matches last three periods unless the match ends prematurely by a pin, technical fall or disqualification.
■ Record the names of the game officials in case anything unusual happens in the game. Also, interview them afterward in such instances.

INTERVIEWING
■ As most reporters will tell you, get to know the people involved before asking questions. That’s why beat coverage is essential. Of course, many stringers and reporters are asked to cover teams they’ve never met, which is certainly more challenging. Still, make the effort to introduce yourself before a match, even if that is just to tell coaches you’d like to talk with them after the meet.
■ Athletes, like everybody else, react to questions in varying ways. So do not get discouraged if someone does not talk to you right away. “It truly depends on the individual and the situation,” says Miller. “I’ve known NCAA champs who seemed unapproachable, but were just fine talking right after they were finished. I know others who needed a small amount of time to decompress. You must know the athletes/teams you cover, since there’s no one answer that applies to every situation. And, as always, deadlines might dictate how long you can wait.”
■ Strobel wishes more reporters knew some very basic information before they covered matches and asked him questions – the names and records of participants. Pretty simply, Strobel says: “Knowing who is competing impresses me. Not knowing records bothers me.”
■ Ogden prefers to wait until the overall competition has concluded. “There have been times I have talked to wrestlers after their matches in a dual – when they come up to press box to do radio – but coaches want to keep the "team" focused the other wrestlers.
■ Leitner likes to speak with coaches first so he can then get a better idea what questions to pose to the competing wrestlers. “The key is developing a good relationship with the coach,” says Leitner, “and basically training him to give you good, newsworthy information that leads to good storylines.”
■ Work hard to gain some trust, otherwise that means you may get bland, uninformed quotes. Even if you are covering a team for the first time, you can impress coaches and wrestlers by doing your homework – by reading published articles on the team, by reading press guides, and by speaking with opposing coaches and wrestlers before you head out. That way you’ll be able to ask specific, informed questions – something that often impresses those being interviewed. They’ll see that you are working as hard as they are and that you may be someone they can trust. “In my experience, I have found that wrestlers, in general, are not very quotable people,” Leitner says. “They seem very guarded. They don’t want to give away any information to opponents who might be reading the article. So, it takes a little work to gain their trust, and you have to do a better job interviewing them than you would with athletes from other sports.”
■ Ask what coaches, players were thinking during a key moment.
■ Ask wrestlers to describe their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. You can also ask the to offer a narrative of the match. This will give you an insider’s view of the match, which is can be more important than getting quotes. Do not be afraid to summarize and attribute this information. Not everything has to be a direct quote.
■ Ask how the team has progressed over the last several games or weeks. But make sure you read as much as you can about their pervious meets so you can ask informed follow-up questions.
■ Introduce yourself to coaches before the meet whenever possible. You can also ask the coach his goals and how he expects the meet to go, which could lead to a nice angle for your game story.

You do not need to be an expert to cover wrestling. Like with any sport, you just need to do your homework and to work diligently along the way.

“In my opinion, you don’t have to be an ex-wrestler or a huge wrestling fan to write about it,” says Leitner. “I had no experience in wrestling until I started writing about it. But I do find it a very intriguing sport and one with a lot of great storylines. If you’re willing to learn about the sport, you can find it very fascinating. I could sit and watch 10 hours of the Iowa High School state wrestling tournament and never get bored. I don’t think I could say that about any other sport, including the more popular ones.”

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lupica's right on mark about Mitchell, steroids

For those who think Sen. George Mitchell did a poor job revealing steroid use in major league baseball, read Mike Lupica's column on this issue. As Lupica says, Mitchell is 'no rank amateur.' Mitchell helped broker peace in Northern Ireland and probably could have been on the Supreme Court.

This report is going to be one of the most important documents in professional sports for many years to come. So do not rip this report until you've read as much as you can on (or in the report.) Our job is not to defend athletes (or to be fans) , but to report, so if you plan to write a column or story on this issue, do the research and learn the facts. Then, step up and opine away.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Don't get burned by unnamed sources

As we're waiting with baited breath on what happens to Johan Santana, here's something to consider: Don't print unsubstantiated reports or repeat rumors. Last week, ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit reported that LSU coach Les Miles would sign to coach Michigan, a report that was proven incorrect. Herbstreit claimed on-air that the report was based upon solid information. That may be true, but that's the problem we face when reporting anonymous information. We're wrong when this information is wrong, not the unnamed sources. At times, we are used by sources trying to advance their own agendas. Most of the time, anonymous sources suck.

Instead, verify reports and rumors as CBS Sportsline's Scott Miller did last night at the baseball meetings. Where's Santana going? Who the heck knows? But Miller does a terrific job addressing rumors circulating in Nashville, Tenn,. and in various online news sources and blogs by speaking directly to the primary sources involved with the reported trades -- namely, to the general managers. Yes, these GMs could be lying, but at least they are on the record doing this, not the sports journalist.

Check out Miller's most recent post:
As the stare-down continued, reports circulated wildly, ranging from the Red Sox increasing their offer by adding a fifth name to the proposal (not true, say sources with knowledge of the talks) to multiple reports that the Los Angeles Angels had met with the Twins.

Not true, said Angels general manager Tony Reagins, who noted that he had informally spoken with Minnesota GM Bill Smith a day earlier but had not conducted any formal meetings with the Twins.

So where do these rumors come from?

"I ask myself that question," Reagins said. "Watching ESPN, I see things being reported and you wonder where it comes from sometimes."

Regarding whether he envisions a scenario in which a trade with Minnesota could develop, Reagins said, "That would be tough to say. There are a lot of things being reported out there, obviously. But I don't see anything on the horizon."

Miller speaks directly with the Angels' GM to address the rumor instead of passing along unsubstantiated information. He also speaks with several other GMs and to some other verifiable sources. Yes, Miller offers several other trade scenarios, but based upon his earlier reporting, I'm inclined to believe him. Evaluate for yourself whose reports are most accurate. I'll bet it's the ones where reporters speak directly with sources. Being accurate is more important than being first.

Note -- remember to start going to onsports.wordpress.com, where this site is moving and where information, like this, is printed first. Thanks.

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Monday, December 3, 2007

We're moving

I am in the midst of moving the main site for OnSportz to another location, so please change your RSS feeds and bookmarks to onsports.wordpress.com. For the next month or so, I plan to post to both sites, but I will always post here first. As always, the site includes tips and suggestions for covering more than a dozen sports, commentary, book reviews and much more. And, I love to hear from sports journalists — young and experienced. Suggest topics, ask questions, or send notes to me at jgisondi@gmail.com. I hope you find this site just as easy to navigate.
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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Journalists should not determine national champions


Man, the Sheriff Center is going to be rocking today. More than 10,000 Hawaii fans are going to roll into the arena in Honolulu to listen to the Fox Bowl Championship Series Selection Show. The pep bands will play loudly, cheerleaders will rally fans, the Rainbow Dancers will frolic about, and players and coaches will pump their fists. In all likelihood, Hawaii is going to get a bid for the Sugar Bowl, where they will probably face Georgia. In reality, the Rainbows should get a chance at the national championship. But they won't. Voters (yes, us) do not believe football in the Western Athletic Conference is as rigorous as football in the Southeastern Conference or the Big Ten. Experts say Hawaii did not play as tough a schedule as Louisiana State or Ohio State (who played Akron, Kent State and Youngstown State). But these same experts and sports journalists also believed West Virginia would destroy a mediocre Pitt team Saturday and that Ohio State would have defeated Illinois earlier this season.

Last night, Pitt upset West Virgina 13-9 and Oklahoma routed Missouri 38-17. Meanwhile, Colt Brennan completed 42 of 50 passes and five touchdowns to help Hawaii overcome a 21-point deficit to defeat Washington and remain undefeated.

It's fair to say the SEC, Big Ten and Big East are also stronger in basketball. But that did not stop Webber State from beating North Carolina in 1999, Hampton from knocking off No. 2 Iowa in 2001, or Coppin State from upsetting another No. 2, South Carolina, in 1997. There are many more upsets where those came from. In college basketball, titles are determined on the courts, not by judges. Leave that format to figure skating, not to sports journalists.

The argument against the playoff system: the season itself is a playoff system. Yet, LSU lost twice - and they may be in the title game instead of a one-loss Kansas team or an undefeated Hawaii squad. The system does not work if a team can go undefeated and not get a shot at the national championship -- especially when a two-loss team gets into the title game. Again, blame sports journalists.

John Feinstein calls the BCS the single worst creation in sports. Says Feinstein:: "It is the creation of a group of selfish, money-mongering college presidents who couldn't care less about what is best for the so-called student-athletes, couldn't care less about the fans who go to the games and, most of all, couldn't care less about fairness."

I'm not going to offer the format that is needed most (although I will say an eight or 16-team format will compel more than a few fans to watch.) You'll also have intrigue watching teams on the fringe (Nos. 8-12 or Nos. 14-18) that will be working hard to get into the playoff picture. Hawaii is probably going to be a No. 10-12 this afternoon, meaning they would still be locked out of an eight-game playoff picture. There's no denying they deserve a shot at the title. But we journalists (we experts) have prevented this.

We are taught that games are won and lost on the field, not in the press box or in the newsroom. As sports journalists, we should boycott all polls, refraining from offering a vote or being on any panels that make these decisions. Voting is an inherent conflict of interest. ("Well, I would really like to go to New Orleans, so, yes, let's vote for my team as No. 3 so it can go to the Sugar Bowl.") We should not determine who gets to play for a title. Leave that to a selection committee similar to one used for the other college football divisions and for basketball, baseball and soccer. Polls are fun to follow through a season, but they should not determine championships. Nor should sports journalists anoint champions. So rip up your credentials and give back your votes, if only because it's the right thing to do.

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