Simply put, it was ritual.
The sports writer sat and watched the college football game or practice. Took notes. Watched some more. Gulped some coffee. Chatted up the guy next to him. Took a trip down the hallway. Composed the first few graphs of the story. Observed some more. Wrote down a few questions for afterwards. Then hurried off to the locker room, a press pass at the ready.
Once there, the sports writer was ushered in by the sports information officer and allowed to quickly grab comments from the head coach and the players. If it was after a practice, the writer lingered and collected some background info, chuckled at an off-the-cuff remark, and got a commitment for a longer interview later. Perhaps he scribbled down the phone number of an assistant coach. Satisfied at all that was accomplished, he then hurried off to finish and file the story.
OK, I’m being a bit simplistic.
But so much for that tradition.
In the age of Twitter, smart phones and bloggers, college teams are increasingly limiting media and public access to players and coaches, fearful that strategy or injury or worse will end up online or on a message screen. Last season, for instance, about 60 percent of FBS programs shut down practices. That figure is believed to have grown this season.
Well, for sure by one.
My otherwise leisurely Saturday — if you consider watching Washington thump Utah a relaxing experience — was interrupted when I stumbled across an article on The Oregonian’s website headlined, “Oregon football program leads Pac-12 in secrecy.” The piece, written by sports writer Aaron Fentress, revealed how the Ducks are the only team in the conference to have both closed practices and decided not to disclose injuries and how other teams struggle with the same issue. Fair story, headline not withstanding. Well-sourced. Interesting.
Two days earlier, another Oregonian reporter, Ken Goe, penned a similar story, discussing the new closed practice routine but also disclosing coach Chip Kelly no longer appears on a weekly live radio show in Eugene, on Oregonian columnist John Canzano’s radio show and at schmoozefests with boosters in the Casanova Center and in Portland.
Both Fentress and Goe pointed out the Ducks are hardly the first college program to put up walls over the past two or three years. Still, unless you were keenly aware of what has been transpiring elsewhere around the country, such as in the SEC and Big 12, you might have come away concluding the Ducks are now a tad Nixonian in nature.
Hiding something. Developing a bunker mentality. You get the image.
As a former daily newspaper editor, I sympathize with the media’s frustrations. Reporting is a time-consuming job. Access to multiple sources is important. For feature stories, you need more than two minutes from a player or coach. Plus, for many in the media today, there is great pressure to produce and to produce quickly — given the state of the depleted news industry. Their livelihoods depend on it.
But I also get where the teams and coaches and players are coming from.
We no longer live in a time when people wait 24 hours for their news — either the morning newspaper or the 5 p.m. TV newscast. There are websites, podcasts, talk shows, texting, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. Competition is fierce to be the first to distribute the slightest tidbit or rumor to the masses. Sadly, in my opinion at least, some journalists have succumbed to the temptation to go loud with the latest “scandal,” even if what they are reporting hasn’t been vetted for facts, ethics and common sense.
Neither are journalists the only ones capable of posting. Picture the 10-year-old kid with a cell phone hanging around a practice field. Yep. A 10-year-old.
Coaches and players are understandably more than a little edgy and protective. For coaches, and the true NFL prospect, their livelihoods are at stake.
“It takes a few minutes to take video and put it on the Internet,” Stanford coach David Shaw was quoted in The Oregonian’s Saturday piece.
Of course, there are downsides to limiting interviews of coaches and players and keeping the public away. Some real ones.
It may be hard for some fans and alumni to swallow, but football programs need to be scrutinized from time to time. If not, you can get a Tressel. Or a Miami.
I think, too, that players lose out when they aren’t allowed to talk freely about their successes and failures, or are kept away from the wide-eyed kid (and not the aforementioned 10-year-old wielding a camera on his phone) who truly needs a pat on the back.
And the fans? Not only are they cut off from seeing players and coaches up close, but they are left with less information about their teams, athletic heroes and schools.
And that leads to a tangible risk for programs. If fans feel less connected to a team and its players, you can bet fewer tickets and merchandise will be sold over time.
Some schools, Oregon among them, are attempting to target fans directly through social media and websites. But it’s unclear whether that approach will have staying power.
In the meantime, the uneasiness or whatever it is in Duckville grows. It isn’t just the media griping. I’ve had conversations with alumni who have noted the changes. They seem OK with it — as long as Oregon keeps winning.
“The higher the program climbs, the harder it will be to reach out and touch,” Goe pointed out in last Thursday’s article about the Ducks. “… This isn’t a mom-and-pop operation anymore. In some ways, that is a little sad.”
Here is to the hope some compromises can be worked out. As with most things in life, the take-it-or-leave-it approach is rarely the answer.
Keeping most practices open during training camp serves reporters and fans, if for no other reason than the sessions educate everyone on who’s who and who is likely to play. Stories can’t be produced without some basic background. On the other hand, closing practices after the season begins — when there is generally little to be learned other than who’s injured and the mood of the team — seems fair. But make sure reporters have sufficient access to players and coaches later on.
Preventing an opponent from learning which Duck player is injured and the severity of the injury days in advance of a game is strategically prudent. On the other hand, enacting a policy that says injuries will never be disclosed comes across as petty. It also ignores the consumer. If I’m a fan from Portland and I’m paying $80 or $100 for a seat at a game, I want to know whether Kenjon Barner and Josh Huff are going to be available before I walk into Autzen Stadium.
Lumping a stranger taking photos with his Blackberry together with the Register-Guard’s Rob Moseley or The Oregonian’s Fentress seems misguided. On the other hand, a news organization insisting a reporter have access to practices just so a tepid quote or two can be gleaned from a tired player is a recipe for a lazy newspaper or TV station.
Sending your head coach on a weekly 220-mile trip to Portland and back just so a few boosters can have their egos stroked comes across as wasteful. On the other hand, putting Kelly in front of the mike at The Cooler tavern in Eugene once a week for a half-hour is good PR for the hometown.
Consider this a call for smarter minds to prevail.
Psst, folks, relax a little. Have some fun. Stop being so defensive about everything.
Find the middle ground.