What is the "right" way to cover University of Arizona athletics?
I've found myself thinking about this quite a bit over the past six months, since returning to the world of sports coverage after a few years away from the game.
In another life I was a beat reporter covering the UA softball team, as well as part of the coverage team for Wildcat football and men's hoops, so I've spent a good amount of time writing about Arizona athletics. But never during those stints did I really step back and wonder if the approach I was taking was the correct one.
I think I just went with the flow. But was that really the best way?
When there's only one game in town, so to speak, as with UA sports, is it just about being as comprehensive and all-encompassing as possible? That would mean just getting the information out there, and letting the readers/viewers/listeners interpret for themselves.
Should the goal be to find stories that no one else has, whether they be good or bad (i.e., a scoop)? If the competition is strong enough, this can often be the way to go.
Should there be more emphasis on analysis, observation and criticism—you know, the columnist approach—or should that editorial aspect be pushed aside because, in the world's biggest college town, most fans don't want to know about the bad stuff?
Based on what I've seen during my return to the sports beat, I think it really comes down to one simple question: How much access, assistance and cooperation do you want from the UA? So it goes for an entity that, as the only fish in the sea, has the local media contingent forced to eat out of the palm of its hand.
Translation: Follow the rules, or be prepared to lose privileges.
It's not as bad as what Jim dealt with while being embedded with Aaron Sorkin's version of the Mitt Romney campaign on The Newsroom—mostly because there's no bus to get kicked off—but the concept is similar.
Let's face it: If you don't cover the UA, what else is there to write about? Sure, there's high school sports, but that is a niche, something only a small but devoted faction is interested in. The same goes for FC Tucson, golf, rodeo and, sadly, minor league baseball.
But the UA? Everyone loves "our" Cats, and everyone wants to know how "we" are doing. You've gotta give the people what they want, and the UA's media relations people know it. To give the people what they want, you've gotta go through them.
Last Sunday was the annual Media Day gathering for UA football, when reporters, photographers, bloggers and TV talking heads got (mostly) unfettered access to anyone and everyone associated with the program. Players and coaches met with the media for about 90 minutes in the Sands Club of the new Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, an ultra-sleek lounge that, thanks to the lofty price tag for the accompanying season tickets, is the most expensive sports bar in Tucson.
If you wanted to speak to a specific player, this was the best chance to date because, since training camp started, head coach Rich Rodriguez has limited who he has allowed to speak to reporters. Not one offensive player was allowed to talk after the UA's scrimmage-that-became-an-open-practice at Fort Huachuca.
Media Day was the first time the local press corps had a chance to speak with Ka'Deem Carey since he walked off the field after the New Mexico Bowl win over Nevada in December.
I didn't get to hear all of the questions Carey was asked, but from what I did hear, it sounds like most reporters tiptoed around his off-field, off-season legal encounters. Whether that was in deference to letting Carey move past that time in his life, or because of the constant presence of a media relations representative close by, you decide.
This is RichRod's third head coaching gig at the major college level, and all of them have been at only-show-in-town schools: West Virginia, Michigan and now Arizona. RichRod was considered a god in Morgantown; in Ann Arbor he was looked at mostly as an outsider. So far in Tucson, he's being looked at as a potential savior, someone who could finally put (and keep) the UA on the national college football map.
But to hear RichRod, each place was exactly the same as far as coverage was concerned. Whether it's positive or negative for him and his assistant coaches, he says they're fair game. But the players, who—unless you're Johnny Football—are essentially unpaid interns, should be treated differently. Even if they fall or fail.
"They can boo us all they want," he said. "But to boo a college kid ... that's just wrong. I think there's a tendency to overemphasize the bad in college athletics instead of accentuating the positives. But I think that's just society in general."
RichRod knows that if you write too much about the good, it's going to come off like fluff. I agree wholeheartedly. I love getting a chance to tell a story about someone's success or amazing selflessness or sacrifice. But if players get themselves in trouble, I'm going to write about it.
To ignore the scandalous or the embarrassing is to not truly provide readers with the whole story; you come off too much like an apologist, or a cheerleader. Because this is a sports column, there's going to be opinion infused with the coverage, but the facts will still be there.
I'm not in the business of badmouthing college kids—or paid professionals for that matter—just for the heck of it. If someone does good, I'll point it out. They do bad, it'll get called out.
That's what I think is the "right" way to cover the UA. Whether that is following the rules or not, your guess is as good as mine.