Players are real losers with dwindling media access in college football

IvanExcerpts from my latest column for Poynter:

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Access, or a lack thereof, continues to be a major problem for college football reporters. And that goes for the reporters from the biggest outlets in the business.

“What I got [in terms of access] as a national guy 25 years ago for the Dallas Morning News was much better than I get now writing for the biggest website in the country,” said Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com. “I bet the guys at Sports Illustrated say the same thing.”

Billy Watkins of the Clarion-Ledger vented about his frustrations in a column about covering college football in Mississippi. In an email to me, Watkins wrote:

“I’m doing a big profile of a player at Navy. He is a senior from Mississippi. They have bent over backward getting me anything and everything I need for the story. They lined me up a 45-minute phone interview with him. They also set up an interview with the Navy head coach.

“It took me five months last year to get into the office of Ole Miss’ coach. And we’re the largest paper in the state. I’m sorry, but the subject kind of works me up.”

Prior to the season, Mark Selig, a graduate student at Missouri, surveyed football Southeastern Conference beat writers for his Backstory blog. He asked this question: If you wanted to write a story about a player, how confident are you that you can get 10-15 minutes for an interview?

The replies included:

James Crepea of the Alabama Media Group who covers Auburn: “Absolutely no chance this will happen.”

Josh Kendall of The State, who covers South Carolina: “Not at all. I’ve had one true one-on-one since I’ve been here (five years), and it turned out to be a great story because it’s a way better interview format.”

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The lack of access actually hurts the players. For the 97 percent who won’t be going to the pros, this will be the last time in their lives the media cares what they have to say. This likely will be their only chance to tell their stories.

“We used to get to know the kids,” Gould said. “When you know people, you can have a meaningful dialogue. You can learn what they are all about.”

John Feinstein, in a recent column for the CBS Sports Radio site, also made a similar point about media-player relationships in college basketball. He wrote:

“Players are coached to be very careful around the media and, when they come into the interview rooms they are inhibited by the presence of TV cameras; PR people and, often, their coach, who is sitting right next to them. There’s very little chance to develop relationships.

“When I was the Maryland beat writer, I routinely went to practice. I routinely went in the locker room before and after practice to talk to players. It was a no-brainer. The players got to know me, felt comfortable when I was around. I was able to do my job well.”

If coaches truly are teachers preparing their players for life after football—OK, maybe I am being naïve again–they should see the value in allowing them to do interviews. Speaking to the media is a great way for players to develop communication skills. With extensive practice, they will be more effective public speakers. It’s a good pretty good skill to have when you are wearing a suit for that first post-college job interview, and it has nothing to do with football.

“[Former Notre Dame running back] Allen Pinkett was a go-to guy for me when I covered Notre Dame,” Gould said. “Now he is the color guy for [Notre Dame’s radio broadcasts]. Maybe all those interviews helped him.”

Maisel thinks Bobby Bowden always had the right approach in allowing the media access to his players.

“He used to say [speaking to the media] was a skill they had to learn,” Maisel said. “He felt it was a part of them being in college.”

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