Journalism dilemma: Notre Dame beat writer, Chicago Tribune make decision about Heisman vote

Rule of journalism: Reporters don’t make news. Reporters cover the news.

The line gets blurred when sportswriters participate in things like college football polls, Major League Baseball awards, and Hall of Fame elections. Their votes become the news that they later have to cover and critique. Conflicts are inherent in such a process.

Brian Hamilton, the Notre Dame beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, felt uneasy about having a Heisman Trophy ballot this year. The question of possible bias because of Irish linebacker Manti Te’o resulted in the Tribune using an internal staff poll to determine Hamilton’s vote.

The section revealed the quandary in a story in Sunday’s paper. He wrote:

We’re in the business of creating as little question as possible — preferably none — about how we conduct our business as journalists. And the Notre Dame beat writer at the Chicago Tribune casting a vote in a Heisman race involving the Irish’s most prominent player in years creates enough questions to make us uneasy. Did you vote for Manti Te’o because you’re biased toward Notre Dame? Did you not vote for Manti Te’o because you’re biased against Notre Dame? Did you vote a certain way solely because you didn’t want it to look like you were biased a certain way?

I talked to Mike Kellams, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports (also my former editor), about the situation. He said Hamilton approached him about his vote a few weeks ago.

“He said, ‘I think this is something we should talk through.’ He was right,” Kellams said. “He hasn’t dealt with this before. It’s been a while since Notre Dame had a top candidate for the Heisman.”

Hamilton could have simply decided not to vote. However, if Te’o lost by one point because the Notre Dame beat writer decided to pass, they would have had to call in extra security at Tribune Tower. That element looked as if it influenced Kellams’ decision.

“I don’t disagree with that point,” Kellams said. “However, my thought was if we don’t vote, we change the outcome. Those points aren’t going to be awarded to the other players, not just Te’o. If we do participate, we change the outcome. Either way we were making a decision that was going to have an impact.”

Ultimately, Kellams decided to use a panel of five Tribune writers and editors who handle college football for the paper. Teddy Greenstein, who covers Northwestern, was not included since he had his own Heisman vote.

The results of the internal poll saw Hamilton’s vote go for Te’o. Naturally, right? Notre Dame is the Tribune’s hometown team. Well, not exactly. Hamilton had Te’o listed second behind Collin Klein. I’m sure he heard from some Notre Dame fans Sunday. And Te’o barely won the Tribune poll over Klein.

The Tribune’s dilemma illustrates why several newspapers won’t allow their sportswriters to vote for awards and Hall of Fame selections. Even within Tribune Co., Kellams notes the Los Angeles Times has its writers on the sidelines for votes.

The issue, I believe, is going to escalate with the upcoming Baseball Hall of Fame ballot that features Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa for the first time. The writers will be generating major news by making a statement about the steroid era, a period the majority of them all covered.

Kellams is well aware of both sides of the argument. For now, he is comfortable with his writers participating.

“This wasn’t a new discussion for our department,” Kellams said. “There’s no denying that if the writers are being asked to vote, they are going to create the news they have to cover. I wouldn’t argue if they (Heisman, Hall of Fame, etc) decided to do something different. But if we’re asked to participate, I believe our writers have the ability to separate themselves and make the right decision…If we believe they exercise good judgement every single day of the year (covering sports), I expect that they can exercise that good judgement when it comes to casting a vote.”

It will be interesting to see how the Heisman voting committee reacts to the Tribune’s decision regarding Hamilton’s vote. Will it demand that it should be one-voter-one-vote? Will Hamilton be invited to vote next year? After all, Irish quarterback Everett Golson is only a sophomore and could find himself in the Heisman picture in 2013.

Kellams wouldn’t speculate on the Heisman’s reaction. He also wouldn’t say that other papers follow should suit if they have a beat writer who covers a top candidate in the Heisman race.

“I feel good about our process in this case,” Kellams said. “It was the right way for us to do it under the circumstances.”







Saturday flashback: My memories of Bo Jackson’s Major League debut

Below is the preview for tonight’s new 30 for 30, You Don’t Know Bo (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).

I was there for Bo Jackson’s Major League debut, and it ranks among my favorite and most memorable sporting events in 30-plus years on the beat.

Special bonus question: What pitcher gave up Jackson’s first big league hit? Hint: He was a 300-game winner.

I was the White Sox beat writer for the Chicago Tribune. The team just happened to be the opponent on Sept. 2, 1986 when the Kansas City Royals called up a minor leaguer named Vincent Edward Jackson.

The hype was considerable for Jackson. When he stepped into the batting cage for the first time, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. Players from both teams stopped to watch. White Sox players, who were done with BP, actually hung around the dugout instead of going back to the clubhouse.

Jackson didn’t disappoint. He put on quite a show, launching one missile after another into the fountains at Royals Stadium. Players were in awe of the power display by Jackson.

The anticipation carried over to the game. Batting sixth, Jackson came up in the second inning to face Steve Carlton. Yes, Steve Carlton actually pitched for the White Sox late in 1986. Nearly all of his immense skills were gone, and he had become the sad image of a future Hall of Famer just trying to hang on with a team that was way out of the race. Still, every once in a while, Carlton could summon some of the old greatness. That game in Kansas City was one of the nights.

I found my game story for the Tribune. My lede went:

The 322-game winner overshadowed the Heisman Trophy winner Tuesday night. Bo Jackson made his major-league debut, but he couldn`t help the Royals overcome Steve Carlton, who led the White Sox to a 3-0 victory at Royals Stadium.

Jackson, though, was the story. His first at-bat was a stunning demonstration of his power and speed. He hit a tremendous shot estimated at 425 feet that just went foul. Then with the crowd still buzzing, he dribbled a bouncer that barely got past Russ Morman at first. Second baseman Tim Hulett gloved the ball in the hole, but Jackson easily beat the throw to first with his speed. Everyone was just amazed watching him run down the line. Jackson’s first hit was in the books off of Carlton.

Jackson went 1 for 3 on the night. Afterward, we went to the Royals lockerroom. He did his interview without a shirt.

I had just covered Walter Payton during the Bears’ Super Bowl year in 1985. I thought he had the best physique I had ever seen for an athlete.

Jackson, though, was in another category. Layers of dense muscles and massive legs. He was the closest I’ve ever seen to Superman, with the possible exception of the hip that eventually betrayed him.

“I didn`t go out there expecting to do something spectacular,“ said Jackson. “ I like the majors and I`m happy to be here.“

It was only the beginning for Jackson. Spectacular was just ahead.






A Sportswriters Life: Beat writer for Cubs during long road trip to nowhere

This is the first of an occasional series on the life and times of sportswriters.

My first installment is going to be on my old friend, Paul Sullivan, the Cubs beat writer for the Chicago Tribune.

I talked to Sullivan the other day from the lobby of his hotel in Washington. He was in the middle of what only can be described as the road trip from hell: A 10-game trek to Washington, Pittsburgh and Houston in September.

“I’ve been dreading this trip all season,” Sullivan said.

I know exactly how Sullivan feels. I covered a series of bad White Sox teams in the late 80s for the Tribune. There’s nothing worse than being on a long road trip in September to cover meaningless games for a team going nowhere.

Unfortunately for Sullivan, he has experienced this drill before. He’s been on the baseball beat for 19 years, most of them with the Cubs. The last time they were somewhat relevant was in 2009, following back-to-back division titles in 2007-08.

However, despite three straight beyond-bleak years, and the prospect for several more with a rebuilding team, Sullivan said his enthusiasm for the beat hasn’t dimmed. “I love writing, and I love baseball,” he said.

And he wants to remain on the Cubs beat, if for no other reason than out of fear of leaving.

“I know the minute I come off they are going to start winning like crazy,” he said.

Here’s my Q/A with Sullivan on what it is like to cover a bad team in September:

So what is like at this point in the season? It has to feel like a death march.

I can’t lie. I’m looking forward to October. I’m seeing some bad baseball. It’s not pleasant to write negative things about people you like and respect. There are no players on the team I don’t like.

You look around for players to talk to after the game. After going to the rookie pitcher, who else are you going to talk to? When the team is winning, it’s easy to go from one guy to the next.

It makes you appreciate the veterans like Carlos Pena and Mark Grace, who were the go-to guys. This team is so young, they don’t have any real go-to guys.

Your stories now are often features with a smattering of game detail. When was the last time you wrote a true game story?

Probably the end of April. You have to find different stories, but I never have a hard time doing it.

The hardest part is that (manager Dale Sveum) isn’t the most quote-worthy managers. I spent eight years with Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. That was like the golden age. I like Sveum, but he isn’t the most quote-worthy guy.

What is it like to cover the new front office regime of Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer?

It’s different. I had good relationships with Jim Hendry and Kenny Williams and Ron Schueler (from when he covered the Sox).

These guys are insulated. You don’t know if you’re going to hear back every time you reach out to them. A lot of time, they do it by Email.

They’re never around. They’re never in the clubhouse or hanging around the batting cage. They don’t want to chat with the writers.

I don’t know (Epstein) enough to like him. I don’t dislike him, and I agree with his game plan. But I have no relationship with him.

19 years is a long time on the beat. Do the long seasons, especially losing seasons, ever get you thinking about doing something else?

The travel is tough. I’m going to be gone for 12 days on this trip, and I’m already running out of clothes.

But it’s still baseball and it’s still writing. I love baseball and I love writing. I still enjoy what I do.






Payton book in paperback: Author hopes for a second chance in Chicago

Jeff Pearlman hopes release of his Walter Payton biography in paperback this week will help right a wrong, especially in Chicago.

When excerpts of Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton ran in Sports Illustrated last fall, Pearlman was vilified. It couldn’t have been worse if he dressed in green and gold and staged a Green Bay Packers rally on Michigan Ave.

The excerpt detailed Payton’s troubled life after football; addiction to painkillers, issues with depression, affairs and a non-existent marriage. It hardly was the picture Bears fans saw of the valiant warrior during a spectacular 13-year career.

Reaction was harsh in Chicago. Mike Ditka said he would “spit” on the book. Everyone follows “Da Coach” here and you could have filled Lake Michigan with all the saliva. Not a pretty image.

“To me, it was crushing,” Pearlman said.

Pearlman tried to do damage control. He did numerous interviews in Chicago, pleading with people to read the entire book. He said there was much more than the SI excerpts.

Indeed, the book is meticulously reported, detailing with the incredible highs and lows of Payton’s entire life. Once people read the book, it received rave reviews and landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Now with the paperback edition coming out, Pearlman hopes the critics in Chicago will give the book a second chance. Here’s my Q/A.

How did you feel about the initial reaction to the book in Chicago?

To be honest, I thought I was treated unfairly in Chicago. One anchor on the news did a report and then literally shook her head and said, ‘Shameful, shameful.’

(Chicago Tribune columnist) John Kass became my least favorite media figure in Chicago. I felt like he was another guy who didn’t read the book. I called and emailed him to see if he ever read the book. I offered to send him a copy of the book. He never responded.

I think Michael Wilbon is great, excellent. But he questioned my motives. He said it was all about money.

Nobody read the book (beyond the SI excerpts). In today’s media world, we need to turn it around really quick. ‘What’s your take on this?’ People just read the excerpt and said, ‘How dare he?’ To me, it was crushing.

What kind of reaction did you get once people read the book?

I received a number of apologies over Twitter and Email. I had never experienced anything like it before.

When the book first came out, I got a lot of ‘To hell with you,’ and much more vulgar stuff that I won’t get into.

About a month later, I got a number of notes that said, ‘You know what, I owe you an apology. I was wrong. That was a great book.’

Many people think SI’s choice of excerpts hurt you and the book. What do you think?

I used to think something different, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I thought the excerpts showed a fascinating part of his life. I thought the depression he suffered was pretty telling, especially with what we know now (about concussions). If I was editor of Sports Illustrated, I would have gone with the same excerpts too.

You have said that you came to love Walter Payton more after writing the book. Yet for many of us in Chicago, your details of how he treated some people and other issues made us love him less. Please explain your view.

Walter was aware of his shortcomings. He wanted to be righteous, but he didn’t know how to go about it.

He knew what he meant to people in Chicago. It was very important for them to view him in a positive light. He never wanted people to know about his depression.

You always think, ‘If I could have this guy’s life, that would be awesome. What does he have to complain about?’

Walter had a lot to complain about. I had sympathy for him. I realize it wasn’t easy being him.

Now that it is out in paperback, what do you say to Payton’s fans who initially passed on buying the hardcover edition?

I understand that people want their heroes to be heroes, or that they care only about what happens on the field.

But this guy had an amazingly fascinating life beyond football. There was a lot to him. Just because somebody had hard times doesn’t mean you still can’t appreciate him. It doesn’t mean you should change your perception of him.

For more with Pearlman, here is an interview he did with Steven Bennett on last week’s edition of the Sports-Casters. The interview begins at the 1:40 mark.








Newspaper Olympics coverage varies: Philly papers cut back; LA Times, USA Today all-in

Special Report:

Staffing the Olympics used to be a no-brainer for major newspapers. The Games are a major worldwide event and you air-mail as many reporters as possible.

I was among 15 staffers for the Chicago Tribune during the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Obviously, times, priorities, and most importantly, economics have changed. It’s no longer automatic to send an army of staffers to cover an Olympics.

In fact, the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer initially decided skip the trip to London. They returned the five credentials issued to the papers. However, at the last minute, the editors decided to send Phil Sheridan.

Said Josh Barnett, executive sports editor for the Philadelphia Daily News on the overall decision: “It’s exclusively a financial decision. It’s a significant commitment (to staff an Olympics). With dwindling resources, you have to make decision of how and where to best use your people. It was a choice we didn’t want to make, but it was something we had to do.”

Barnett added, “I hope this is an anomaly for us as opposed to the norm.”

The St. Paul Pioneer-Press also made the same decision, electing not to send a staffer to London. Meanwhile, the Pioneer-Press’ main competitor, Glen Crevier of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, has two writers and a photographer in London.

Mike Bass, senior editor/sports for the Pioneer-Press, explained:

“There’s the realization that our reporter/columnist would likely make a greater impact covering local teams and issues than at the Olympics. There is a risk in all this, of course. If a major story breaks that involves an athlete from our market, we wouldn’t be there to cover it. Then again, if the story is big enough, the wires would certainly cover it in some way and we could try to supplement it. With the size of staff we have, these are the decisions we have to make all the time.”


On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. The Times isn’t cutting back. It has 13 staffers in London.

Sports editor Mike James said the Olympics have been a staple of the Times’ sports coverage through the years.

“We think of the Olympics as one of our franchise opportunities,” James said. “It’s a chance for us to broaden our readership. You get a lot of interest from people who don’t normally read our section during the Olympics.”

James added, “I didn’t have to do a sales job (to upper management). They recognize the Olympics are an important thing we do during two-plus weeks.”

USA Today also is applying full-court treatment. Dave Morgan, senior VP for content and editor in chief for the USA Today sports media group, noted the staffing breakdown:

“We have about 48 reporters/editors, about 20 photographers, 11 attached to video and 5 for office administration and support (which includes circulation of our International edition). So 84 in all.”

That’s up from 60 in Beijing, he said:  “With the growth of the USAT Sports Media Group, we now include US Presswire (all-sports photo agency that we bought last year) and are fully coordinated with our Broadcast team on the video side so that’s where the growth is.”

However, even though it is increasing its digital presence, Morgan said the newspaper remains the prime focus.

“We see the newspaper as the sizzle reel for all the work appearing across our digital platforms,” Morgan said. “We will be creating much more content on a daily basis than we can hope to publish in print, and of course we don’t print every day, so the newspaper can’t be our only focus. But it is still our flagship product that best differentiates our content for the audience.”


Those appear to be the extreme cases of high and low. Most papers are somewhere in between, probably more on the low side.

For example, the Chicago Tribune has dropped from 15 staffers in 2000 to 9 in Beijing to 5 (all writers) in London this year.

The reason? “Economics. Like so many,” said Mike Kellams, the Tribune’s associate managing editor for sports.

However, Kellams stressed the Olympics remains a priority to the Tribune.

“I’m also trying to strike the balance between news (not just events) and analysis,” Kellams said. “For the first time, we’ll better exploit Phil Hersh’s Olympic expertise (covering his 16th Olympics) by allowing him to write columns each day from the Games. I expect those to be smart and insightful as we know Phil’s work to be. I also expect it will be the kind of Olympic stories that only someone with his vast experience can first recognize and then tell to our readers.”

Minneapolis’ Crevier said the modern newspaper has to play the role of looking ahead in its Olympic coverage.

“I think it is important for print publications to look ahead to what is happening today,” Crevier said. “With a five-hour time difference, results and game coverage will seem stale in the daily paper the next day.”


When asked about staffing for the games, Mark Jones, director of communications for the USOC, said interest remains strong in coverage for the Olympics.

“No one is immune to the changes that have occurred in the media landscape, but interest and coverage of the Games seems to continue to be a priority,” Jones said.

The difference, he said, is that more sports web sites are staffing the Games than ever before. has a made a big commitment for the first time.

“We continue to see changes in the media landscape and certainly have more and more Internet-only news organizations accredited for the Olympic Games and covering the Games,” Jones said.






Pressure to fill Ebersol’s shoes: NBC’s Larazus now squarely in Olympics spotlight

It’s finally here.

After all the countdowns, hype and preparation, the opening ceremonies are set for Friday.

Few people will be feeling the pressure more in London than Mark Lazarus. All the NBC Sports chairman has to do is step into the huge Olympics TV legacy left by Dick Ebersol.

Here’s my look at Lazarus and NBC in a story that also ran Sunday in the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune:


Mark Lazarus is an affable man, but he seems to prefer to be in the background.

The Olympics, though, will thrust him squarely in the intense spotlight created, in part, by his predecessor, Dick Ebersol.

Lazarus, 48, takes control when NBC begins its massive coverage of the Summer Olympics next week. When Ebersol resigned suddenly in a contract dispute in May, 2011, Lazarus stepped in as chairman of the NBC Sports Group; Ebersol will be on hand as a consultant in London.

Lazarus joins a select group. With a couple of exceptions (yes, CBS actually tabbed Tim McCarver to be a co-host for the ’92 Winter Games), Olympic television coverage in the U.S. has been guided by two men: Roone Arledge and Ebersol.

Arledge designed the up-close-and-personal template of getting Americans to develop a bond with the athletes during his Olympic TV days at ABC. His protégé, Ebersol, refined the approach to accommodate a seemingly endless amount of coverage during nine Olympics for NBC.

Lazarus now is charged with shepherding 5,535 hours of coverage across NBC’s multiple platforms. He ultimately will be held responsible for producing ratings and, just as important, critical acclaim for the network’s $1.18 billion investment in these Games.

Indeed, it is a daunting, if not overwhelming task. During a recent press conference in New York, which included his boss, Steve Burke, the CEO of NBC Universal, Lazarus seemed taken aback when asked about the potential for his Olympics legacy. NBC now has the rights for the Summer and Winter Games through 2020.

“I don’t think you can create a legacy with one Games,” Lazarus said. “So my strong preference is to be invited back to do the next one.”

Unlike Ebersol, who had an extensive production background, Lazarus worked his way up through the business side of the industry. He was president of Turner Entertainment Group before coming over to NBC.

So Lazarus won’t be literally calling every shot as Ebersol did; he doubled as executive producer during his Olympics run. Lazarus will consult with Ebersol, who uncharacteristically is keeping a low profile, denying media requests for interviews.

“My job is to help steward this enormous, talented team to help make judgments and decisions on where we’re going to air product and how we’re going to air product,” Lazarus said.

Lazarus did register a big first impression with his decision to make everything available live on (with the exception of the opening and closing ceremonies). Previously, Ebersol had resisted real-time digital coverage for the marquee sports such as track, swimming and gymnastics, preferring to save it all the network’s prime-time telecasts.

However, when it comes to content, Lazarus isn’t looking to reinvent the Olympic wheel. Indeed, virtually every main cog of the NBC machine in London, from executive producer Jim Bell to host Bob Costas, was nurtured under Ebersol.

“What did I learn from Dick?” Bell said. “Oh, let’s see. Only everything.”

Ebersol taught Bell pacing (“keep it moving”), the importance of planning down to the minute for the primetime telecast, and how to change those plans when the unexpected occurs.

At the core, carrying the link back to Arledge, is storytelling, Bell said.

The Olympics doesn’t deliver a typical sports audience. According to its surveys, NBC says 69 million people who tuned into the Beijing Olympics in 2008 never watched a single NFL football game that season. Typically, women make up more than half the viewership for an Olympics.

“Storytelling is the guiding principle of Olympic coverage,” Bell said. “You’re talking about sports that most people don’t follow. So it is important to personalize those athletes.”

Ultimately, regardless of all the planning, NBC needs good, compelling stories from the competition. NBC’s rating built as swimmer Michael Phelps continued his bid for eight gold medals in 2008. NBC could use similar storylines in 2012.

“By one-hundredth of a second or less, in the second of eight gold medal races, if Michael Phelps take silver there, his teammates take silver in a relay race, then the whole storyline changes,” Costas said.  “And that undoubtedly diminishes the rating.”

Thanks to creative scheduling in Beijing, NBC was able to air swimming and other events live in primetime. That won’t be the case in London (eight hours ahead of Los Angeles).

Without live coverage in primetime, Lazarus said ratings for this year’s Olympics likely will be lower than 2008. And even with the massive amount of commercials, NBC still expects to lose money on the Games, he said.

Lazarus will be held ultimately accountable from all angles. Typically, he tried to downplay his role.

“I don’t have an individual goal on the mark I want to leave on the games,” Lazarus said.  “I think that we want to come out of this with a sense that the viewing population of America says, ‘That was a fun two weeks, I can’t wait to do it again.’”

Yet Lazarus knows—everyone knows—what is at stake for him as head of his first Olympic. If things go awry, Costas, noting that the 2014 Winter Games are in a remote part of Russia, warned Lazarus of the consequences.

“You’re going to Sochi, if only as punishment,” Costas said.