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.”