March Madness Hightlights Problems for College Sportswriters

By: Allan Wolper

Writer or Rooter? Image Maker or Image Breaker? Journalist or Jock Supporter? Ethical questions that would drive any chronicler of college round ball totally nuts ? especially during March Madness.

Students, alumni, and school officials like to see their campus paper
in lock step with the painted faces in the stands: writing prose to promote the team no matter what they do or are accused of doing on or off the field. That is especially true during the month of madness because The National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament is used by schools to recruit top athletes and increase their enrollments.

Colleges and universities don?t want their teams tarred by allegedly non-playing, bespectacled sports writing geeks. That?s why sports information directors ? SID?s to the know-it-alls — are so happy to have to power to decide who and how many student journalists are accredited to cover the basketball madness.

No one I spoke to at either the NCAA or any watchdog group can recall any recent incidents in which a student sportswriter was denied credentials for covering the basketball madness. But they worry about
it nonetheless.

?It is an implicit threat,? Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit group that handles First Amendment problems on high school and college campuses. ?And it certainly affects the coverage of the teams.?

Student journalists know that an investigative story on a big time player might cost their school a chance to win the tournament as well as millions of dollars in prize money. They are often conflicted about what constitutes a sports scandal.

A midwest student editor once told me he was about to write a story about a star basketball player on an NCAA bound tournament team who he had seen cheating on an exam, then changed his mind. Why?

?There were three other people who also were cheating,? he said. ?I didn?t think it would be fair to single him out. I might have, though, if we were doing a piece on cheating.?

It was the right thing to do. Its no surprise that student editors want their schools to win. But not at any price.

?We are not homers [writers who cheer for the home team],? Nick Zaccardi, the sports editor for The independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida daily newspaper at Gainesville, told me. ?That is the worst insult you can call anybody. It?s something we talk about all the time.?

It is a challenge these days to play devil?s advocate in Gainesville: the home of the defending National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball team. But the Alligator?s sports corps tries to avoid bleeding Florida blue.

?We have a rule,? Zaccardi said. ?If you are caught walking on campus wearing team colors, that is grounds for firing. We are not out to get anybody, but we won?t shield any players who do anything wrong.?

All this posturing might be a bit different, Zaccardi acknowledges, if he were editing the Daily Illini, the school paper of the University of Illinois team he grew up rooting for in Chicago. He admits, ?It would be harder for me, but it wouldn?t change the way I do my job. We are not supposed to tell readers what to think. Our job is to tell them what to think about.?

Separating oneself from the madding crowd is a painful process.

Scott Woods, the editor-in-chief of The Lantern at Ohio State, the headquarters of the team favored to win this year?s NCAA tournament,
has to keep himself from jumping up every time his Buckeyes score an important basket.

?I grew up a Buckeye fan,? Woods said, explaining how hard it is for
him to keep his emotions in check when he covers a game. ?Last year I went to a tailgate party with a team jersey on, but I never wear it at the press box.?

But the longer he covers sports, the more he wants to unravel the protective shield that university has put up around its football (this year?s national champions) and its basketball teams. ?They keep the players hidden from us,? Woods said.

He was livid when he learned that his writers would have to ask the sports information department for credentials to the NCAA basketball tournament. ?I couldn?t believe that the school could have the power to decide who covers their events,? he said.

The sports grownups outside the ivory towers also submit their list of writers to university public relations types, but don?t have to worry about being shut out because they can use their clout with the NCAA to get credentials to cover the madness games.

The best way to handle censor happy sports information directors is to humiliate them. Which is precisely what The Daily Evergreen at Washington State University did last fall when the school?s sports information director wouldn?t give them access to the football team.

“We ran a headline that said, ‘WSU, 36, Stanford, 10,’ over a space that said, ‘Evergreen reporters were unable to provide additional coverage due to space limitations.'” Nick Eaton, editor-in-chief of the Evergreen who was the paper?s copy chief last semester, recalled. ?We felt that what they were doing was a disservice to our readers.”

Educating a campus to the role of a journalist is a tricky proposition.

?We have to explain to people that we are not cheerleaders,? said Joe Schwartz, editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel at The University of North Carolina, another basketball powerhouse. ?We don?t go to the game with pom poms. We?re not here to say one of our teams tried real hard when they get beat by 25 points.?

But tradition trumps journalism for the Chapel Hill school when it comes to dealing with Duke ? its Durham rival down a ways on tobacco road. ?We want our conference (Atlantic Coast Conference) to win,? Schwartz said. ?We root for everyone except Duke.?

Make no mistake. Being a so-called SID isn?t easy. They have their issues, too. Unlike their elder brethren at sports desks in the real world
who tend to gain tenure at their job, student sports editors change almost every school year.

?We have to meet with them at the beginning of each season,? said Doug Dull, the president of the College Sports Information Directors of America (COSIDA) and the SID at the University of Maryland. His biggest problem? ?Their news judgment,? he laughed. ?They?re always dredging up stories that we think have gone by the way side. But they take their jobs very seriously and we see them as important media outlets.?

No question about that. Student sports writers and editors live and study within the cloistered halls of academe. They often hear and see
things universities would rather keep under wraps. The smart big time papers know that. Which is why they hire so many of the students as part timers ? using them as journalism Trojan horses.

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