As Media Coverage Increases, So Can Scrutiny of Your Programs
When high school basketball competition moves out of local gymnasiums into larger regional and state venues this month, heightened media attention will follow.
Some athletics administrators, coaches and players handle the March Madness media pressure better than others, however, as Mike Eisenberg would probably tell you. The recently reinstated girls' basketball coach at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, N.Y., was dubbed the "curse coach" by the New York Daily News when he was fired after the 1998 Public Schools Athletic League's Class A championship game.
During the first half of that game, Eisenberg was involved in a heated exchange with league director Thomas Hemans, who had ejected a Lewis player. Eisenberg then cursed during a live halftime interview, a lapse in judgment that contributed to his dismissal.
Even comments not made directly to the media—and in presumed private locations as innocuous as meeting rooms—can backfire. Phil Michael, athletic director at Pell City (Ala.) High School, faced calls for his ouster last year after making a comment about Pell City athletics during a school board work session.
"You cannot blame the coach, the athletic director, the superintendent or anyone else for a child's ability," Michael said at the time, reading a prepared statement.
"Parents are at fault for not spitting out the right-size athletes." The local media picked up on the quote, posted the story on the Associated Press newswire, and before long headlines such as "Prep AD Draws Criticism" began appearing in newspapers nationwide.
As members of the local press plan their basketball tournament coverage, it's important for high school administrators to stress to their coaches and players cooperation with reporters. "They have a job to do, just like you do. Make it easy for them," says Jim Flynn, an assistant executive director at the Illinois High School Association, who also spent 15 years as a prep-sports reporter for daily newspapers in the state.
That directive may seem more difficult to follow today than ever. Many newspaper sports editors and TV news sports directors contend that high school athletics merits as much coverage—if not more—off the field than on it. "There are more behind-the-scenes things to write about these days," Flynn says. "They make for good column material. You used to cover a big game and write a column about that."
Not anymore. With recruiting violations, eligibility infractions, coaching improprieties, temperamental fans and a host of other off-the-field issues dominating high school athletics, preps reporters don't have to dig deep for fodder. "In a perfect world, I'd like to see less reporting on the negative aspects of high school sports," says Bob Goldring, director of informational services for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. "But I can't really blame a reporter for going with the story if an issue is out there, right in front of him. I'm more irritated by columnists who criticize officials, players and coaches than by someone reporting a scandal or something that's actually factual. That's just the nature of journalism today, and we're stuck with it."
Fostering good relationships with media members on a regular basis, through such basic communication tasks as phoning in game results and making coaches and players available for postgame interviews (regardless of whether the team won or lost), could ease the scrutiny should a negative story break at your school.
With an increasing amount of time and space devoted to high school sports by local TV stations, newspapers and various Web sites, even scandal-free athletic programs can greatly benefit from organized and consistent contact with area media outlets.
Unfortunately, though, developing a rapport with the media isn't always a priority for athletic directors and coaches. "They have such a full platter in front of them, that working with the media may not be a big priority," Goldring says.
That's one of the reasons why the OHSAA publishes a handbook for tournament managers and athletic administrators called "Working With the Media." The annual no-frills guide, first issued in 1997, suggests ways in which media members and school officials can best communicate and work with each other. Initially developed by the OHSAA's Media Advisory Committee, whose members represent newspaper, radio, TV and Internet outlets throughout the state, the guide covers such topics as setting priorities when issuing press passes, pregame and postgame accommodations for reporters, game positioning for photographers and placement of radio and TV personnel.
"I think it is important for you to realize that our dealings with the media cannot be minimized," writes OHSAA Commissioner Clair Muscaro in a letter accompanying both the handbook and a pamphlet-sized public relations guide for coaches, which are each sent to member schools every fall. "While many of us may consider some of the requests from the media to be trivial or even petty, it cannot be emphasized enough that your cooperation with them is of paramount importance."
"The most difficult aspect of this is trying to change old habits," Goldring says. "It's not uncommon for some people to have hard feelings toward the media." He adds that some athletic directors are so reluctant to cooperate that reporters and photographers have to remind them about the space accommodations and telephone-access guidelines described in the OHSAA publications.
An example of effective communication between schools and media members happened recently in Illinois, when a photographer from a local newspaper complained that a particular gymnasium was poorly lit and requested permission to use a strobe light. The IHSA's News Media Advisory Committee took action by conducting photography experiments in the state's darkest and brightest gyms to determine whether some of the state's guidelines for press photographers needed amending.
That kind of cooperation is key, Flynn says. "Otherwise you'd have high school principals throwing photographers out and management of newspapers not working with local communities." While the OHSAA—which, like many state high school associations, has employed a public information specialist for less than a decade—simply offers suggestions for working with the media, the IHSA has mandatory media policies to which member schools must adhere. "When we developed the policies 27 years ago, we used the analogy that you wouldn't play a basketball game without the rules," explains Flynn. "We tell our schools that if you have a negative situation, you have to figure out how to address it. The media has the right to cover any stories it wants to."
These days, the association is covering its own stories, too. The IHSA has become a veritable media conglomerate, producing a radio show and operating its own TV network that airs state tournaments on most Illinois cable systems.
"When you create your own TV network, you've got expenses and a lot of responsibilities, but you also can present events in the way you'd like them presented," Flynn says.
What's more, nearly 100 Illinois radio stations carry three five-and-a-halfminute IHSA "Sports Report" segments every day. These efforts help spread awareness of high school sports and boost attendance, Flynn says.
Meanwhile, OHSAA administrators are still figuring out what works and what doesn't in media relations. "I think our approach has been a little slower than some other states," Goldring admits. For example, the 2000 state football tournament became a learning experience for the association, whose staff chose neutral game sites for the later rounds based on participants' and fans' needs. The stadium at Columbian High School in Tiffin was among the chosen sites, having recently undergone a renovation that brought the seating capacity to about 4,000, Goldring says. The upgrade, however, did not include enhancements to the press box, which only seats 12 to 15 media members.
The disparity forced reporters representing major Ohio dailies to sit outside in chilly temperatures, eliciting more than a few grumbles. Because Columbian was the site of several games, tournament officials eventually built a temporary press shelter with wooden siding and a roof.
"What makes this so hard is that each facility is a bit different," Goldring says. "I'd love to say you have to allow ‘x' number of reporters in, but that can't happen if the facility has a small press box or not enough room for working space after the game."
So the challenges continue. But for the most part, newspaper, radio and TV staff members are as cooperative as school officials themselves want to be. "As long as the media are allowed to do their jobs, there usually are no problems," Flynn says. "They respect that this isn't the NFL, the NBA or the NHL, and that it is part of the secondary education system. Our kids are not pros. They don't get paid to play. The reason kids are playing sports is that it's part of the learning process. As much of a cliché as that sounds, it's the truth."
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