On Valentine’s Day, University of Michigan basketball player Daniel Hortonpleaded guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for allegedly chokinghis girlfriend in December 2004.
When the Michigan Daily studentnewspaper reported his plea, subsequent sentencing and suspension from the team,athletic department officials contacted the newspaper with a message thatsurprised Editor in Chief Jason Presick.
“They were very complimentary of ourcoverage because the Detroit Free Press had published the girlfriend’sname and we didn’t,” he said. “They were expressing to us how happy theywere.”
Presick said the overture was unusual because the athletic departmentusually remains tight-lipped about issues involving athletes that occur off thecourt.
“The athletic department is pretty closed in general,” he said.”Whenever we want a comment it’s pretty difficult to [get].”
In themicrocosmic societies of college and university campuses, where student athletesattract attention like Paris Hilton at a fashion show, athleticdepartments–particularly the officials managing the men’s basketball andfootball teams–wield tremendous power. In general, these programs bothproduce and require more of a school’s revenue than other sports, draw thelargest, most raucous crowds, and lose the most players to professional leaguesbefore they graduate.
Presick, like student journalists at other schoolswhere star players have run afoul of the law, describes an unofficial, no-accesspolicy enforced by athletic department officials and campus policedepartments.
“With football sometimes they’ll have press conferences and fourathletes will come,” he said. “Basketball is a little better because there’s afew games a week so you’re in situations where you’ll run into them more often.With football, there’s one game a week and the athletic department keeps themaway from the press. It’s not that they choose not to talk to us, [but] theathletic department keeps them away. That’s my understanding.”
TheUniversity of Wisconsin at Madison’s policy governing athlete interviews iscommon at larger universities. Justin Doherty, director of athleticcommunications, said the athletic department instructs new recruits to referreporters asking for interviews to the department, which will schedule aninterview or reject the news outlet’s request.
“We know who are legitimatemedia,” he said. “It’s also our job to help our athletes in an educational sensein learning how to conduct an interview, how to conduct themselves when speakingto somebody. We don’t tell them, ‘Say this’ or ‘Say that.’ A lot of them haven’thad experience with [interviews] and it can be an intimidating thing for an 18or 19-year-old to be surrounded by 30 reporters after a game or at a pressconference.”
Presick said the Michigan athletic department’s silence hasresulted in lopsided coverage of Horton’s criminal proceedings. Horton’s lawyer,who loudly protested the school’s decision to suspend him for the season’s lasthandful of games, was the newspaper’s chief source for manystories.
“[Attorney Gerald Evelyn] seemed to enjoy talking to the press,”Presick said. “Sometimes we could fill a whole story with quotes from him, butthe athletic department wouldn’t comment.”
Adria Gonzalez, director of theFirst Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, Fla., said athletic departments do adisservice to students when they shut out the student press.
“[Studentnewspapers] are talking about their peers,” when they report on athletes, shesaid. “The press is just trying to provide information to people who care aboutit.”
Gonzalez compared athletic departments to public agencies whendescribing the importance of talking to journalists.
“We see [public agenciesrebuffing the press] a lot at the First Amendment Foundation because we dealwith open government and public records and a lot of times public agencies don’tappreciate reporters asking a lot of questions,” she said. “Instead of beingdefensive about it, they should appreciate that their citizens are beinginvolved and caring. It’s the same for students in their school–what’sgoing on with their programs, money and peers.”
At Wisconsin, basketballplayer Boo Wade was sentenced in March to 18 months of probation and mandatorydomestic violence counseling after allegedly choking an ex-girlfriend inFebruary 2004. The court has escalated his punishment because he failed tocomplete an anger management program for first-time offenders offered by thestate.
Cristina Daglas, editor in chief of the Badger Herald studentnewspaper, cites the campus police department’s reticence as the chief obstacleto the newspaper’s coverage of Wade’s arrest, trial and sentencing.
“There’sbeen no difficulty with documents, just difficulty with people,” she said. “It’svery difficult to get information out of them unless you talk to the one officerwho is dealing with the one complaint. They typically say, ‘Whatever you have iswhat we have’ and they won’t give any additional information.”
Daglas saidthe school’s athletic department is just as silent when players facecharges.
“Whenever it comes to an athlete being in trouble they are going tobe very tight-lipped,” she said. “They’ll make one comment just reiterating whatthe coach has already said. They’ll be good for stories when it comes to justcovering a game but when it comes to covering anything mildly scandalous, itwill be much more difficult.”
She said when athletic officials do speak up,the sound bites are rehearsed.
“They’ll release statements,” she said.”They’re really good at giving what you need for your briefs but you won’t getany more in depth than any other daily [newspaper] in the city of Madison willget.”
Doherty said when a student athlete faces criminal charges, theathletic department generally ceases to honor interview requests during theathlete’s suspension period and leaves players to manage their own mediacontacts.
“We had a guy who was suspended from football practice for eightspring practices,” Doherty said. “Once he was back practicing, he was availableto the media again. When they’re competing and active participants in theprogram [the athletic department handles interview requests]. When they’re not,it’s up to them.”
In one of the most dramatic examples of a studentathlete’s recent arrest, Pierre Pierce, leading scorer for the University ofIowa’s basketball team, allegedly broke into an ex-girlfriend’s Des Moinestownhouse in January, forced her to the floor, tore off her clothing, choked herand destroyed or stole $1,300 worth of furniture and electronics. The universitypermanently dismissed him from the basketball team. Pierce faces a maximum of 56years in prison on counts of first degree burglary, assault with intent tocommit sexual assault, criminal mischief and false imprisonment.
The staff ofthe Daily Iowan has encountered no trouble obtaining court documents,Editor in Chief Tony Robinson said. However, the athletic department has beengenerally cantankerous, he said.
“We have had problems with our athleticsdepartment in general,” he said. “I think they think we should be theirmouthpiece because we’re the student newspaper, but we have no ties to thembecause we’re independent and totally funded by our ads. We’ll write a columnabout one of the coaches and say that he’s not doing a good job, and the teamsucks, and then they’ll get mad at us and say, ‘You guys are hurtingrecruitment.’ And we say, ‘Well, we’re not your mouthpiece.'”
Studentreporters said that athlete arrests, which many athletic departments refuse tocomment on, are matters of public record. Gonzalez said the solution to thetense relationships between the newspapers and departments is more athleticdepartment access in such cases.
“I think openness would alleviate some ofthe animosity that is felt,” she said. “I understand [athletic departments]perhaps wanting to protect their students’ privacy, but if they’re trying tohide something else, that would make the student body a little more suspicious It would be helpful for them to be open with the press without hurting anyone’sprivacy.”
In the most extreme example of obstacles faced by collegejournalists, the staff of the Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma StateUniversity is wrangling over a football player’s sealed court documents in acase headed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court this summer.
In 2003, a female OSUstudent implicated running back Vernand Morency in her rape, and a universitypolice investigator filed an affidavit. Although the district attorney did notfile charges due to lack of evidence, the athletic department suspended Morencyfrom the football team. He sued the school to maintain his athletic eligibilitybut a trial court dismissed the case in September 2004 and sealed the courtdocuments–a measure approved by the university and Morency’s counsel.Morency left school to train for the NFL draft and, with the help of attorneyBob Nelon, O’Collegian staff reporter Sean Hill filed a motion to unsealthe documents. The court agreed and ordered the documents unsealed in January.Morency’s counsel appealed.
After a string of hearings and an unsuccessfulFebruary settlement conference between Nelon and Morency’s attorney, StephenJones, the case is on its way to the state supreme court. If both partiesexhaust their allotted preparation time, proceedings will begin in June. Aresolution could take several more months.
Nelon said the court documentscontain the names and information about other OSU students that the universitywants to stay sealed. In preparation for the original 2003 lawsuit against OSU,Morency’s counsel subpoenaed records from the school and included in subsequentbriefs information about other students that appears in the files. The school isworried about lawsuits should this information become public record, Nelonsaid.
“We felt Morency waived all rights he had to privacy of student recordsby choosing to [reveal information about other students] in a court file,” Nelonsaid.
Nelon also said he approves of removing the names and information ofother OSU students should the court rule to unseal the documents. Jonesdisagreed.
“It’s a simple matter,” he said. “The reason you seal and makematters confidential is to protect the integrity of the process. If you’re goingto unseal some of [the documents], you should unseal all of them. Allegedly, thepress is interested in this as the public’s right to know. If the public has aright to know, they have a right to know 100 percent.”
As campus celebrities,star athletes walk a fine line as arguable public figures. While fans thrill toread of their exploits on the athletic field, many are offended when studentnewspapers report their run-ins with the law, despite the arrest records’ statusas public documents.
Hill discovered the rape allegations directed at Morencywhile reporting on another of the football player’s legal fiascoes.
“I’d goneto the Payne County Courthouse to ask about another case,” Hill said. “Morencyhad been charged with accepting stolen property. I was going to ask aboutinformation in that case. [The clerk] said the case had been taken out of thesystem and expunged from his record, but they had this search warrant under hisname so they printed it off and gave it to me.”
The Daily O’Collegianran Hill’s story on the front page on Oct. 4, 2004, and the ensuing outcry fromstudent fans was immediate and strident. Hill said angry students flooded thenewsroom with complaints for two weeks.
“A lot of the e-mails would say ‘Idon’t know [Morency] personally but I hear he’s a great person,’ or ‘I don’tknow him personally but he’s a great football player,'” Hill said. “There were alot of ‘Why would you do this to a student?’ and ‘Why would you try to hurtsomeone?’ [Students] really surrounded him and the football team.”
One OSUsenior wrote: “I was shocked and outraged after picking up the paper on Monday,Oct. 4. How could anyone write such trash about Vernand Morency? He is having anoutstanding season and someone decided to go digging into his past. Everyone hasthings in their past that they do not want brought up. I am very disappointedthat his own school paper would throw this in his face!”
In response to thefan outrage over Hill’s story, the O’Collegian ran an editorialsupporting the coverage. Because arrest records are public documents, theeditorial said, anyone could go to the courthouse and peruse Morency’sfile.
Now that the case has reached a standstill, Hill and theO’Collegian staff are preparing the next crop of reporters to follow thecase.
“It would be of interest to the student body for the same reasons it’sof interest to the students who work at the newspaper–the fact that it’s asealed court case and we don’t know why,” Hill said. “We don’t know what’s inthere.”