7 tips for covering college sports

When University at Buffalo football player Scott Pettigrewwas stabbed at a downtown nightclub Oct. 9, the university’s athleticdepartment immediately sent out notifications to student athletes telling themnot to speak to the press.

To Matthew Parrino, editor in chief of TheSpectrum, the university’s student newspaper, it was clear it wasgoing to be another battle for access between the paper and the sportsinformation office.

“There was an immediate cease-to-speak order put oneverybody in athletics over there,” Parrino said. “They didn’t want any of thestudents talking. We ended up having to send out our reporters to the studentunions to find athletes.”

Spectrum adviser Jody Kleinberg-Biehl said thepaper has long had access issues with the athletic department.

“As we were attempting to interview people about it, theathletic department first of all refused to comment about it,” Kleinberg-Biehlsaid. “Second of all, as we were speaking to other student athletes they sentout an email to all of the students telling them not to speak to us aboutanything.”

Parrino said he contacted Pettigrew at his home to discussthe stabbing. The player was willing to talk, and even submit a photo forpublication.

“They told him not to give it to us. [We told him], ‘Peopleare saying you’re dead. People want to know what happened,’” Parrino said.

Parrino and Kleinberg-Biehl said it’s unclear whetherPettigrew faced any punishment for supplying the photo.

University at Buffalo Athletics representatives did notrespond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

“The problem is we feel like it’s been an issue for years,”Parrino said. “We’re kind of hamstrung [because] they are very guarded aboutit.”

The conflict at Buffalo isn’t an isolated one, in anathletic environment at some schools where anything but positive coverage canresult in the restriction of player access.

“[The athleticdepartment’s] argument is that these are athletes and they don’t want them tosay anything that can be taken against them,” Kleinberg-Biehl said. “Myargument is that they’re being interviewed by their fellow students. It’s notprofessionals interviewing. It’s college students.”

The Spectrum also tried to write profiles onathletes who have children, but the athletic department refused to cooperateand told student athletes they could not, either.

“We’ve written editorials about it (access). But it’s adifficult problem because the more we write about them, the less we get fromthem,” Kleinberg-Biehl said. “It’s a problem every semester.”

Kelli Hadley, editor in chief of The Argonaut,the University of Idaho’s student newspaper, said she was warned when she tookthe position that athletic restrictions are an issue.

“They rarely flat-out refuse us to talk to anybody,” Hadleysaid. “[But] there were a couple times where we couldn’t get access to anathlete in time and we wanted an interview in a story at the last minute and Ihappened to know one of the athletes. They really frowned upon that. Theyreally don’t like that.”

Insisting that access to players and games be run throughmedia relations can put journalists in a bind when those spokespeople aren’tavailable. Hadley said sports information officials have occasionally forgottento return the newspaper’s phone calls.

“There have been a couple times where a reporter of mine hastried to get access to a practice or a game and maybe the media relationsperson ‘accidently’ forgot to call them back or didn’t get to them in time,”Hadley said. “That’s kind of the case with certain sports over others.”

Deal with university PR

Jill Riepenhoff, an investigative reporter for the ColumbusDispatch, said it’s important for student journalists to haveconversations with editors and sports information directors when dealing withrestricted access.

“I often deal with the head communication person for theuniversity as a whole – whoever that person is, although they don’t necessarilyspeak on behalf of athletics I’ll go to them anyway – and they tend to be muchmore helpful and they don’t have those nitpicky things like, ‘I don’t like theway you asked Coach that question last week,’” Riepenhoff said.

Problems with sports information directors are not limitedto student journalists, she added.

“Across the country, especially at the bigger universities,[SIDs] play and exist in this kind of secretive world,” Riepenhoff said. “Theyare not used to getting public records requests, they’re just not used to thosekinds of things, they’re used to answering how many yards did the running backget in the game and did it break a record or something like that.”

Call for backup

Riepenhoff suggests student reporters hitting access wallsshould work together with other local media.

“You can bring more voices to the table of ‘how do we getbeyond this’ or ‘what’s the process that we can set up so we can get records orget information or get what we need.’”

Establish a rapport

Riepenhoff believes student journalists can help buildrelationships with SIDs by following through on public record requests.

“Establishing a rapport is very important,” she said. “Theyknow that you’re going to be there. When you ask for records, you’re going tolook at them, you’re going to pick them up, and that helps with credibility.Sometimes they’ll chase all this stuff down, and then the reporter is like,‘Nevermind, not important.’”

Work the beat

Riepenhoff also said students covering sports should followbest practices when covering any beat – meet with key officials in the athleticdepartment, discuss story ideas and things the sports department is excitedabout and ask plenty of questions.

“If you’re on campus and you’re covering the athleticdepartment, you really need to go meet these people face to face,” Riepenhoffsaid. “Having those initial conversations will really help a lot.”

Expect openness

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reportersand Editors, said despite privacy concerns student journalists should expecttransparency from athletic departments.

“You should have the same expectation of getting publicinformation from the sports department that you can about any otherdepartment,” Horvit said. “There are going to be limitations about informationyou can get about individual players based on certain information based onappropriate privacy concerns.”

One of the most common legal hurdles reporters face isFERPA, the federal student privacy law. The Family Educational Rights andPrivacy Act allows the Department of Education to pull funding from schoolsthat have practice of releasing confidential “education records” — though thedepartment has never actually done so.

Freedom of information and privacy advocates continue tospar over what information should truly be private, a debate that frequentlytakes place in court. Organizations like the Student Press Law Center providefree legal assistance to student reporters facing FERPA roadblocks.

Horvit said students facing aggressive sports informationofficials should “continue to do the journalism.”

“Often times students run into sports departments going farbeyond what the law allows and too often students just don’t understand whatthe rules are,” Horvit said.

Horvit said journalists should not be intimidated by threatsover access, adding that most disputes ease over time.

“I’ve heard of cases where sports information offices havethreatened and have in fact cut off access to practices and other things forstudent news organizations that have either done stories they didn’t like orpushed on topics that concerned them,” Horvit said. “In those cases, the bestthing to do is to continue to do the journalism and in just about every caseI’ve ever heard of, ultimately the students are invited back because a) that’swhat’s appropriate and b) the team wants the coverage.”

Go over their heads

Horvit also suggests student journalists contactadministrators outside of the athletic department to seek relief if therestrictions threaten the quality of student journalism.

“Your newspaper, your organization, is every bit asimportant as whatever it is the sports department is doing,” Horvit said.

Keep doing journalism

Access restrictions based on negative coverage are neveracceptable, said Joe Gisondi, author of the “Field Guide to Covering Sports”and associate professor at Eastern Illinois University.

“If there’s a situation where a sports information officeror athletics office is taking away credentials or taking away access to teamsor players based purely upon negative coverage, clearly that’s unacceptable,”Gisondi said. “That’s not the way you should be running sports information oran athletics department.”

Gisondi said college-level sports reporters often just relyon athletics departments to give them all the facts.

“Most public relations people are going to spin it in somemanner so that it’s not so negative, so at that point sports journalists needto be journalists. Too often they just go to the SID and expect the SID to givethem everything,” Gisondi said. “They go to the game, they want the stats, andnot enough sports journalists at the college level are acting as journalists inthese cases.”

Horvit, Gisondi and Riepenhoff all agreed that the mostimportant thing is to continue to do good journalism – even in the face of accessrestrictions.

“If somebody gets arrested, they need to go pull policereports,” Gisondi said. “Be reporters. You can’t expect the sports informationdirector to give you all that information.”

By Nathan Hardin, SPLC staff writer