FLORIDA — Last month, Dalton Tevlin, the sports director at Florida International University’s student newspaper, wrote a scathing column announcing PantherNOW would not be covering the football team at all this upcoming season in response to the school’s athletics communications office repeatedly ignoring reporters’ requests for comment.
Tevlin said 12 minutes after the Aug. 29 article was posted online, Assistant Director for Athletic Communications Tyson Rodgers messaged him, telling him PantherNOW had full press credentials for the 2019-20 season. The paper has since resumed coverage of the team and was in the press box for the home opener.
Rodgers, however, denied his office ever withheld access. He said he texted Tevlin after he saw the article and told him their credentials were never held up.
“I texted him that morning and I said ‘hey Dalton your passes have never been revoked.’ We already had them made and sitting in the office ready to go for the first game,” Rodgers said.
The recent spat between PantherNOW and the FIU Athletic Department is just another chapter in a long, complicated relationship.
We just couldn’t get any access to the team, whatsoever.
Tevlin said this recent dust-up stems from an April 3 article by last year’s sports director Zoe Chin. The story was about FIU running back Shawndarrius Phillips practicing with the team even though he was facing a domestic battery charge for allegedly choking and threatening his ex-girlfriend.
Phillips played the entire previous season, minus FIU’s bowl game with an outstanding arrest warrant in the next county over, according to The Miami Herald.
“It seems like since [that story ran] we just couldn’t get any access to the team, whatsoever,” Tevlin said.
Rodgers said the article about Phillips seemed strange because the initial news of his arrest broke in December and their story didn’t come out until April. However, PantherNOW reported new information in their story: that Phillips was back practicing with the team.
Rodgers noted Phillips is no longer on the team.
He added that regardless of what a news outlet reports, he said he doesn’t hold grudges against them for it.
“We might not like an article but that’s not going to have any bearing on how we treat other media outlets. We want to treat them all the same and give them fair access,” Rodgers said.
Tevlin, a senior journalism major, has worked at the paper for more than two years and assumed the sports director role in May. He’s not the first director to get the cold shoulder from the athletic department.
“Directors before me have faced it — the only ones that haven’t were the ones who were basically an extension of their PR team,” he said. “Here at FIU there’s just been a history with athletics where they look at us as an extension of their PR platform.”
Tevlin said the athletic communications office has never worked to directly censor the newspaper. Instead, the staff just doesn’t pick up the phone.
“They’re very sneaky with it because they never say you’re not allowed to cover us, they just ignore us,” he said.
Rodgers said his staff has lost two full-time workers, stretching his workload across all 18 FIU sports teams. He said every now and then he just misses a text and he has never intentionally ignored PantherNOW.
“I text back sometimes and sometimes I miss texts because I get 30 texts a day,” he said. “I even miss my mother’s texts. So it’s not just the media.”
Tevlin recalled a media day event where he said he reached out to Rogers for credentials, but didn’t get any response back, even though every other local news outlet ended up covering it.
Rodgers said that event was put out on Twitter and the internet, and it’s typically for media who doesn’t regularly cover the team. He said PantherNOW was more than welcome to come.
“We would not have barred them. I don’t know why they weren’t there,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers has been at FIU since May 2018. Tevlin accused him and his office of “blocking the only student voice that the university has,” but says Rodgers isn’t any different than those who filled the role before him and the problem starts at the top of the athletic department.
“This guy Tyson Rogers is just one of many, many athletic communications people who have tried to shut us out,” Tevlin said. “His job is to make the team look good and our job is to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth doesn’t make them look good.”
Here at FIU there’s just been a history with athletics where they look at [the student paper] as an extension of their PR platform.
Tevlin said FIU “received a lot of criticism after that column,” and it caused quite a stir among local journalists and media. Five lawyers have also reached out to him, he said.
He also defended PantherNOW’s coverage of FIU football.
“There’s a lot of stories that we run that people will say we’re complaining or we’re anti-university, but we’re just doing our jobs as journalists,” he said.
“Right now everything’s good,” Tevlin said about covering FIU’s first two contests. “They’re treating us like royalty when we go to the games.”
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino
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