Teams, Players, Reporters and the Truth

I was walking through the Jacksonville Bulls locker room in 1985 when running back Mike Rozier started a NSFW tirade toward me about something I had said on TV the night before.  In the course of his screaming he threatened to kill me, have me killed, “mess me up” and a variety of other unprintable things.

At the time, the Bulls had a defensive back named Don Bessillieu who was vocally unhappy with his contract and had threatened to “drop interceptions on purpose” until the Bulls gave him a new deal.  I thought that was so silly I said, on the air “That’d be like Mike Rozier saying he was going to fumble on purpose until he got a new deal.”  Rozier was the workhorse of the Bulls, carrying the ball 320 times for over 1,300 yards and catching another 50 balls out of the backfield. So he was their star and whatever he was screaming at me, he didn’t like me using “Rozier” and “fumble” in the same sentence.

Maybe he was sticking up for his teammate, maybe he was actually mad at me, but I saw it as just doing my job, a blend of information, commentary and entertainment on TV every night. It wasn’t the first, nor the last time I’d been threatened by somebody I’d been reporting on. I didn’t think I needed to report that and without any social media, Rozier and I worked it out in a “very clos” face-to-face” with a liberal exchange of ideas.  Remember, Mike and I are about the same age.

It was a very different time in media.  “Reporters” were just that, people who considered their job to “report” what was going on, not render constant opinions or take sides.  We were the public’s access to the closed worlds of sports, politics, entertainment and other cloistered societies.

I’ve had numerous veterans of every sport say to me, “I’m glad camera phones weren’t around when I played.”  Some say it with a laugh referring to their off the field excursions, others are glad practices were only watched by coaches and not recorded by teams and reporters attending, documenting their every move.

Last week there was a bit of a firestorm when the beat writer for the TU posted a camera phone video of the post-practice altercation between Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue.  The reporter was working inside the restrictions placed on him by the team, wasn’t breaking any rules, and was simply doing his job.  Posting the video was an editorial decision that followed the guidelines of what they think constitutes “news.”

The Jaguars, just like every other team, have very specific rules about reporters attendance at practice, where we can stand, when we can or can’t obtain video and when social media posts are acceptable.  They send us a written outline at the beginning of the year.  The players are aware that these training camp practices are open to the media.  That changes when camp ends and reporters are only allowed at practice for the first ten minutes or so.

All reporters, me included, have been privy to information, visuals, pictures, video, conversations and a million other things that we haven’t reported.  If the information isn’t about somebody breaking the law or endangering somebody else, it’s a news judgment about the public’s “right to know.”

I’ve said often that most organizations would like to manage information about their product and “break” news themselves on their social media accounts and on their own web sites.  That would mean excluding independent reporters from practices, locker rooms and player/coach access. Most leagues have rules against that so it’s not happening. Over the last ten-years most college locker rooms have been closed with the players and coaches being delivered in rooms or hallways to reporters. Players in individual sports are trying to manage stories about them by only making announcements on their own media platforms.

Some of that is just the changing time.  But some of that goes against what the job of reporters is supposed to be.  Developing sources, culling through the truth, the self-promotion and outright lies is what’s supposed to be part of our jobs.

Even the word “media” doesn’t mean the same that it did as little as 15 years ago.  While “the media” used to be considered independent reporting organizations, it’s now a blanket description for just about anybody with a microphone, a camera or a computer.  Much of what is called “the media” these days is actually somebody who’s just covering the coverage. Talking to coaches and players, seeing what happens in practice and talking to players gives the actual “reporters” a sense of the nuance of what’s actually happening.

As much as many of those people are friends of mine, some of the media now is considered people who actually work the for organizations they’re covering.  A writer or broadcaster who works for a team’s digital media outlets operates under a different set of rules than those who are from “the outside.”

Having said that, when I’ve gotten a paycheck from sports organizations for doing their play-by-play (including the Jaguars) or something else. I’ve never been told what to say or how to say it.  Bulls Head Coach Lindy Infante didn’t like it when I was hosting his show and asked him a question about his future when the team was 6 games under .500 and told the show’s producer. But we re-set the ground rules and he understood that was part of my job.

And that’s a question often asked by players or coaches who don’t like the critical nature of some commentary. Are reporters supposed to be fans?  Are they only there to spread sunshine about a team or an organization? Reporters have to make that judgment almost every day, what is actual news, good or bad.

I had a former Mayor call me one night and tell me I needed to “get on board” with his agenda. “That’s your job,” he said.  “We need to talk to my boss,” I responded.  “Because they think it’s something totally different.”

So viewers and readers have to make up their own minds about what’s reporting, what’s promotion and what’s just somebody else’s opinion. While it’s more work than it used to be for the news consumer, you can find the truth in there somewhere.  There’s a lot of information available for smart, honest people.  The truth is out there. Find it.