Writing about sports for a living isn’t as dreamy as it seems. Generally speaking, the hours are lousy, the money is lacking and editors’ appetite for “clickable” content can seem insatiable. As consumers, though, we lap it up and rely on them as our sources of information.
But this weekend, maybe because of personal vendettas against a coach with a long history of erratic, at best, media relations and maybe because of the need to “feed the beast” with content that drives web traffic, some sportswriters ventured into an area where they showed ignorance more than insight.
Syracuse University Head Basketball Coach Jim Boeheim didn’t participate in a post-game news conference after his team’s last game of the season, the day after he was the subject of a blistering report on violations found by investigators from the NCAA after a lengthy process. The report is both ugly and controversial and the University has said that Boeheim plans to appeal at least part of the penalties. Multiple sportswriters ripped Boeheim for not answering media questions. Instead, the University issued a statement attributed to Boeheim and made top Assistant Coach Mike Hopkins available to answer questions about the game.
On the surface, this appears to violate high-level fundamentals of PR. And, on the surface and out of context, I agree with why journalists would be critical. However, in the Real World and in context, these sportswriters prove that they are ignorant to the factors that go into this type of decision-making. Unless you have sat in the conference rooms and participated in the conference calls, drafted and redrafted statements and gone toe-to-toe with administrators and legal counsel, you have no idea. We have done all of those things and, simply, in this case, the sportswriters don’t know what they don’t know.
Based on previous experience I can confidently say that the post-game press conference decision was not Boeheim’s alone, as sportswriters have alleged. This was a University decision made by a relatively large group of “main campus” and athletic administrators, PR people, most importantly, lawyers. They weighed all of the factors and, in order of magnitude, they very likely were:
-Legal: Make sure Boeheim doesn’t say anything that can be used against him in his appeal
-Human: After an emotional game, coaches (especially this one) can be emotional. Lawyers and PR pros would agree that emotional should be minimized in the wake of the NCAA report.
-Appearances: Balancing whether Boeheim as a no-show, with Hopkins still available as a “face” to talk about the game itself, would be worse than Boeheim providing “no comment” after “I can’t comment” and “It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment” in likely snarky fashion (see the human factor) on a loop on SportsCenter.
In cases like this, lawyers typically dominate the discussion. In fact, based on our experience, they are “undefeated, career” to use sports parlance, in these situations. PR people just have to advocate for the best deal possible for the media and public constituencies important to them, (but not at all to the lawyers).
The University would have helped matters if they had been able to add “On the advice of counsel, because of a pending appeal to the NCAA” somewhere in Boeheim’s statement. But, overall, this was handled by Syracuse in the way just about any school would have. The reality, at least for now, is that the school will be a “lighting rod” and should get used to being the subject of sportswriting, even when the writers step out of bounds.