I was chatting with a friend who advises an East Coast university newspaper this morning about college sports journalism education. He mentioned the uncertainty students have about interviewing student-athletes. They ask him questions, such as: “Is it legal to go up and interview a player away from the field?” “Do reporters need to go through the sports information director?” “Is it OK to ask an athlete questions in class?”
Times have certainly changed since both of us had started in sports journalism. Blame social media, increased media coverage and crazy revenue opportunities. As a result, sports information directors often limit access to players, concerned for their kids’ privacy and also that these youngsters might comment inappropriately. Social media, in particular, can be a nightmare scenario for SIDs.
Before talking with athletes, first introduce yourself to the sports information director at your school – not because it’s required but because it’s the smart thing to do. If nothing else, journalism (re: life) is about developing relationships. You develop these relationships in the usual way: by introducing yourself (preferably in person), by regularly hanging out, by being candid, by being trustworthy and consistent, by being there for both good times and bad, by being fair, by not being too quick to judge, by acting (and dressing) appropriately, and by being accessible yourself when these sources are not happy with you. If you write a column that angers players, for example, make sure you go to the next practice or game, if only to show you are not going to run and hide. It’s always better to allow sources to vent quickly. (That’s advice even Dear Abby could likely embrace.)
So let’s return to those original questions: No, of course, you do not need permission to speak with athletes – or anybody else, for that matter. But if you continue to interview athletes without introducing yourself to SIDs, you might find athletes will stop talking based on instructions from the athletic department – especially athletes at revenue-producing sports like football and basketball at large, successful programs. (That’s not to say these sports produce revenue at every school, by the way, but that’s a post for another time.)
Should you ask athletes questions in class? I’d avoid this because athletes will see you as a fellow student in class. Unless you are holding an open reporters notebook or are extending a recording device, sources should justifiably assume they are speaking off the record. So if you ask the starting point guard how he’s feeling, and he replies that he probably won’t be able to play that night because his ankle is still sore, you really shouldn’t report that conversation. That’s not to say that you can’t ask that same question later before or after practice. Just be sure that athletes understand whom they are talking with each time you chat: reporter, student, dorm resident, etc.