Why do athletes feel as though they are under attack? What can journalists do to address this?

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America feels as though it is under siege right now.

The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who are eloquently, candidly and smartly addressing the concerns they have about gun violence in America, certainly do. As does the NRA, whose president says that the Second Amendment is being attacked. There’s also President Trump, who claims that the FBI investigation into his administration is a threat. And there are also millions of Americans, who are concerned about our election process being hacked by Russians. There are also smokers, drinkers, non-smokers, Christians, Muslims and agnostics who have, in their minds, grave concerns about attacks on their way of life.

Add athletes to this list.

This notion is not entirely new. Yesterday, the New York Times focused on the Players Tribune, which has emerged as a place where athletes can offer their stories, their way. The publication’s new CEO offers this amusing comment to the New York Times’ Amos Barshad: “These guys are the best in the world at what they do, and they can’t catch a break!”

He means, I suppose, that athletes can’t catch a break besides professional players being treated like royalty most anywhere they tread, getting paid on average anywhere from 38 to 112 times more than elementary school teachers and police officers, and getting numerous financial endorsements thanks to millions of adoring fans. Do athletes sometimes hear negative comments or receive coverage they believe is unfair? Who doesn’t in any profession? Stop by my university: I can show you several administrators and teachers who would be glad to vilify me.

Players also, apparently, have the same concerns as Shirley Rucker, a lovely woman who resided in Harvey, Ill., when I interviewed her several years ago as part of a series published in a regional newspaper.  Shirley, then 77 years old, shared stories about living in virtual slavery and perpetual poverty in Mississippi while working the fields in the Delta region. She bent over rows of cotton, tugging the white, fibrous balls from football-shaped pods, or bolls, and tossing them into a large sack slung over her shoulder that dragged behind in the dirt order to earn $2 for 12 hours. At the time we chatted, she ran a second-hand furniture store in Harvey, one of the worst cities for crime rate per capita in America. Yet, she raised eight kids who became very successful. Before I departed, she thanked Brian Poulter and me for being able to tell her story. “I always wanted to pass along my life story for my family,” she said.

In the New York Times article above, an athlete states: “The thing that keeps me up at night is that my legacy will only be what people see on the field. That they won’t know me for all the other things that are interesting to me.” And many others athletes said they agreed.

It’s easy to dismiss the concerns of multimillion dollar athletes. But that won’t resolve anything. So, really, why do players feel as though they are under siege?

bortlesThere are certainly examples of sports media who exaggerate and unfairly criticize – whether that is Barstool Sports proclaiming hatred toward Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson or Deadspin stating that Jaguars quarterback Black Bortles sucks. But personal attacks are still not the norm on these websites. The Twitterverse, conversely, is a hot mess of hostility and uneducated, mean trolls.

But there are also numerous wonderful stories about athletes, such as this sad, beautiful tale about former NFL player Jackie Wallace written by Ted Jackson, this piece about a young woman working hard to become a successful college football kicker, and this poignant, insightful piece by one of America’s top journalistic storytellers, John Branch, about one of the country’s most polarizing athletes, Colin Kaepernick. The Best American Sports Writing annual series features dozens of terrific sports stories, which are only a small percentage of the great work published in sports media each day.

So why the fear and loathing from athletes?

Most players respect the work of those who regularly spend their days in and around stadiums, often getting to know them personally. Typically, beat reporters and athletes have fairly good relationships. But there are always outliers – and, for this reason, I suppose the Players’ Tribune exists.

We need to ensure that our students are not among these outliers who confuse performance on the field with one’s persona or who demean athletes with commentary they believe to be witty. Anybody claiming to be a sports journalist must adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which states, among other things, that sports journalists should minimize harm, show compassion, avoid pandering to lurid curiosity and show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Real journalists seek truth, desire to be accurate, act independently, and quickly correct ethical mishaps and factual errors.

In other words, don’t be snarky, don’t report rumors, and don’t target athletes. Don’t, for example, report on minor infractions by student athletes if you would not do so for other student leaders and if these actions do not impact the team. These rules apply whether students are producing a podcast, a post-game video chat, or conveying information on social media.

All it takes is one transgression to wipe away a lot of excellent work.

So feel free to report on criminal investigations, civil suits, budgets that face multimillion  deficits and absolutely follow ledes that might reveal unethical and illegal practices such as those that crushed many peoples’ lives at Baylor and Michigan State.

Just don’t be a jerk while doing it.

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About jgisondi

I am the author of the "Field Guide To Covering Sports," the second edition now available from Congressional Quarterly Press/SAGE, and "Monster Trek: The Obsessive Search for Bigfoot" (U of Nebraska Press). Field Guide to Covering Sports, Second Edition goes beyond general guidance about sports writing, offering readers practical advice on covering 20 specific sports. From auto racing to wrestling, author Joe Gisondi gives tips on the seemingly straightforward—like where to stand on the sideline and how to identify a key player—along with the more specialized—such as figuring out shot selection in lacrosse and understanding a coxswain’s call for a harder stroke in rowing. In the new Second Edition, readers also explore sports reporting across multimedia platforms, developing a foundational understanding for social media, mobile media, visual storytelling, writing for television and radio, and applying sabermetrics. Fully revised with new examples and updated information to give readers confidence in covering just about any game, match, meet, race, regatta or tournament, Field Guide to Covering Sports, Second Edition is the ideal go-to resource to have on hand when mastering the beat. In "Monster Trek," Joe Gisondi brings to life the celebrities in bigfoot culture: people such as Matt Moneymaker, Jeff Meldrum, and Cliff Barackman, who explore remote wooded areas of the country for weeks at a time and spend thousands of dollars on infrared imagers, cameras, and high-end camping equipment. Pursuing the answer to why these seekers of bigfoot do what they do, Gisondi brings to the reader their most interesting—and in many cases, harrowing—expeditions. You can order both from Amazon.
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