Stars, Not Deities  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012

Stars, Not Deities   

In the wake of the Penn State scandal, a veteran sportswriter argues that wed be better off not going overboard in glorifying athletes and coaches. Thurs., December 8, 2011

By Amy Rosewater
Amy Rosewater (amyrosewater@yahoo.com) spent eight years as a sports reporter for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and is an editor and writer for the U.S. Olympic Committee's Web site, www.teamusa.org. She teaches sports writing at Loyola University Maryland.     


As a journalism student at Northwestern University, I often was reminded, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out."

It's an adage that has stuck with me throughout my nearly two decades writing about sports as a newspaper reporter freelancer and, for the last seven years, as an adjunct college professor.

It's also an adage that has come to the forefront of my mind ever since the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State exploded into the nation's consciousness in November.

So much of the news has focused on officials at Penn State: When did they know, how much did they know, why wasn't more done to help these children?

But two of the questions in my mind are, how was this story buried so deeply for so long, and what could we, as sports journalists, do to prevent such a travesty from happening again?

Back in 1999, one year after the first alleged incident involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky occurred, Jack McCallum, then a writer for Sports Illustrated, profiled Sandusky and his work with Second Mile, a charity Sandusky founded to help troubled children. Of course, we now know that Sandusky has been indicted by a grand jury for committing unthinkable crimes against children. On Wednesday he was indicted on new charges of sexual abuse.

After reading McCallum's piece aloud to a class at Loyola University Maryland, I found my students in shock as to how glowing this Sports Illustrated report was. Even McCallum now wonders what he could have done differently.

I think about this all the time when I am writing stories: So often we are working on the run, trying to get as much information as possible in such a short period of time, how can we possibly double check anything? In this age when journalism often boils down to 140 characters, how can sports reporters possibly think about tracking down a second source, or a third, or a fourth?

I spoke with several colleagues before and after this incident about verifying information, and they are finding it increasingly more difficult to follow the 'check it out' mantra. Back when McCallum wrote his feature about Sandusky in 1999, e-mail and the Internet were novelties, and reporters (especially at Sports Illustrated) had time to think about what they wrote before they connected a Radio Shack "computer" to a landline and prayed the story would land safely in the hands of an editor. The piece would be read by more than one editor, and there often would be dialogue between the writer and editor before the story was published.

Today, reporters are asked to "cover" events by blogging throughout a game, while simultaneously disseminating their news via Facebook and Twitter. If one journalist posts the final score of a Monday Night Football game at 11:01 p.m., you sure as hell don't want to be the one who tweets that information at 11:02 p.m.

And as soon as those journalists click the "send" button, that news is out there.

So what to do? Social media are not going to vanish. Neither is the stress put upon reporters to do their jobs quickly and, often, with minimal or no editing.

I spoke with Wayne McNeil, who is a business partner of former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, the player who was abused by one of the Canada's most celebrated junior hockey coaches, Graham James. When news broke about this case, Canada found itself in the same whirlwind that the United States found itself during the Penn State maelstrom.

After all, James had been the hockey coach of the year. He was the man who solicited milk sponsors instead of beer sponsors because he didn't want alcohol around kids. James was later incarcerated.

The answer, in McNeil's mind, is that we as journalists should "never put capes on anyone." In other words, whether you are the greatest hockey coach or football coach or gymnastics coach of all time, you should not be canonized as the greatest person of all time. We as journalists cannot make the mistake of equating coaches or athletes with Superman, because everyone has warts underneath those splendid superhero costumes.

I keep reading about former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno being bigger than Penn State, that he had been at the helm of one of the few "clean" big-time programs. But who made him bigger than Penn State? Who continually showered him with adulation? Who knew that his program actually was clean?

Sadly, the news media are much to blame here. Yes, Paterno guided the Nittany Lions to two national titles, and, yes, he groomed some of the best football players for the NFL. But should that make him bigger than an institution? Should that make him untouchable? This is where we as sports journalists have erred.

Not long after the Penn State scandal broke, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski set the record for most victories in college basketball. After his Blue Devils racked up win No. 903 against Michigan State, vaulting Coach K past Knight, voluble basketball announcer Dick Vitale was singing Krzyzewski's praises on national TV. Sure, Vitale is prone to exaggeration, baby, but he went way over the top even for him by calling Krzyzewski a great human being, etc., in his postgame remarks. I don't know Krzyzewski personally and, by all accounts, he is a perfectly fine man. But my first thought was, "Well, here we go again. Let's just make him a God."

I recall as a college student being told never to cover something I really liked because after I covered it, I would come to hate it. I would discover the dirt below the surface and want out.

I don't want out, but I have learned not to transform athletes and coaches into gods. I have tried to focus my stories on what these people have accomplished on the ice rinks or the diamonds as great feats but not make the mistake of portraying them as perfect people. Likewise, we as sports journalists are not perfect people, so I am not claiming that I have achieved such lofty goals every time.

From its earliest days, sportswriting has been about mythology, creating heroes out of prose. Early sportswriters did not even interview coaches or athletes for their stories, crafting game stories solely on observations from the field. They knew about baseball players womanizing and drinking, but that never was news that was fit to print.

Now we find ourselves in an era where anything and everything is fit to be posted.

Perhaps the answer is to report about what happens on the field but be careful not to glorify contests as "the game of the century," which as those who witnessed the LSU-Alabama football showdown now know it decidedly was not.

Or to transform athletes, coaches and managers, no matter how stunning their achievements, into demigods.

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