What An Opportunity

On today’s column: My reasoning, the response and the backstory

In Sports on September 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Spectrum

Considering this is my first blog post for ENG 399, the sports journalism class at the University at Buffalo, it only makes sense to talk about the UB sports journalism issue that has pervaded my life today.

Today is Friday. I woke up to hundreds of texts, Facebook messages, emails, Twitter mentions, etc. Some were slanderous; some were complimentary. It was the craziest inundation of feedback I have ever personally experienced.

The cause was a column I wrote in The Spectrum, UB’s independent student newspaper, on second-year Athletic Director Danny White’s decision to revoke our privileges to travel with the football team and provide coverage of road games.

For reference, here is a link: White plays favorites, benches Spectrum.

Let me emphasize this point: I get it. I understand why some have called me things like spoiled, whiney and ‘b****y little child’ today, and I am not surprised people have resorted to ad-hominem argument tactics.

I knew that type of feedback was inevitable when I set out to write the column.

There is no objective way to say, ‘the athletic department took something from us and gave those privileges to the student government,’ in a way that appears content or simply OK with what happened.

With that being said, the feedback to the column has been about 85 percent positive. Most people have agreed with my stance, and I want to thank them – particularly those on the paper’s staff and Spectrum alumni – for their support. It might sound silly, but you develop thick skin by working for your school’s newspaper for three years. After the first column I ever wrote, one reader took the time to inform me that I would never lose my virginity, get a job or make a decent living. Negative feedback has been a regular thing since then, just part of life. I had never, however, gotten a response as overwhelming as that of today, so every positive word has helped.

The backstory, and how I wound up traveling with the team

I’ll start at the beginning. I joined The Spectrum’s staff in spring 2011, during my freshman year, as a sports staff writer. It was my first semester, so I didn’t cover the major sports for the most part (except when I got thrown a bone to cover the men’s basketball team once in a while, which felt like covering Game Seven of the NBA Finals). Men’s tennis was my beat.

There was, as there often is at student newspapers, huge turnover on the staff after that semester. The senior sports editor was elected editor in chief, and most of the other editors graduated.

It was a transitional time in my life. I was planning to leave UB after the spring and move to Florida. It was all laid out: I would work and live with relatives in Tallahassee for a year before establishing residency and transferring to the University of Florida. But the new EIC, my former senior sports editor, asked me to take his old job.

There was one part of the position that was particularly enticing: The senior sports editor got to travel with the football team all fall to provide coverage. It was a dream come true.

I accepted. I put off the Sunshine State for the time being – and, 2.5 years later, it appears for good – to cover UB sports. The Spectrum had two passes to cover the football team, and we either took the team’s bus or, more regularly, flew on the charter plane to road games. That meant I went to every game, always accompanied by one of the three other sports editors.

I was 19. You can imagine my thoughts: This is incredible. I feel like Adam Schefter.

Here was my introduction to the trips, a summary of what I was told by those who went before me: Someone on the outside might see this situation as a conflict of interest, but we’ve never had an issue because the athletic department understands we are an objective newspaper. Warde Manuel, the athletic director [remember, this was 2011], supports student-to-student journalism and furthering the education of not just his athletes but also the UB students who express their love for sports through writing. He also understands how many students rely on The Spectrum to be informed. We will never allow our coverage to be influenced by these trips.

Boy, did that prove to be true. We wrote some critical columns that year, and the athletic department said nothing. Our responsibility to maintain objectivity was understood, and our access was never threatened.

We had incredible times on the trips. One of the highlights was a road game at Tennessee. We went on six trips in total that season, and not one was a disappointment.

With that being said, the team sucked.

That’s the only way to put it. The Bulls finished 3-9 (2-6 in conference) in the second year of the Jeff Quinn Era. I developed respect for the guys on the squad, though, as we developed familiarity. I was learning a lot as a rookie writer. I wrote stories about the quarterback, Chazz Anderson, and running back, Branden Oliver, that made me genuinely appreciate who they were as people.

I loved being a beat writer.

Our coverage involved hard work. We did features, game stories, game previews, scouting reports, opinion columns, live chats, blogs, Twitter updates, photos, videos. We cared about what we were doing, and attending every game heightened our ability to give readers top-of-the-line coverage.

I became the editor in chief of The Spectrum in May 2012. We continued to go on the trips last season. This is my senior year, and I’m back as EIC.

Finding out we lost the trips

I got a text from one of the sports editors in July. He had contacted athletic communications, as we usually did around that time in the summer, to ensure we would have two passes to every game – two people today have told me The Spectrum has gone on the trips since the early 2000s – but he received a different answer from what we expected.

Here is the summary: “Uhh, yeah … about those trips. Danny cut those. I was planning on telling you eventually.”

My first response was that it made sense. I wasn’t going to throw a temper tantrum, because it was Mr. White’s money and his decision.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first red flag that something weird was going on. UB has a radio crew that also travels to every game, and we hung out with those guys on the trips. A week or so after we found out we wouldn’t be going on the trips, I was chatting with one of them. “Sorry to hear that,” he said. “But I’ve known for months.”

What? UB Athletics made this decision months earlier but was going to wait until we confirmed to tell us? OK, but still, considering someone could perceive the situation as a conflict of interest, it made sense – I got that reasoning, and I still do.

No matter how poorly White has gone about executing his plan, it was still his decision to make.

It did bother me when I found out he had decided to pull the trips from us only after the coverage we printed turned negative (which is because the season turned negative). That’s when White decided it was a conflict of interest. We don’t bash the athletic department; in fact, the writer who penned the critical column White referenced wrote one last week about why students should be excited for this year in UB sports: The year of the Bulls.

We’re UB students, and we want the teams to succeed as much as anyone.

But as I said in my column, we praise the teams when they deserve praise and criticize them when they deserve criticism – like a newspaper should.

Addressing the arguments of those who have disagreed with my column

1. I don’t have a problem with White’s decision, but his execution

I think what a lot of people have missed is this: I’m not saying it’s unfair that White took away those trips. As I said: It’s his decision, and I understand why people on the outside would perceive a conflict of interest. What I am saying is, the way White took them from us was messed up.

First, UB Athletics lied about his reasoning. You can’t logically explain how you don’t have the budget for two people to go to the games and then give their passes to two other people. White has been caught in a lie.

His decision also simply doesn’t make sense, in my opinion. Look at it in theory: Why should the student government ever need to go to the football games more than the student newspaper? If you don’t want to bring us, don’t bring us … but don’t turn around and bring the Student Association, with which you have a $30,000 contract ‘totally separate’ from this arrangement. Us going on the trips was a perceived conflict of interest; that is a real conflict of interest.

White had two reasons for taking the trips from The Spectrum. One was a lie and the other is a double standard. So what it comes down to is that Danny White just doesn’t like us; that’s not my opinion but what numerous people in the athletic department have told me. Revoking the student newspaper’s trips because you hold a personal grudge seems petty and immature to me – perhaps a sign of White’s lack of experience.

2. I, too, wish we could pay our own way – but we can’t

A lot of the people who have contacted me have said, ‘this is how it should be and student newspapers should pay for their own trips.’ And, yes, I agree with that in theory.

We wish we could pay our own way, but we can’t. We aren’t like most student newspapers; we don’t get funding from the university or the student government. We don’t have donors or any outside source of income. We’re a self-sustaining entity that just floats by on advertising dollars, unable to splurge on things like covering to travel the football team.

We’re also college students who go to school full-time and work at The Spectrum in all our spare time, so we don’t personally have the $700 to pay for a flight and hotel. Editors from Division III schools have told me they traveled to every game for their teams and paid out of their own pockets.

It’s an entirely different situation.

Did your team play games in places like Texas and Georgia? Most D3 schools will play maybe one out-of-state game per year, whereas the Bulls play out of state for every road game. The travel expenses are astronomical, and as I said, we have no way of affording them.

So when the athletic department offered us the opportunity to travel with the team all year, of course we were going to take it.

3. UB doesn’t pay for other media outlets to travel

White only addressed my column Friday in one tweet, and here’s what he said:

 Image

You’re right: It isn’t common practice for media outlets to travel with the team. It also isn’t common practice for those media outlets to be fully comprised of UB students or for that media outlet to dedicate 100 percent of its coverage to your institution. It isn’t common practice for you to have a full page in every newspaper dedicated to your sports teams.

As I said in the column: Mr. White should be thankful he has our coverage.

Finally, it isn’t common practice to sign a $30,000 contract with another organization and then offer that organization two season passes and claim they’re irrelevant to the contract and have ‘no strings attached.’

One former SA official told me White sees SA President Nick Johns as malleable and expects offering the trips will help him land another contract.

Again, if you’re avoiding a perceived conflict of interest, why turn it into a real one?

No word from White

I’ve been checking my email all day – still nothing from White. I don’t expect to hear from him.

We’ll be keeping a scoreboard in The Spectrum that will tally the games after which we have been able to speak with Coach Quinn and one player following the press conference, which was the proposal at the end of my column.

I expect an 0-1 start Saturday.

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