Thursday, March 15, 2007

Gutter: Who do you think you are? Nickelback? (part 2)

So, as I was saying, an unpleasant theme has been developing on the Pitt men’s basketball team this season. No, it’s not the team’s on-again/off-again shooting. No, it’s not the team’s apparent inability to beat the best opposition. And no, it’s not the repeat losing performance in the Big East championship game.

As a matter of fact, the theme I’m referring to has nothing to do with things that happen on the court. What I’m referring to is the fact that members of the Pitt men’s basketball team have repeatedly refused to address the media throughout the season.

Okay, maybe I’m extra sensitive to this issue because I’m among the members of the local sports media who focus on covering Pitt athletics. Maybe the average person, or even the average sports fan, says, “Hey, who really cares if they talk to the media? After all, they’re only college kids: do they really need to talk to the media?”

That’s a legitimate question and, admittedly, one I’ve asked myself. Never mind the simple, media-centric answer that the members of the media have a job to do and, by refusing to talk, the players are making it difficult for those people to do their job. Never mind that. I think that the question of whether the players should have to address the media drives at a basic issue regarding all sports media:

Simply put, what’s the point?

Why does sports media exist? What is the goal, ultimately, of sports coverage? One can argue that it’s only natural for sports fans to want to learn as much and collect as much information about their favorite sports teams and, as such, sports media exists to provide that coverage and information. But I think that there is more to it with regards to college sports.

Premise: Colleges/universities have two basic functions.

1. Education/research

2. Fund-raising

And not necessarily in that order.

With that premise in mind, a cynic could extrapolate that college sports, for all of their ambitions, fall into the second category: fund-raising. Then again, perhaps it’s being pessimistic to say that only a cynic could hold that view, because I am hard-pressed to find a basic core reason for colleges to support athletic programs beyond the revenue that they produce.

Of course, revenue is a bit disingenuous, because it applies to more than just sales of tickets and merchandise. There are sponsorships, corporate collaborations, advertisement opportunities, and, last but never least in the world of college athletics, donations. And the more time I’ve spent around college athletics as a professional observer, the more apparent it has become to me that donations and cultivating donors is perhaps the highest aspiration of college administrators. Everything that’s done, on an administrative level, seems to be geared toward procuring the next large donation.

And from what I’ve seen, nowhere is this goal more prevalent than in the athletic department.

This isn’t to be disparaging, either. I understand that the purpose of increasing donations is to improve the college/university, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But for a university like Pitt, where the majority of the big-money donations probably comes from athletic supporters, the athletic department has a rather large responsibility.

Which leads us to the interaction of university athletics with the media. When you look at things from a long view, the university wants to see its sports teams portrayed favorably by the media because a positive image would seem to portend more donations. As such, athletic department officials often take many steps to maintain a positive relationship with the media in the hopes that good tidings will keep the coverage fair. In the end, this filters down to accommodating the media members as they attempt to accomplish their professional goal of covering the sports teams; part of covering the sports teams is interviewing players and coaches.

I think you can draw the conclusion here:

If the athletic department wants to project a positive image in order to maintain current donors and produce new ones, players and coaches need to be made available to the media.

There are certain stipulations, perhaps written, perhaps not, that come with being an athlete at a major university, particularly if you play a high-visibility sport like men’s basketball, and especially if you are a central figure in that high-visibility sport. One of those stipulations, like it or not, is that you act as a representative of the team and the university by dealing with the media. That’s just part of the deal.

But not for the Pitt basketball team, apparently.

Now, I’m not completely without compassion for the human condition, and I understand that there are times when an 18-22 year old might not want to speak publicly, particularly in moments of heightened distress. Take, for instance, the Pitt-Louisville game this season, when the Panthers suffered one of the worst losses of the past six years. After that game, Aaron Gray was the only player that spoke to the media, which is unacceptable considering that there was no limit to the number of players who would have been of interest following such a loss.

I get it: that loss sucked, and nobody wanted to talk about it, especially not to the media. But, as I said before, that’s just part of the deal.

Do you remember when the Pitt football team lost at Ohio University in 2005? The game was probably the worst loss that team has endured in this century, and quarterback Tyler Palko threw three interceptions, including one that was returned for the game-winning touchdown in overtime. A fierce competitor, Palko had less than no interest in talking to the media after that debacle. But he did it anyway, because he understood that it was his responsibility as a key member of the team.

And after every single game that Tyler Palko started as quarterback, he addressed the media. As a member of the media covering Pitt, I watched all of those games, and I can understand that after a lot of them Palko would have much rather gotten back on the bus and rode home in silence. But he didn’t: instead, he did his duty and spoke to the media. For all the things that bothered me about Tyler Palko (and there were a few), I respected him for always talking.

I wish I could say the same thing for Pitt’s basketball players.

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