Category Archives: Sports

Media narrative misleading

All it takes is a picture and a story that can enrage a large portion of our society and you have the ability to create a national controversy.

Who cares whether the story is true or the image represents reality. In today’s age, the ability to draw Internet hits and the opportunity to further your political agenda trumps any responsibility to the truth.

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, decided to sit out the National Anthem during the NFL’s preseason. He believed by taking a knee during the Anthem he might start a conversation about police brutality toward unarmed black men. Instead, the conversation became about whether or not Kaepernick should take a knee.

Athletes across the country from the NFL to women’s soccer to NCAA football followed Kaepernick’s example. On Sept. 24, eight athletes from Millikin University, a Division III school in Decatur, Ill., took a knee during a road game. Some controversy followed; enough so that Millikin football coach Dan Gritti talked with his team to decide how to handle any future problems. The team, hoping to avoid controversy, decided to do what it had done earlier in the season at home games and what many other college football teams do – stay in the locker room during the National Anthem and come out as a team afterward.

The University released a statement that alerted the media that Millikin’s football team was staying in the locker room. The statement was picked up and reported on.

On Oct. 15, sophomore Connor Brewer snuck out of the locker room and stood during the National Anthem. Why he left the locker room we don’t know. It could have been because his parents told him he should. It could have been pressure from an old high school coach. He could have had personal reasons for taking the field on his own. For whatever reason, he left his teammates and took the field. A friend snapped a picture and posted it online, saying the rest of the team cowered inside.

The photo became a national story and was picked up by conservative news sites and in published headlines such as “One Player Stands to Honor His Country.”   A Fox News part-timer, (story) made assumptions that weren’t true.

Todd Starnes wrote that:

“Connor Brewer is fiercely loyal to his college football team. But he is also fiercely loyal to the United States of America. So when the Millikin University football team decided to protest the national anthem by remaining inside the locker room – instead of on the sidelines – Connor was faced with a decision.

The Millikin football team never voted to protest the Anthem, the team voted to stay in the locker room. Starnes called the members of the football teams cowards and used dog whistle language throughout his piece, calling the players’ decision to stay in their locker room a “safe space,” accusing the entire team of being unpatriotic.

The photo appeared to validate what Starnes wrote and reaction was swift. Athletes from Millikin were swamped with attacks, from both friends and people they’d never met. They received death threats, they were called cowards, they were attacked on social media. The coaches received racist letters, threats and the usual array of nastiness that can be found on the Internet when certain factions have been upset.

Millikin’s football team was caught in a “media narrative.” The story grew. The Connor Brewer story spread to Sports Illustrated, CNN, Time, the Washington Times and other outlets. Brewer received praise throughout the country. People called the University asking to give Brewer scholarships, a Go Fund Me page was started in his name, and he was honored as a great American hero.

But by midweek, students from Millikin started reporting what really happened. Two stories (This and this) were written by Millikin students, trying to put the record straight. But that’s not how a media controversy works. The narrative was set. It was one kid standing for the Anthem while the others cowered in their locker room.

In reality, it was poor journalism and worse journalism ethics. The writers knew there had to be more to the story than what they were given. Starnes and his ilk read the statement by the president of the university and chose to misinterpret it. They took the powerful story, one that would ignite controversy, upset the conservative base and draw readers to the story. The story that was agreed to as what happened was a great story. A widespread protest of the National Anthem by a group of privileged Division III players is a great story. One young man standing alone to show his patriotism is a great story.

But it wasn’t true. It’s harmful. It doesn’t do anything but ignite the anger of those who choose to believe that kind of story.

Years ago, that story wouldn’t have been run. Someone would have contacted the coach and got the real story. Someone would have taken the time to find the real story behind the picture.

Those days are gone. We now live in the days where death threats over an imaginary story are routine. We accept that as the reality of the Twitter world.

The credibility of journalists has plummeted the last couple of years.

It’s easy to put the blame on the Todd Starnes’ of the world, but the reality is that Sports Illustrated, CNN and other outlets picked up the story. They didn’t verify the facts. They didn’t check to see what was true and what wasn’t. They just looked at the photo and heard the narrative and ran with it.

Want to fix media credibility? Remember how to actually report on a story.



Time for media to cease coronating sports stars

We thought we knew Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.

We’d all seen the television commercials, we all know that Nationwide is on your side, that Peyton might be making our Papa John’s pizza and that, despite his football excellence and his March retirement after winning his second Super Bowl, Manning was everything we have come to expect from our football heroes.

Then the story changed.

It started with a long-form journalism piece by New York Post Sportswriter Shaun King, detailing a Peyton Manning no one knew. This Manning exposed himself to a female trainer, an event that eventually led to a civil suit, a settlement and Dr. Jamie Naughright’s departure from the University of Tennessee. The story continued when Naughright was working at Florida Southern University when Manning’s memoir titled The Manning’s was published, portraying Manning’s side of the argument.

Naughright sued. A settlement was reached but Naughright ended up losing her job. King’s story earned more than its share of blowback. It was a decidedly one-sided story that told Naughright’s version of the story with no mention of Manning’s version, which basically boils down to a he-said she-said story typical of this kind of incident.

The most powerful reaction to the Manning story came from sports columnist Jason Whitlock, who attacked King for writing a smear piece on Manning to protect black NFL quarterback Cam Newton, who struggled in the Super Bowl after discussing issues about being a black quarterback.

The argument between King and Whitlock gained traction when the two began discussing their level of blackness (birth-certificate records indicate King is white) and the focus of the story eventually centered on the two people arguing on Twitter.

That’s where the narrative of the story took a wrong turn since the actual focus should be on Peyton Manning. Not because of what he might have done to Naughright and not because his inability to let the incident go caused the story to be raised again years later after The Manning’s came out. No, the focus of this story should be about how sports media collaborate to construct an image of specific athletes that is not an accurate representation of who they truly are.

Sports media too often find themselves in the business of making heroes. They take an athlete’s on-field exploits and hope the athlete is just as wonderful off it. Sometimes, they even look the other way when signs of pampering, arrogance or just pure jerkiness show up. Instead, they build a brand, a human being so good, so perfect that fans start to believe this is who the person really are. Sports media did it to Lance Armstrong, protecting him from years of speculation of illegal doping. Tiger Woods was portrayed as being squeaky clean until his wife took a nine-iron to his car, opening up a can of worms that still haunts Woods to this day.

Too, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire “saved” baseball in 1998 with a home run chase that will never be forgotten. Also not forgotten is the sports media’s failure to question how much steroids abuse really drove the race. And now we have Manning. At the end of his career, allegations of performance enhancing drugs and sexual abuse are brought up and force the media to reconsider his legacy.

But should they? Peyton Manning was a great football player, definitely one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. But is that enough?

After all, sports media made him something more. They made him a television star, a shill for multiple brands on television and portrayed him as an all around great guy.

We’re now finding he wasn’t the guy we saw on television, and what he did to Jamie Naughright was wrong, even if his account is the truth. Fans shouldn’t expect more of their athletes than what they see on the field. That expectation encourages sports media to turn a blind eye to the truth – that these guys aren’t all the press portrays them to be.

Fans should stop expecting more. But more to the point, the media should stop constructing more.


Was Mizzou a harbinger of college athletes flexing their muscles?

The threat of a football strike by the University of Missouri’s football team created a ripple of fear that swept across the National Collegiate Athletic Association and ended with the resignation of a University president.

While the NCAA powers that be digested the loss of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, the media stoked fears of the newfound power of collegiate athletes. They worried that a blueprint had been created – one that could lead to the eventual payment of players, or to shorter practice times or to any of a number of possible outcomes. The thought of collegiate athletes striking led to a fear that change was coming. That fear has been growing for years.

The press fanned those flames with multiple stories with writers marveling at the power college athletes might have. Stories by Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press or items from the Minneapolis Star Tribune discussed the power of athletes. Rochelle Riley, another columnist from Detroit, summed up the mood of the press when she wrote:

“That those young men stood up is worth marking in time. If other athletes realize their power, take stands, demand change, we can look at the University of Missouri football team’s action as a catalyst. We might see that the match they lit caught fire, unlike other player protests over the past 70 years that were ignored or cost players their scholarships.”

The athletes even drew the attention of Gov. Jay Nixon, who released a statement saying that the university must address concerns over “racism and intolerance.”

“Racism and intolerance have no place at the University of Missouri or anywhere in our state,” Nixon said in the release.

“That the governor didn’t get involved until the players did speaks to that power. Now we watch and see whether the match these players lit yields a fire on any other campus or about any other issue.”

“Like getting paid,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

The actions of Missouri’s football players shook an already crumbling power structure concerning college athletics. For years, the structure supposedly consisted of the NCAA at the top, followed by collegiate conferences, individual athletic institutions, the coach and finally, the players. The missing link in this power structure was television networks and the corporations that owned them.

The networks supplied the NCAA and the conferences with unheard of money, enough that colleges allowed changes unheard of a few years ago. Instead of college football being saved for Saturdays, games were played on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Game times were switched to early morning in some instances and late at night in others to allow a better lineup of games. Television even changed the rules of volleyball to make the sport more television friendly.

Networks paid for these changes, especially the power five conferences. In May, USA Today reported all members of the Southeastern Conference had received $31.3 million in television revenues from the conference. That amount equaled more revenue than 152 NCAA Division I universities’ total sports revenues for 2014. The University of Missouri earned a total of $83.7 million in sports revenues in 2014.

All of this money comes from the efforts of athletes on the field, and a group of players, threatening not to play, was able to completely reverse the power structure.

The media responded — some with fear of the athletes’ new power, others hoping the changes would come quickly. The changes to the power structure of the NCAA have been slow, earned through victories in the courtroom, a slow process at best.

But the courtroom victories changed the way the NCAA treats its athletes. One was a court settlement this year compensating players such a former Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller for the use of his likeness in video games. Keller and other NCAA athletes won a $60 million settlement from the NCAA and video game makers.

In another case, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon won a federal court decision that NCAA amateurism rules violate federal anti-trust law. Judge Claudia Wilken even ordered the NCAA to pay college basketball and football players up to $5,000 per year in image and likeness rights.   An appeals court agreed that the NCAA rules violated anti-trust, but did not agree to the $5,000 payments.

Currently, the NCAA is waiting on another case to come through the dockets. Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer who defended Tom Brady in Deflategate, is suing the NCAA, challenging its use of only scholarships as an antitrust violation.

“The main objective is to strike down permanently the restrictions that prevent athletes in Division I basketball and the top tier of college football from being fairly compensated for the billions of dollars in revenues that they help generate,” Kessler told ESPN. “In no other business — and college sports is big business — would it ever be suggested that the people who are providing the essential services work for free. Only in big-time college sports is that line drawn.”

While lawsuits may erode the foundation of the NCAA’s amateurism rules the thought of a strike is an outright attack on Fortress NCAA. Television money, the driving factor in the popularity and profitability of the NCAA, may also be the organization’s downfall. The influx of money has led to the rise in coaches’ salaries, better facilities, etc., but it also has led to a greater spotlight on the players creating the product the NCAA sells.

The idea of college students standing up for a cause and threatening to not play, created ripples throughout the NCAA. The power is shifting.

The question becomes whether a group of NCAA athletes in a crucial situation (say the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or the NCAA football playoffs) would be able to get enough players to walk away from the competitive challenge of their lives, to stand up for an ideal.

The example of the Missouri football team worked well in this instance because the stand had to do over racism, viewed as an “acceptable” cause.

But how might the press react to college athletes refusing over lack of money to play a key game? The probability is that the press, currently friendly to the cause of the college athlete, would not be so kind. Reaction from fans likely would be downright hostile. For proof, simply search “Ed O’Bannon” on Twitter and read the tweets from fans blaming him for their being unable to play NCAA football on EA Sports.

What is unmistakable is that the issues and stakes in college sports have changed.

For years, media attention concentrated on the players’ successes and failures in the classroom or in recruiting scandals. But when the spotlight turned to the reality of the players’ situations, the NCAA couldn’t obscure the reality that billions of dollars are made off college athletes, many of whom aren’t ready for college, aren’t prepared for the real world after college and aren’t paid for their efforts.

How the sports world turns, and the media turn

It’s amazing to see how a single video of a man punching a woman in the face can change everyone’s perspective.

Months ago, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for two games for punching his now wife, Janay Palmer, after a video showed up of Rice dragging her out of an elevator.

Some media members complained then about the NFL’s leniency toward physically abusing your future wife. But, the NFL rode out the storm, claiming that the police did little about the case, so why should they?

Then the other fist landed. TMZ released the video of Rice actually punching Palmer and the approach changed. The NFL went into full defense mode, suspending Rice indefinitely and announcing an independent committee to investigate domestic abuse in the NFL, something that raises questions of its own.

Media now are in full frenzy mode. Calls for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s head are being issued. Hands are being wrung in anguish. Righteous indignation rules.

And so much more has happened since Rice’s punch was seen nationally.

Adrian Peterson, star running back for the Minnesota Vikings, was suspended for a game for whipping his child with a switch. Then, after he missed that game, the Vikings reinstated him. Then, after media outcry, the Vikings deinstated him, suspending him until the matter played out in court.

Other NFL players who had been playing despite current legal charges of physical abuse were suspended. The NFL is trying to get its house in order.

The panic has even spread to the collegiate level. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was suspended for a half for screaming an inappropriate word into a live camera. Of course, Winston played all of last year with a sexual assault charge hanging over his head and was suspended for three baseball games because of an incident with shoplifting. So what’s a little more controversy?

Media have jumped on this too, making sure fans know just how little Winston “gets it” (Stories here and here with a cutting tweet here). As media have pointed out, no one gets it.

The actions of Rice and Peterson have started national conversations on topics of spousal abuse and corporal punishment.  Panels of four to six people on CNN give opinions on whether a whipping is OK. But few members of the media talk about their own role in this national fiasco.

Media are national enablers.

Media have traditionally praised talented athletes and, because football is such a violent sport, adopted a type of boys-will-be-boys mentality when covering the sport. Reporters praise the athletes. Florida State’s Winston was hailed as a hero and a wonderful athlete deserving the Heisman Trophy after leading his team to an undefeated season and a national championship. He was hailed despite a sexual- abuse charge hanging over his head.

Sports media easily become enamored with the hype that comes with the job and overlook the work. It’s work to find out if that sexual abuse story is true or if that athlete really beat his girlfriend that night. And, that might take away from the game and could draw viewers away from the channel those reporters might be working for. So many factors work against coming down on the star athlete that when it does happen, the story must be exceptional.

And then, those same media appear shocked when athletes they have privileged, become impervious to societal norms. And when the media turn on an organization, such as the NFL, those in power don’t know how to stop it.

The NFL has floundered under the media’s glare. Calls for commissioner Roger Goodell’s head are becoming louder and possible replacements (former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is one) have been mentioned. The NFL even hired women to fix the league’s domestic policy. (Perhaps they were picked from Mitt Romney’s file of women?)  All of this seems exactly what it is — poor public relations. And the media can pick up on that just as easily as they can build up a young man with extraordinary talent in a sport to the point where that individual thinks he can get away with anything.

That is, until the story becomes too good to ignore, so then they turn on him too.