In the same way a shark can detect the faintest scent of blood, journalists worth their salt can pick up the slightest bit of PR in a 5,000-word article.
One of the most difficult aspects of reporting is constructing a story that uses official voices without being guided by them. Stories filled with rhetoric and boilerplate quotes are nothing more than press releases for an institution or company.
Although I was expecting such complications during the reporting process for last week’s football issue of Vox magazine, I was still surprised at the control MU’s athletics department has over every aspect of the program. Beyond just making reporting difficult, the process caused me to consider whether these heavy regulations were more about protecting the student athletes or preserving the appearance of the program.
Although there are differences, MU is pretty similar to most Division I schools when it comes to keeping a tight rein on athletes. If a reporter needs to interview a football player, they must send an e-mail to the Athletics Department spokesman, Chad Moller, by noon on Sunday. Then he will set up interviews for the weekly media conference the team has on Mondays.
Because of this image control, Vox editors and reporters struggled to rid stories of the annoyingly upbeat voice and perspective staffers naturally inserted into their quotes and explanations. Editors encouraged reporters to circumvent these sourcing dilemmas by finding alternative paths, and when they finally did, some of the information contrasted sharply with the glossy quotes we received from sources.
In one such story, we set out to discover whether football players lived up to the stereotypes of preferential treatment and academic laziness. The first draft was littered with quotes and information from Joe Scogin, assistant director for academic services. Not surprisingly, Scogin, who also is in charge of the Academic Support of the Athletic Department’s Total Person Program, had nary a negative to say.
The way he went on about the team, I’m waiting for a player to discover cold fusion on the sideline during the next game, and so read the first draft. If this is the truth, fine, but when the reporter was able to find classmates and tutors who could speak to the study habits and class attendance of players, the picture these sources painted was not quite as scenic as what Scogin had stroked.
“If you’ve been over to the athletic complex on any evenings really, a lot of the football players are over there and are really loud and obnoxious,” one tutor said of the mandatory study halls. “Some of the other students that I tutor even complain about it.”
A few of us at Vox suspected as much. Pulling from experiences as former or current teaching assistants and tutors or from just being in classes with players, we've experienced the academic laziness of players and preferential treatment some of them get. (To be fair, there are players who are very academic and who try really hard.) As the piece fairly accounts, there are several academic laurels the team deserves to tout, but I believe that we only scratched the surface of the more common story.
The problem is that this kind of behavior, by both players and staff, has become widely accepted as college football continues to balloon in popularity. The difference between what officials claim academically, what those in the classroom actually see and what happens behind closed doors is an issue on campuses nationwide, and most of us simply shrug 'cause we sure like our touchdowns. I'm sure the same can be said for my alma mater, West Virginia University.
This is worrisome because the fact remains that very few college football players even have a shot at professional careers, and beyond a degree, a solid and challenging education will be mandatory for their future. Getting coddled isn't a normal perk at most jobs.
After last week's issue of Vox featuring our analysis of the football team's academics, I spoke with several tutors and teaching assistants who believe this story has much more depth than we had time to devote. But considering that tutors are limited in what they can say because of contractual obligations and teaching assistants are under similar obligations, reporting this story is complicated. Professors are wary to go on record with anything negative, and other avenues of access can be difficult.
I am sure Scogin, Moller and the rest of the staff wish that everything they can tell the press and the reality of certain situations were always congruent, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. And if the day ever does come that the two are one in the same, that will finally be some good PR.
Andrew Del-Colle is the Arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.