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Real Sports Reporting
By Abraham Aamidor
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2003 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
Adam Schefter, of The Denver Post, has covered the Denver Broncos since 1990, the longest continuous stretch of service of one reporter covering the team in franchise history. He served as president of the Pro Football Writers of America from 2000 to 2002 and is the author of two books, including Mike Shanahan's business-motivational book Think Like a Champion and Terrell Davis's autobiography, TD: Dreams in Motion.
When Colorado was awarded a Major League Baseball franchise back in 1991, the cub reporter wanted to cover the state's new baseball team as badly as he wanted his first job in sports writing.
The newspaper said no.
When the same newspaper's long-time National Basketball Association writer debated exiting the beat that had become his professional home, the cub reporter wanted to take over the basketball beat as badly as he once wanted the baseball beat.
The newspaper said no.
The newspaper told the cub reporter to stay right where he was, on his assigned beat, not a hand-picked one. It left him on the Denver Broncos beat it had started him on back in 1990, when the cub reporter was greener than any football field.
To this day, there are only a handful of words the no-longer-cub reporter can express to the mean old nasty newspaper that refused to meet or honor any of his professional dreams and wishes.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Again and again and again.
Over the years, the cub reporter came to realize that his lack of qualifications for the baseball and basketball beats was matched only by his sheer stupidity.
Why anyone aspiring to any type of stable life would want to cover baseball or basketball or, for that matter, hockey — the type of sports beats in which a reporter spends more nights in Marriott beds than his own, in which dinners are not home-cooked but rather made in the press box, in which life is not beautiful — is purely beyond comprehension.
Perhaps it is simply because all the jobs in football reporting are taken.
Covering football lends itself to the most conventional lifestyle of any of the major sports. A reporter does not need to spend six weeks in Arizona or Florida at spring training, another 81 nights on the road, and another month on the road for the playoffs.
He does not need to work a night shift, filing close to deadline and filling his body with adrenaline that does not allow him to fall asleep until an hour when most others are getting ready to get up.
Football writers primarily work in their own city, oftentimes in their own homes, where they can eat dinner with friends or family, sleep in their own beds, and start the same routine all over again the next day. Such a lifestyle enables football reporters to last and their methods to endure.
There is a certain rhythm to the football season, a constant sense of knowing where you are. Summers are for training camp. Falls are for football's kickoffs. Winters are for playoffs. And springs are for unwinding and gearing up to do it all over again.
Of course, covering football is hardly an in-the-clear dash to the end zone. In this day and age, with the proliferation of media outlets and reporters, it presents increasingly difficult challenges that no other sport does.
As the country's most popular sport, it gamers more attention, and subsequently more pressure, than any other sport. Sports editors expect their football coverage to mirror the intensity with which the fans cheer their teams. With free agency kicking off in February, and then a second wave of it again in June when more players are released for salary-cap purposes, there is next to no downtime in football. Labor Day — along with Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day — is always celebrated by laboring. Off-seasons have gone the way of two-dimensional players — next to nonexistent.
And there is less access to football's players and coaches — basically, three mid-week 45-minute open-locker-room sessions — than there is in any other sport. When they do talk, coaches and players guard game plans and secrets in a manner this country's military would readily recognize.
Yet without question, football is the most civilized of the major sports beats. But then what did you expect? There are reasons U.S. president George W. Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice is such a big football fan. Aside from protecting your own territories and advancing into those of your enemy, football is the commander-in-chief of sports, its president.
Which is why, when it comes to reporting on it, it takes so much work to do the job right.
During the spring of 2000, the Broncos were awaiting word on whether 49ers perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Steve Young would remain in San Francisco, retire from the game, or be willing to reunite in Denver with Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.
Young later decided to retire before the start of the upcoming season, but the story was a hot one from the moment it broke that winter. Yet it dragged on so long that it extended into June, the time most football writers usually use to recharge their batteries for the long season ahead.
My vacation already had been planned. And just before I left Denver, one of my editors called and asked me to leave telephone numbers of a couple of key people so other writers could find out the day's developments.
The editor talked as if this was one-stop shopping, as if, at the end of each workday, there were some secret code to punch in that would reveal all the answers.
Only there isn't. It is anything but. Here is football's secret code: developing sources, building relationships, gathering information, dispensing it, writing knowledgeably, studying competition, working hard.
Always working hard. It is, in reporting jobs from city hall to city's stadiums, the ultimate key. Every aspect of a reporter's job feeds off it.
If a football reporter works hard, he is able to develop a stable of sources that know the same information he is trying to track. These sources cannot be found overnight. They must be cultivated through the only means possible. Trust and time.
Like we learned in kindergarten, the way you treat people is the way you will be treated in return.
There was an instance in 1996 when I found out the Broncos were trying to trade their Pro Bowl kick returner, Glyn Milbum. His agent asked me to hold off on the story for a couple of days, that there were certain contract issues he needed to work out and without them there would be no trade anyway. So I listened to him. I trusted him. And two days later, he rewarded me, providing an exclusive story about his client's trade. Yet even more important than the story was this: A bond of trust had been developed. He knew he could trust me and I knew I could trust him.
If a football reporter works hard, he is able to build the types of relationships that endure way longer than any head coach's job. Amazing how an organization's gopher eventually can become a scout and then a personnel chief and then a general manager. Should you forge a bond with the person when he is at the bottom of the totem pole, he will remember you as he climbs to the top.
Look at future Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe. He joined the Broncos the year I began covering them, in 1990. He was an unknown seventh-round draft choice out of Savannah State. I was a cub reporter who was hoping to get onto the Rockies or Nuggets beats. Sharpe and I chatted regularly at his locker and formed a professional relationship; when his career began to blossom, he remembered who wrote about him when nobody knew him. During the winter of 2002, just before he rejoined Denver, Sharpe provided regular updates to me on the telephone about when he might re-sign with the Broncos. All because of a relationship that was more than a decade old.
If a football reporter works hard, he is able to gather the type of information that is his currency. The more information you have, the more anxious other agents and coaches and players are to speak with you. Then they will give you more information, and soon enough, there will be times you will know as much as any of the parties involved.
If a football reporter works hard, he is able to ask questions and write stories in a knowing and authoritative manner that sources respect as much as readers.
Sources do not want their valuable time wasted, just as readers would rather not bother with information they already knew. When you know your subject, others can easily discern it.
Sometimes they even give you credit for knowing things you don't. I can remember one time when a player told me about the arrest of one of his teammates, assuming I had known about it. I didn't at first, but after he blabbered away I did. Yet he never would have told me what he did if he hadn't expected me to know it anyway.
Let's look at a perfect example. In the days leading up to the 2000 NFL draft, certain Broncos sources let it slip to me that the team had brought in Southern Mississippi wide receiver Todd Pinkston for a visit. Denver needed a wide receiver and because Pinkston was the only player the Broncos flew in to their city, it was logical to assume the team would pick him.
Broncos officials said it was definitely possible. Pinkston's agent said it was more than possible. And so the day before the draft, I wrote an advance that said the Broncos were eyeing Pinkston. The only player who visited Denver. The receiver near the top of their ratings. The man expected to be available at Denver's turn at No. 15. Filed the story about 5:30 p.m., confirmed it with the office, and then ran out to pick up my date and attend the charity function I already was slightly late for.
At the function, I bumped into Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, who takes an active interest in knowing his team's affairs.
"So," I said, sidling up to him, "Todd Pinkston, huh?"
"Todd Pinkston?" Bowlen said, clearly surprised.
Though I had been at the function for only 30 or so minutes, my time there essentially was over. I ran to the nearest pay phone, called the office, begged them to spike my story on Pinkston, and began making telephone calls to agents, scouts, coaches, players, anyone possible to ascertain whom Denver would draft.
I was on the phone from about 7 until 11:30. I missed my dinner, the entire event, and basically the whole night.
But by the time I left the function, I had dictated a story that ran in Saturday morning's Denver Post with the headline "Broncos want O'Neal."
And the next day, with the 15th overall selection, the Broncos selected California comerback Deltha O'Neal.
I never had another date with the woman I escorted to the charity function. But I had the story.
Just as it is a more stable beat than the other major sports, football is unique in other ways, too. Baseball reporters file more than 100 game stories each year, and basketball and hockey writers file just under that total; football writers file about 25 game stories a year. This means that rather than the action finding the reporter, he must find it.
From Monday through Saturday, the burden is on the football writer to produce a healthy mix of news, trends, profiles, and generally interesting pieces that other sportswriters might not have to be so enterprising to uncover.
Yet even with a lack of games, there is a certain uniformity during football's regular season. Mondays are used for the best follow-up story to emerge from the previous day's game, though breaking news obviously takes precedence. It also can be used to compile information for Tuesday, which is the players' day off and a day beat writers often work from home.
Wednesdays are often the week's most hectic day, featuring conference calls with the opposing head coach and an opposing player, not to mention the weekly press conference of the head coach for the team you cover. While they are bogged down in transcriptions, beat writers also must focus on the package they are putting together for the Sunday paper, oftentimes a game advance, a notes column, and possibly a takeout.
Thursdays are the day to catch up on everything that did not get done on Wednesday. Fridays are the day to unwind, as Saturday papers generally are the lightest papers of the week. And Saturday is a travel day if the team you cover is playing out of town and an off day if the team you cover is playing in town. In other words, Saturdays are the day to catch your breath.
Maybe the most often asked question I get from people when they find out I'm a football writer is, "What do you do in the off-season?" Every time I hear it, I laugh. The off-season is the news season, a time when football writers can distinguish themselves from their competition.
The off-season is the time when news springs from the strangest of places. During the season, the events and stories are mildly predictable. During the off-season they are not. Teams do not hold daily press conferences to update reporters on the status of players. They do what they need to do behind closed doors. It is up to the reporter to find out what is occurring behind those doors.
The best way is through the contacts he has developed with coaches, players, and agents. Many reporters loathe dealing with agents, who almost always are trying to increase their clients' salaries. Yet agents are now as much a part of the game as injuries. In fact, many of them are the true information brokers in the business.
They know their clients' every move. They know when a client wants out of a city or when he wants to sign a contract extension — both of which are newsworthy events.
Of course football-beat writers, like writers in other any other sport, are also always beholden to the news. This is critical to remember. After all, we write for newspapers, not feature papers. If the team's quarterback incurs a DUI arrest during a bye weekend — as has happened with the team I cover — it is up to the beat writer to gather facts, reaction, and all the pertinent information.
If anything happens, even at a time you thought you were going to be off, it is up to you to report on it. I remember arriving home from training camp in August 2000. I had spent the past three weeks living in a dorm room in Greeley, Colorado, about 65 miles northeast of Denver. I hadn't seen my friends in nearly a month, and we had longstanding reservations for a dinner party of 10.
To ensure I could make it, I awakened at 5 A.M. to pack up my dorm room and begin a busy day of work that included writing a training-camp wrap-up, another story on how the Broncos traded linebacker Nate Wayne to the Packers, and a notes package leading with a change at the team's comerback position.
Three stories. A full day's work. A drive back to Denver, where it was time for a little break.
Just as I was about to walk out my front door, the phone rang. It was an agent calling to tell me that Sports Illustrated was running an item accusing Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski of being a racist. A lofty charge and a significant story.
Knowing the amount of phone calls that had to be made and the work that lay ahead, I called my friends to inform them I would not be making the dinner.
Instead, I celebrated my return home from training camp on the phone, filing a story just before deadline, at 11 P.M., detailing a national magazine's allegations against one of the Broncos' most well-known players in the most balanced fashion possible.
Really, when you look at it closely, the job of a beat writer in any sport really is not much different than a doctor's. We are on call 24 hours a day.
Only what we do is more widely critiqued but not nearly as significant.
It is no easy job, covering football. But then, no sportswriting job is. Yet so much of the job is so basic, so intertwined with the traits that dictate success in other fields. Acting professional. Treating others with respect. Being honest on expense reports. Showing up to work on time. Putting in the extra time that is mandatory if one is to get ahead.
But don't take my word for it. Take the word of others as well. Not long ago, I called around to some of the most respected reporters in the business, professionals I look up to. I asked them to describe the one skill a football reporter would need to succeed. Their responses were as varied as they should be valued.
Thomas George, The New York Times: "The one thing about covering pro football is the same thing about covering anything as a writer. Establishing relationships — with honesty and integrity."
Peter King, Sports Illustrated: "Learn the game. Too many people who come into the game don't believe it's necessary to know the inner-workings of why some teams play the 4-3 defense and why other teams play the 3-4. Where that manifests itself and hurts you is in relationships with players and coaches because soon enough they will see you're a lame brain and don't know the game and haven't worked at your craft. The best way to show readers and subjects that you should be respected and that they should give you the time of day is to know the game. Don't be somebody who just watches it."
Excerpted from Real Sports Reporting by Abraham Aamidor. Copyright © 2003 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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