University News

All-star panel tackles sports media issues

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Individual opinions now overshadow the true essentials of sports coverage, said Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell to a full Salomon 101 auditorium Tuesday night.

The Boston Celtic great was one of four members of a panel that discussed the role of the media in sports. He was joined by ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman ’77 P’08 P’09, Providence Journal sports columnist Bill Reynolds ’68 and HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg ’77 P’10.

The event, titled “The Role of the Media in Constructing the Public Perception of Sport,” was moderated by Luther Spoehr, a lecturer in education and history who studies intercollegiate athletics.

Russell, a youthful-looking 75, dominated the stage with his 6-foot-10-inch frame. The five-time Most Valuable Player and 11-time NBA Championship winner reflected on his mixed emotions regarding the media, especially their coverage of race in sports.

“The media approached me and talked to me as if I was part of a group,” he said. “But they wanted me to respond to them as an individual. I didn’t think that that was quite kosher.”
Members of the media sometimes get preoccupied giving their opinions and don’t report on the facts of the games, Russell said, adding that journalists said they knew more about professional basketball than Russell did on “at least two dozen occasions.”
“That was one of the dumbest things I ever heard,” he said.

The three media professionals each discussed their excitements and concerns regarding today’s sports culture.

Berman, who has worked at ESPN since its inception in 1979, said today’s “24/7” culture is blurring the line between immediate information and privacy.

In their haste to break stories, Berman said, some members of the sports media don’t worry enough about getting the facts straight.

“Accuracy is another line that’s being blurred,” he said. “The possession arrow may be going in the wrong direction.”

Reynolds remarked that sports coverage when he was younger only reported on “hits, runs and errors.” In the age of satellite television and the Internet, fans know much more about athletes outside of the game.

“We have all types of access to people, obviously sometimes too much,” he said.
One problem of overwhelming sports coverage is that it focuses heavily on professional sports and major college teams. Reynolds said coverage of Brown football games always used to be on the front of the sports section of the Providence Journal, but too many people now have a perception that “if it’s not on TV, it doesn’t count.”

Spoehr turned the discussion to the media’s increased coverage of college sports and the changing expectations colleges have of their student-athletes. Because enough people will watch, television networks now encourage schools to have their athletes play games during the school week, he said.

Berman responded that the public demand for sports continues to grow and networks can be hard-pressed not to broadcast more sporting events.

“Does that mean we need to have a quadruple-header on Wednesday night?” Berman said. “No, not necessarily.”

Reynolds said schools are ignoring their athletes’ educations in order to make money, but the public chooses to look the other way.

“No one wants to know how a sausage is made,” he said. “This is a business. This is what we want.”

Russell expressed concern that student-athletes don’t get salaries and can only make $2,000 a year working other jobs while colleges and high-paid coaches are profiting from their work.

“The student-athlete, unless he comes from a wealthy family, is compelled to live a life of poverty,” Russell said.

Greenburg, of HBO, said media professionals highlight the glamour that comes with being a professional athlete but ignore the fates of the vast majority of collegiate athletes.
“For every Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James,” he said, “there are hundreds of thousands of kids who are lost.”

Just in the last generation, Reynolds said, too many college players assume their careers after college will involve playing professionally.

“Professional sports hangs over too many kids like it’s the only option,” he said.
Russell said he encourages student-athletes to finish college before attempting to become professional athletes. Even those who become professional athletes need to enjoy a full college experience, he said.

“The night before final exams — there’s nothing in the real world that’s going to top that,” Russell said.

The panel took questions from two audience members, discussing rising ticket prices in sports and the ramifications of age restrictions in the NBA.

After the panel discussion, many audience members headed to Salomon 001 to watch a screening of HBO’s 2000 documentary “Bill Russell: My Life, My Way.”

Tuesday’s event, sponsored by the Department of Athletics and the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, was the third recent symposium on sports.