By Dave Jones
2017 FWAA President
Journalists are cynical. I’m not certain whether it’s more because we are skeptical folks at heart and intrinsically need to see proof or because we see so much duplicity and deviousness in detail.
Or maybe it’s just because we are prone to see the effects of the world, including our actions or mistakes, on our subjects, up close.
I’ll always remember the scene in a favorite old movie called Absence of Malice where a young reporter played by Sally Field is so reckless in attempting to nail a story that it leads to a woman, a principal in the story, taking her own life. An editor mentor tries to console the crushed Fields by offering her a desk position at the paper, suggesting maybe it’s time to come in from the daily storm:
“Too many people out there. A lot of news is bad news for somebody. You stay out there too long, the somebodies start adding up.”
Well, I never wanted to be an editor. I always wanted to be on the street, in the arena, seeing in person events as they happened. That involvement can come with a cost.
When I was 30, about the age of the young reporter in Absence of Malice, I was told by my editor to go cover a story about a college student who had been too terrified to admit to her parents that she had become pregnant. She wore blousy clothes, tried not to eat too much and desperately hid her secret from everyone. Finally, she gave birth by herself in a dormitory bathroom and then left the baby in a dumpster to die.
It was a gruesome story that I told in as much detail as I could muster, relating police documents, collecting anecdotes about the young woman’s background, talking to friends, other students, even quoting a Bible-thumping preacher yelling to passersby on the quad: “Are you the murderess? Are you? You’re all responsible!”
My editors were very pleased with the story when I finished it that evening. It got play on A1. I did not feel especially proud, only that I’d done my job.
A few months later, we ran another small wire story on that young woman, tucked in the back of the state news section. It said she had taken her own life.
That’s been nearly three decades ago. It still pops into my head now and then. Not because I made any mistakes with the facts in that story: I didn’t. Not because I knew for sure that it had any effect at all on the young woman; I never knew.
Only because it suggested to me that what we do can have an effect on our subjects maybe more than we realize. It gave me my first lesson in empathy, one I’ve learned and re-learned throughout a 36-year career.
I’d like to think we can make a difference in a positive way. I love this business because of that. I love the people in it. And I see the great work they do. Many times they are journalists from small outlets that might be judged inconsequential. But their stories are anything but.
I cite, for example, The Daily Collegian of Penn State’s exposé of a pair of women’s gymnastics coaches of whom athletes alleged emotional abuse; and the nmfishbowl.com blog that exposed unflattering exit interviews with departing athletes who repeatedly alleged they were not allowed to take the classes they wanted to obtain a meaningful degree.
This is the type of work that FWAA writers have done, can do and, I’m confident, will. I’m inspired by them and believe we can help college football players protect themselves from administrators who do not always have their best interests in mind when presented with the overriding factors of profit.
Whether it is pressure to perform when not physically able, abusive coaches, encouragement to enroll in tailored curriculum not worthy of a genuine degree, improper concussion protocol, the over-issuance of addictive opioid pain medications or any other action that imperils or creates a disadvantage to the athlete, that’s where we should be —reporting, uncovering, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.
As the 74th president of the FWAA, walking in the large footprints of predecessors such as Paul Zimmerman, Blackie Sherrod, Jack Murphy, Ivan Maisel, Tony Barnhart and Dick Weiss, that is my goal: Be cynical and skeptical in a productive way. Let’s get out on the fields — and into the back hallways and public records — and make a difference.
A few reminders and notes:
- I’d like to remind everyone that we’ll soon be taking entries for the FWAA Best Writing Contest. And if you have any ideas for our Beat Writer of the Year award, please email them to Malcolm Moran (email@example.com).
- If you want to serve on FWAA committees, we welcome you. Contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or executive director Steve Richardson (email@example.com) to be installed on the All-American, Bert McGrane Award, Volney Meece Scholarship, Merit Award or other committees.
- We have some ongoing issues we’ll be addressing. First vice president Stefanie Loh of The Seattle Times will be heading up an effort to make shorter and safer the journeys to and from stadiums from media lots, especially at night and for those alone. Second vice president Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com has a particular interest in athletic departments who issue gag orders to the family members of players. These are worthy goals and I welcome your ideas on how to best handle them.
- Tim Griffin is chair of our Super 11 awards for the top sports information directors in nation, the good guys and gals who understand helping us to do our jobs helps the athletes.
Finally, I’d like to express how much I enjoyed your reception in Tampa and assure you that I will dedicate this year to do my best in encouraging diligence, fairness and empathy. Be proud of what we do. And let’s resolve to be audacious and to answer to our better spirits in all our endeavors of 2017.