The Fifth Down

President's column:
Not going away

So there I sat, the first media voice ever invited into the exclusive room full of millionaires known as the Southeastern Conference football coaches, and I wondered for a moment, "How did I get here?"

The answer: I opened my big mouth and wouldn't go away.

Thanks to Charles Bloom of the SEC, who's also the current president of CoSIDA, we were able to present a media policy to SEC football coaches at the league meetings in Destin, Fla., in late May.

In this issue of The Fifth Down:
President's column: Not going away
Football Forum begins dialogue
Football Forum transcripts
Preseason Watch Lists:
Outland Trophy
Bronko Nagurski Trophy
All-America Checklist (.pdf)

The coaches, naturally, hated the policy and shot it down, but the policy went to the SEC athletic directors. They tabled it until their August meeting. The best part about being in the meeting wasn't the fact we were trying to push a modest policy. It basically called for all league schools to conduct open scrim-mages if they also allowed other guests to watch and for all league schools to allow the media to talk to freshmen.

The second point became moot when Bloom discovered there's already an SEC by-law requiring all schools in all sports to make all student-athletes and coaches available after competition.

What I took away from the meeting, as well as the Football Forum conducted by the National Football Foundation (thank you Steve Hatchell!), was that media and coaches are finally getting chances to talk about the problems confronting both sides in the deteriorating relationship between the parties.

The honest exchanges at the Football Forum, with coaches Jim Tressel of Ohio State, Tyrone Willingham of Washington, Mark Mangino of Kansas and Gary Patterson of TCU, as well as what I heard in a 45-minute meeting with SEC coaches, indicated both sides have a lot of work to do.

From our perspective, we see coaches as the most paranoid form of human life on our planet. They are afraid to let anyone around them talk, other than themselves. They believe that because of the Internet, blogs and chat rooms, anything said by them or anyone around them will be used against them.

The coaches said they aren't able to distinguish between legitimate media (beat writers who cover the team every day and attempt to report responsibly, professionally and ethically) and fly-by-night fan-based websites that seem to pop up weekly.

As Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "If we knew who we were letting in the scrimmage, we'd let them watch."

Also, the concern of most coaches is live reporting from scrimmages. This is a point I agree with. Imagine yourself as a parent of a player and you get a call from a friend who's reading a live Internet report from a scrimmage that your son has just torn up his knee, or even worse received a neck injury that looked severe.

That's something that shouldn't be reported until after the scrimmage and the school's trainer or head coach has had a chance to talk to the parent.

The FWAA needs to work with sports information directors about self-policing the zeal of some reporters who step over the bounds of journalist ethics.

By the same token, SIDs should not cower to their coaches and try to bully media on every point. Since I took over as FWAA president, I received several disturbing reports from writers in which SIDs have threatened to pull credentials for what the SIDs believed were violations of school media policy.

The worst offender of this is a major school in the Midwest. The latest complaint is that the school threatened to pull a credential because the writer contacted a player who had been on scholarship, but is no longer enrolled because of personal reasons. The player is enrolled at a college in Indianapolis.

The SID office considered the contact by a reporter to be a violation of the school's policy that all interviews with school's student-athletes must be cleared by the SID office. This certainly is an area that needs much more discussion by the FWAA, the school and any media organization covering the school.

Another school in the East allowed its football coach to hold an on-the-record luncheon with certain beat writers to the exclusion of others. By some it was viewed as punishment for questions the excluded writers had asked in a news conference.

Back to the SEC. Whether it approves the media policy or not and I suspect it won't unless there is a modification we have to keep pressing the fight.

Coaches, whether most of them care or not, need to hear the problems we face trying to do our jobs. We also need to hear how the coaches see it.

Nobody said our fight for better access was going to be easy. This is just the beginning. We can't accept "you can't" for an answer. We must reply "why not?" We have to keep pushing to find a middle ground.

Because if we don't, all of our stories will read like press releases.

On a positive note, I've talked to many SIDs trying to follow the FWAA's 25 recommended elements that should be in a press guide. We're still going to have schools that publish a media guide that is basically a recruiting guide.

But believe me, we have made our point about press guides. There are more SIDS on our side than you think. They value the way they serve us.

I'll be Tampa in early July for the CoSIDA convention, talking to as many SIDs as possible. Neither side benefits without a consistent line of communication.

FWAA president Ron Higgins covers college football for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn. He can be reached at rhiggins@commercialappeal.com.

KEY FWAA CONTACTS

Bert McGrane Award nominees: Mark Blaudshun (blauds@aol.com)
Volney Meece Scholarship nominees: Dave Sittler (davesitt@aol.com)
Website, Tostitos Fiesta Bowl National Team of the Week: Ted Gangi (webmaster@sportswriters.net)
Membership Directory: Charlie Fiss, AT&T Cotton Bowl (charlie@attcottonbowl.com)
Ethics/Press Relations Committee: Kirk Bohls (kbohls@statesman.com)
College Football Playoff Liaison: Gina Lehe, College Football Playoff (glehe@collegefootballplayoff.com)
Eddie Robinson Award: Steve Richardson (tiger@fwaa.com)
Fifth Down Blog/FWAA Best Writing Contest: Ken Stephens (ken.stephens@sbcglobal.net)
Bronko Nagurski Award: John Rocco, Charlotte Touchdown Club (jrocco@touchdownclub.com)
Outland Trophy, All-America Team: Steve Richardson (tiger@fwaa.com)
Grantland Rice Super 16 Poll: Phil Marwill, National Football Foundation (pmarwill@footballfoundation.org)
Discover Orange Bowl/FWAA Courage Award: George Schroeder, USA TODAY (gschroeder@aol.com), Ron Higgins, Nola.com (rhigg@aol.com)
Freshman All-America Team: Mike Griffith, MLive Media Group (mgrif32@aol.com)

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