A player’s job is to play their sport. A sports media member’s job is to analyze them. It’s clear to see how the two sides sometimes have a strained relationship, and it doesn’t help that negative press is usually more popular than positive press. Think about the coverage Kyrie Irving would have gotten if he said he loved Cleveland and didn’t want to leave—much less.
It’s the negative press that sells.
My first experience with negativity in the media
In my first season abroad in Poland, I learned the hard way just how dangerous the media could be. It was early in the year, and my team was struggling. After a tough loss at home—our third defeat in a row—my only two American teammates and I were getting frustrated with losing and wanted to talk things over. We found a booth in a nearby bar, ordered a bottle, and sat.
We bounced ideas off each other, vented a bit, and just talked. No shots, no dancing, no crowds, no excessive drinking—pretty uneventful. When we got tired, we walked to our apartments and went to sleep. It seemed like a harmless night.
At the next practice, the team president showed up to talk to just us three Americans. Apparently someone from the local newspaper didn't find our night so harmless. The article in the newspaper claimed that us Americans “go party after losses because we don’t care, and we don’t hang out with any of the Polish players.”
(I was never able to read the article because it was in Polish, but that’s what I was told.)
The story gave the whole team a reputation. Fans were upset with us. It was referenced multiple times throughout the year. That was many people’s “insight” into our team and became the reason when we played poorly. I never went out in public after a loss again in my career; it was a valuable lesson on how one article like that can make such a lasting impression.
I imagine the author was met only with congratulations from his peers. But this is the type of manipulation that strains the relationship between players and the media: If a player knows that a reporter would achieve higher success by making them look bad, how can they trust that the reporter wouldn’t do so?
How I handled the media
Twitter wasn’t extremely popular in European sports, so I didn’t use it much until I joined Blazer’s Edge. Most of my media interaction was with local newspapers and websites that covered the league. My first two years in Europe, I played in three different countries and I couldn't read anything written about our team. The only snippets of media I got were indirect and translated. I was happily ignorant most of the time.
Many of the reporters and writers that were around the team were not very vocal. I never met a lot of them. There were just people that were around our team, whom I assumed had something to do with a newspaper or news station, and I left it at that. The language barrier made that disconnect easy to sustain. It was almost comical how often people would clue me in, after the fact, on the “he said, she said” drama. Pretty much every game was the same to me; I couldn’t even have told you who our rivals were.
In my third year, I ended up playing in France and remained on the same team for over a half-decade. Eventually, the media there became less foreign to me. I was able to do post-game interviews, game recaps, and meet the people covering us.
Overall I had a good relationship with most of the press.
I was admittedly a little extra nice and friendly. I laughed, joked, gave good interviews—all that. I just knew that if the press likes you, so too will the fans. And all that support leads to extra money and job security.
So I had the charm turned up, and am not ashamed to admit it. It was just little things. Like the media folks would get my first greeting when I came on the court, or a bad joke from someone writing the game recap would get bigger sympathy smiles out of me than another person’s would. It was a small price to pay if it was going to help my reputation within the community and among fans.
The biggest diss
Even with my added effort, I still took my share of lumps in the papers, none bigger than the week after I officially retired.
It was the day before my jersey went up in the rafters, and an article came out about me in the local paper. I had just decided to retire due to some nagging injuries that kept me from playing up to my expectations. I was thinking the piece was going to be something glorious about my six-year run with the team.
There were several negative things said, but the overall premise was that I quit on my team. My last game was a solid performance, so the author took it as me holding back up to that point.
I laughed it off at first. It never feels good to read something like that, but of all the names I have been called by the media, this was the first time quitter was used. It seemed so preposterous that I just carried on. It was, however, difficult knowing that a lot of people who read that article and didn’t know me would look at the situation exactly how the author wrote it—like I quit on my teammates.
Analyses are going to call out faults. That’s normal—it’s simply the media members doing their job. When there’s a manipulation of a situation—or information getting misrepresented entirely—it becomes a problem.
Some teammates had read it and reached out. Then some friends had mentioned that they had read it. Then my family read it. People seemed to feel bad for me, which was the worst part. Other people caring made me feel like the article was getting to me. The team was more upset than anyone and promptly had another, more positive article published the next day.
There will always be some rockiness in the relationship between the sports media and the players. No pro player is exempt from the criticism, but they wouldn’t have made it this far if they couldn’t handle it.
Come back next week to read Part 2 of “How Players Deal With the Media,” and continue sending your questions and prompts to Brian at email@example.com or @BrianFreeman24 on twitter.