Wednesday, February 29, 2012

UCLA and the Red Sox: when reporters delve into disasters

Today, I read two very interesting articles on the struggles of the once mighty UCLA basketball team. One, in Sports Illustrated, went through all the ways in which UCLA coach Ben Howland has failed to hold his athletes accountable to certain standards of behavior. The other, from Sporting News, attempted to defend Coach Howland and his team, attributing the team's struggles to a lack of home games. The level of research of the Sports Illustrated article makes it the more convincing of the two; the Sporting News piece never fully responds to Reeves Nelson's dangerous behavior among other issues. It's also worth noting that this is an exposé in a vein similar to the Boston Globe piece about the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox, so I'm going to use this blog to discuss that piece as well.
Here are my thoughts on the case as a whole:

  • My heart goes out to the UCLA basketball players who were hurt by Nelson. I can't imagine being on a team with someone who made a conscious effort to hurt you. Of all of the issues brought up in college sports, this is certainly one you don't see every day. No wonder Matt Carlino transferred to BYU. I agree with his teammate's assertion "That wasn't quitting. That was just smart."
  • One of the main issues here is entitlement, shown both by the players and by Howland itself. The Sports Illustrated article treats them as somewhat separate issues, but how separate are they really? If Howland considered himself too important to treat his assistant coaches well, perhaps he understood the players' own sense of entitlement and was therefore less inclined to call them out on it.
  • Nelson is portrayed as one of the main villains throughout the piece. But I have to give him credit for the fact that he agreed to speak to the media and acknowledged the mistakes he made. It's clear this kid had problems and needed help. That's not to say what he did wasn't wrong; the article portrays him as a malicious bully, not as a nice person with occasional outbursts. But if you're in charge of a program and you see this kind of behavior happening, it's your job to stop it and your job to figure out whether this is a good kid with problems or a bad kid who doesn't belong on the team. Nelson is portrayed as the latter throughout the piece, but Howland never seemed to consider that he could be either.
  • The Globe piece was about a professional sports team, not a collegiate program. Professional athletes should know that everything they do could be the subject of an article, but the UCLA athletes described as hard-partiers probably didn't think they'd appear in Sports Illustrated for it. But even high school athletes can make headlines for their troublemaking. Athletes, take note: if you play a sport, no matter the level, your life is available for public scrutiny. Learn how to deal with that because it doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.
  • Like the Globe piece, this one also relied on anonymous sources. But there's far less room to hide in the UCLA basketball program. Not only are basketball programs smaller, but these sources were identified specifically as players, not simply as members of the organization. That means that they were likely more motivated to talk to the reporters than the Globe's sources. I have much more respect for the basketball players who acted as sources. With nowhere to turn on the team, they found an outlet to ensure that the team's problems would finally see the light. The fact that things aren't going as badly this season drills a hole in that somewhat, but I tend to trust that these sources had good intentions. As for those who spoke to the Globe? If Chris Jones is correct in this Grantland piece that ownership was a major source, then I have no respect for that whatsoever. Actually, I don't have much respect for it anyway.
  • I also agree with the Grantland piece on the use of anonymous sources. I tend not to like it.
  • I wonder what the writers think they are accomplishing by these pieces. It makes you think about why you want to write, what the goal is. The purposes I see are: informing people of information they need to know, telling stories that teach important lessons or highlight great people, trying to persuade people to agree with you (though this is specific for opinion writing), and entertaining people. Where exactly do these pieces fit in with that goal? They can help us engage with some serious issues, but they can also hurt a lot of people. That's not to say that they shouldn't be published, but I want to know what the writers were thinking when the sent in these pieces.

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