Westbrook, Young, and now Irving. Fans are treating players like absolute garbage at arenas across the NBA. These assholes have been cooped up in their homes, kept away from stadiums across the sports landscape for so long that the second they return, they start acting like chimps in a zoo. Whether it is as innocuous as popcorn or as disgusting as spit, how have these idiots lost sight of the fact that their target is another human being that they have just paid hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to watch perform?
It’s nothing new. Fans have a long history of not thinking of athletes as human beings. The aggressions can be macro, a la the Portland fan in 1995 that shouted something vulgar about Vernon Maxwell’s stillborn child, or they can be micro, like any time a fan claims to pay a guy’s salary. They are symptoms of the same attitude – “I am more important than you”.
There is no doubt that it is a shitty outlook to have, but “fan” is short for “fanatic” and that certainly implies that some very shitty people are going to be in the stands for every game. You don’t expect to find them in the press box or in the locker room after the game though. Turns out, all it took was Naomi Osaka to expose just how many members of the media look down on the players they cover.
Last week, the tennis phenom said that she would not be attending post-match press conferences during the French Open. She cited her mental health as the reason for the decision.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes [sic] mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” the world’s second-ranked women’s star wrote across her social media feeds.
There is an understanding at these tournaments that speaking to the media is part of the job. If you don’t fulfill that duty, you face a fine. Naomi Osaka made it clear that she understood the policy and didn’t care. She would pay the fine if that was the cost of not doing something she thinks is detrimental to her overall performance. Shouldn’t that be the end of our concern?
Clearly it was not. First it was Roland Garros, then it was the governing bodies of all four of tennis’s Grand Slam events. They said in no uncertain terms that Naomi Osaka faced expulsion from any tournament she entered if she refused to speak to the media.
I can’t help but think these organizations wouldn’t have upped the ante if media voices around the world weren’t demanding some kind of retribution. The “hey, I’m just trying to do my job” crowd was out in full force. And they were buoyed by current and former players that all said the same thing. “Speaking to the media is part of the job!” And look, I get the point they were making and where they are coming from, but again, Naomi Osaka wasn’t saying “no it’s not.” She was saying “I can’t do this part of the job, and I will accept whatever punishment there is for it.”
I sympathize with Naomi Osaka here. She withdrew from the French Open and announced that she needed some time away from the court. That didn’t have to be the case. The powers that be in tennis tried to call her bluff and she wasn’t bluffing.
Naomi Osaka clearly goes through mental and emotional struggles that are exacerbated by talking to the media. Rather than agree that there is a consequence to not working with the people that cover their sport and accepting that Osaka could live with those consequences, the power brokers at tennis’s biggest events upped the ante and as a result, lost one of the sport’s biggest draws.
The sports media is not a monolith. It is made up of different people with different experiences. People that entered the business in the last five-to-ten years may have the same title as someone that entered the business thirty years ago, but they approach the job totally differently. When it comes to Naomi Osaka talking about her mental health or Trae Young calling out fan behavior, it always seems to be the oldest in our profession that get the loudest about the need for these people to “man up” or “show some mental fortitude”.
Look, I think it is time we say something out loud that is no secret in the world at large, but within our industry, too many are afraid to acknowledge. In a world where literally every game is available on either linear or streaming television and social media exists, reporters have less value to fans than they did a generation ago. It’s nothing personal. We live in a world where athletes can get their message directly to fans. In fact, that’s how Osaka made her announcement. To quote Pearl Jam, it’s evolution, baby.
I don’t mind people that think Naomi Osaka is in the wrong for skipping out on her press conferences. I don’t mind people that think that decision warranted some kind of punishment. The punishment was laid out in front of Naomi Osaka and she accepted it. What right did anyone have to still be angry?
And don’t tell me that players like Steffi Graf or Pete Sampras or Ivan Lendl wouldn’t behave like this. You know what they all have in common? They aren’t a part this year’s French Open. So who cares?
And don’t tell me it was all a convenient cover for Naomi not wanting to play on clay. You know it’s true because her sister posted about it on Reddit, right? Well, maybe it was a misunderstanding on her sister’s part to make it seem so simple or maybe the clay itself is part of the cause of Naomi Osaka’s stress and anxiety. Either way, I would rather assume someone is telling the truth about struggling with mental health, encourage them to take care of themselves, and later be called naive than dismiss someone’s pain for fear that I might be wrong.
The internet gave players agency. There is no barrier to telling their story directly to fans. That means players that grew up with the internet will have a fundamentally different relationship with and view of the media than their elders. There is nothing wrong with that. Every profession evolves with the times and new technologies. Why should we expect ours to be any different?
As a public, we lose sight of the fact that the people we lionize for what they can do on a tennis or basketball court are just that – people. It isn’t out of bounds to have expectations of how they behave or carry themselves, but most of the time, people will choose to meet their own needs first. Using our own column space or air time to rail against a player’s decision not to talk to us is no less self-absorbed that what they are doing.
Millionaires rarely engender sympathy. Most fans only view players through that single lens. “They make millions to play this game that I pay hundreds to watch. They OWE me!”
The media has a professional responsibility to be better than that. Where was the reporter asking Naomi Osaka what she is dealing with? Where was the long form piece on athletes battling depression and anxiety in the biggest moments of their careers? I didn’t see many columns or stories that framed Osaka’s decision as a human one or that approached it with even an ounce of empathy or desire to understand until after she announced she would withdraw from all upcoming tournaments. By that point, the concern is so disingenuous that it is disgusting.
Too many media members first jumped to trying to shame Naomi Osaka. Then, when they decided she had been properly embarrassed, they pretended to want to understand her struggle. How do the authors of those columns go back and read their own words without feeling absolutely embarrassed?
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.