Friday, July 24, 2009

Biting The Hand That Feeds You

Publicity Man. Sports Information Director. Communications Coordinator. Media Relations Specialist.

The job titles in my industry have changed through the years, but the primary job function has remained the same (for the most part). My business card happens to read: Associate Sports Information Director.

I promote the athletics programs at my university by helping the media do its job. Many of my daily responsibilities revolve around assisting our media contingent so that it can easily cover the programs, coaches and student-athletes at my institution/alma mater.

I enjoy that part of the job. And while differences arise from time to time, I believe that most media members appreciate the efforts my colleagues and I put forth on their behalf (and yes, I do understand my institution also benefits from said efforts).

The rise of the social-networking era and the evolution of online information dissemination have changed the landscape of how news is covered. Many reputable outlets risk their credibility on a daily basis by placing an emphasis on "being first" rather than "being accurate."

Along with this trend also has come a tendency to shamelessly transform typically mundane topics into items of newsworthiness. In doing this, I've recently seen one media outlet bite the hand that feeds it, so to speak.


On July 14, 2009, I received two virtually identical e-mails almost simultaneously. The Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the United State Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) had issued a joint statement regarding media guides--the extensive, sport-specific books published by universities to provide the media with a useful tool to assist them in their coverage of the schools' respective programs.

It was around this time of year that a nationwide debate was raging among college administrators on whether or not to eliminate printed media guides as part of a comprehensive push toward "cost containment" within collegiate athletic departments.

The statement by the FWAA and USBWA supported the stance taken by the Southeastern Conference--of which my university is a member--to "preserve 208-page printed media guides for football and basketball."

The journalist-driven organizations believed there was "still a strong need for printed guides in football and basketball" after polling their respective memberships.

Officials within my department were among some of the SEC's most vocal proponents of preserving media guides as a means of assisting the media.

Bottom Line: We recognized that the media found value and usefulness in the guides, and thus, we fought to be able to continue to publish them. You want it? We print it.

While my contributions to the football guide the last couple years have been quite minimal, my colleagues go to great lengths--and dedicate most of their summer--to publish a tremendously thorough volume. They pour their hearts into the annual project and it shows; our football guides have won numerous "Best in the Nation" citations from the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) in recent years.


Knowing how much time and effort goes into the guide every year, it was awfully disheartening earlier this week when--on the very day the guides were distributed to the media fresh off the press--one local editor decided that a minor misprint in the book was somehow, in itself, newsworthy.

The editor decided to post a short article basically poking fun at the oversight. And he did not put a name with the article, attributing it only to "staff." In addition to the article (which ran online and in the following day's print edition) the error was Tweeted about as well.

"Disheartening" is how I characterize my feelings on this issue because our staff goes to great lengths to publish a valuable tool for the media, only (in this instance) to see the media pick it apart and poke fun at its oversights.

What the editor might as well have said: "Thanks for printing this 208-page resource that my staff and I will reference time and time again in the coming months. It will help us write accurate stories. It will help us meet deadline after night games in the fall. I appreciate it so much that I'm going to point out a minor oversight to thousands of readers throughout the world who otherwise would likely never to have noticed.

"Oh yeah, and can you help arrange an in-depth one-on-one interview with your head coach and one of my writers?"


Errors happen in publishing. It's a part of life in that business. I know a former newspaper man who says, "If you ever publish a perfect newspaper, you might as well quit."

When you print a 208-page book, there are going to be misprints, errors and oversights.

If anyone were to appreciate this, I would expect that it would be someone in the newspaper business. Especially someone at a paper that prints errors and inaccuracies with regularity (as I suppose most do, because like I said, these things are just part of the process).

But one newspaper veteran lacked such an appreciation. He saw an opportunity to take a shot and he took it. And my colleagues and I will brush it off and continue to help him and his staff do their job more easily than they could without us.

This blog is my small outlet to vent; very few will read it. But at least I get to bang out my feelings on my keyboard and leave it at that. There will be no grudge or get-backs. Vindictiveness does one no good--especially in this business.

The frustration from this whole episode has been tempered somewhat by the overwhelming outpouring of support from numerous local and regional media members. Even many of the trigger-happy editor's colleagues reached out to apologize, empathize and even admit embarrassment.

That softens the blow a bit. But the fact remains that someone took a run at my "teammates." And that hurts. They've probably handled it more gracefully than I have.

Regardless, we'll all turn the other cheek.

We'll provide assistance however we can tomorrow. Even if "tomorrow" is a Friday evening or a Sunday night.

We just enjoy that part of the job. And we're not going to let anyone ruin it for us.

* a reference to a viral YouTube classic, search: Charlie Bit My Finger

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Other Statistical Head-Scratchers and Ridiculous Rules

I was thrilled last week when my first attempt at blogging fueled some good discussion and thoughtful comments about not only the method of recording defensive stats in college football, but also a number of other aspects of stat-keeping and rules in collegiate athletics.

A number of folks--mostly SIDs or people with a background in athletic media relations--brought up some really good points. So I thought I'd share a few of them here in this entry of ConspicuouSIDeas...

One former hoops SID raised a great point about assists in college basketball. Before we go further, let's take a look at how the NCAA's 2009 Official Basketball Statisticians' Manual (accessible here) defines an assist:

A player is credited with an assist when the player makes, in the judgment of the statistician, the principal pass contributing directly to a field goal (or an awarded score of two or three points). Only one assist is to be credited on any field goal and only when the pass was a major part of the play. The same player cannot be credited with an assist and a field goal made on the same possession.

Such a pass should be either (a) a pass that finds a player free after he or she has maneuvered without the ball for a positional advantage, or (b) a pass that gives the receiving player a positional advantage he or she otherwise would not have had.

An assist should be more than a routine pass that just happens to be followed by a field goal. It should be a conscious effort to find the open player or to help a player work free. There should not be a limit on the number of dribbles by the receiver. It is not even necessary that the assist be given on the last pass. There is no restraint on the distance or type of shot made, for these are not the crucial factors in determining whether an assist should be credited

Despite the verbatim wording that an assist is a "principal pass contributing directly to a field goal (or an awarded score of two or three points)," there is an instance in college basketball when a player can make a pass that leads to "an awarded score of two or three points" but is not credited with an assist--that instance is when the shooter is fouled and converts the resulting free throws.

Failure to credit an assist in this instance makes little to no sense.

Picture this hardwood scenario...

Johnson makes a perfect back-door bounce pass to Brown down on the block, and an opposing defender scrambles over and fouls Brown, thus forcing Brown to miss his layup. But Brown goes to the free-throw line and converts both his free throws.

Did Johnson's pass lead to "an awarded score of two points?"

Yes. Brown would never have had possession of the ball on the block or been able to attempt the layup were it not for Johnson's pass.

But because the resulting points came via free throws, no assist for Johnson.

The foul was out of Johnson's control. But the pass made the play possible. If you really break it down, not only did the pass lead directly to two points, it also led to the opposing team increasing its number of team fouls for the half, which could ultimately lead to more points via bonus free throws.

Some folks may make the following argument: What if Brown made only one of his two free throws?

Well despite my personal feeling that every solitary point is crucial (particularly if your team ends up on the winning side of a one-point ballgame), I'm willing to cede the fact that the statisticians' manual defines an assist as a pass that leads to two or three points. Devaluing the assist is not my intent here.

So even though Brown's 1-for-2 trip to the charity stripe may be enough to make the difference in the game, I'm fine with it also being enough to wipe a potential assist off Johnson's line in the final boxscore.

I'd sure love to see this rule tweaked. What's your take on this one?

From the desk of a BCS-conference football SID--a timing suggestion that ought to become reality on the college gridiron...

In the final minute of a quarter, why does the game clock not display tenths of a second? In the final minute of a half in college basketball, the final minute counts down using tenths of a second starting at 59.9 seconds to play.

Is the closing minute of a quarter in college football any less important?

The person who brought this timing flaw to my attention offers a plausible reason as to why there isn't more of a groundswell to change this aspect of game timing--there is no horn/buzzer in football. The final second ticks off and that's that.

But what if a team had the benefit of knowing--more precisely--exactly how much time it possessed in the closing minute of a game on a potential scoring drive?

Think of it this way. In football, at the very instant when the clock displays 59 seconds remaining, there is really 59.9 seconds remaining (because a full second passed at the start of the quarter before the clock first ticked to 14:59).

Thus, when the clock displays 00 seconds remaining, in reality there is 0.9 seconds remaining. But due to the absence of a final horn, as soon as the officials see the game clock at zeros, the quarter/half/game is over.

Every season, teams are conceivably being deprived of one more play. One play can change a drive, a quarter, a game, a season. Thank goodness at least college basketball has it right.

Pat Forde, Chris Low, Dennis Dodd--somebody, please! Either prove this line of thinking wrong or bring some national attention to the issue.

And lastly, courtesy of yet another former longtime hoops SID, a rules issue pertaining to jersey numbers in college football...

Joe Fan may be apathetic to whether or not his favorite college football team is allowed to dress out two players wearing the same number, but there is little doubt that double numbers are a pain in the butt for stat crews as well as media covering games.

In 2006, Cal's football team had a pair of standout players who both wore No. 1: wide receiver DeSean "Cross the Goal Line Before You Discard the Ball" Jackson, and linebacker Worrell Williams. Both players were starters. And that was just one of many duos who wore the same number.

As my friend wisely asserted, "Double numbers should only be used when dressing 100+ players at home games, (with) the second number going to a walk-on who is not likely to play."

One cause for this confusing problem is that during the recruiting process, coaches promise certain numbers to certain prospects, regardless of whether or not another player on the roster is already wearing that number.

And don't come at me with the "as long as one player plays defense and the other plays offense it doesn't matter" argument, either.

Stat crews don't want to deal with the headache of double numbers, and I'd guess that writers and broadcasters feel the same way.

Thanks to all who gave me feedback on my first-ever blog attempt. Many of you helped give me some great fodder for this entry, which I hope will lead to some more good discussion. If you enjoy the blog, don't forget to follow me on Twitter @TomSatkowiak.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

College Football: The Offensive Story Behind Defensive Stats

The Southeastern Conference is conducting its annual Spring meetings this week in Destin, Fla. League officials are coming together with administrators and coaches from all 12 member institutions to share ideas on how to keep the SEC atop its pedestal as king of the collegiate athletics landscape.

No doubt the Sunshine State's "Luckiest Fishing Village" is hosting a bevy of brilliant minds, and the discussions will be healthy and productive for sure. From television contracts to NCAA compliance to public relations hotpoints, countless worthy subjects will be broached.

But many worthy subjects also will fall by the wayside. A mega-million dollar machine can't get all its parts oiled in just a few days each spring. It's impossible. Especially when you're at the beach, for cryin' out loud!

One subject that likely will not arise--and perhaps it's better-suited to be addressed at an NCAA level, though the SEC could certainly be the one to bring it to Myles Brand's desk--is the method by which the defensive statistics of players across different historical eras are measured.


Let me try to explain my thought process on this one... I'll change gears for just a moment and use Major League Baseball as an example. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs during his career. Two things are certain about Ruth: 1) he was one hell of a hitter; 2) he didn't use performance-enhancing drugs. Anyone dispute that?

Barry Bonds, meanwhile, has 762 home runs to his credit. Do you believe the two aforementioned "certainties" about Ruth hold true for Bonds? If you do, please navigate away from this blog and promise never to return.

For those of you still with me, I propose that it's only fair to athletes that their accomplishments be compared to those of fellow athletes who competed under the same circumstances or whose statistics were measured using the same methods.

You can't fairly compare Ruth to Bonds. You can't compare Willie Mays to Mark McGwire. The powers-that-be in the MLB office ought to separate statistical data into eras. Determine when the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs became rampant in baseball and group all the players who began their careers after that point into the "Modern Era" (I would prefer something like "Steroid Era" or "PED Era," but that would be too harsh, I suppose).

You could then say Hank Aaron is the "Golden Era's" all-time home run king. And Barry Bonds is the "Modern Era's" home run king.

Which brings me back to college football. Let's look at the individual defensive statistics at the University of Tennessee. The school record for total (primary + assisted) tackles in a single game belongs to linebacker Tom Fisher, who had 28 against Auburn in 1964.

One player, 28 tackles. The game was decided in regulation, not 13 overtimes, in case you were wondering (Tennessee lost 3-0, by the way).

There have been some damn fine defensive players to suit up for the Volunteers since 1964. Linebackers in particular: Kevin Burnett, Keith DeLong, Leonard Little, Jerod Mayo, Raynoch Thompson and Al Wilson just to name a few.

None of those guys ever logged 28 tackles in a single game. And unless UT finds itself in a double-digit-overtime affair in the future, no Vol ever will match or surpass that total.

I'll tell you why.

Some years back (can't pinpoint exactly when, but it would be possible to find out), the NCAA changed the way defensive statistics were filed. In Fisher's days as a student-athlete, offensive statistics were kept in real time from inside the press box by the official stat crew at each respective venue. But defensive statistics were tallied up by each team's coaches via film review one or two days after each game took place.

Now I'm not saying the coaches were being dishonest. But coaches do have a vested interest in assuring that their players post good numbers. I'm not trying to take anything away from Tom Fisher here, but is it plausible that maybe just one of his 28 tackles may have been credited on a play during which he jumped on the pile as the whistle was already being blown? I say, sure.

By the time Kevin Burnett was donning the Orange & White on the gridiron, the NCAA had relieved coaches from their stat-keeping duties and ruled that all statistics--offensive and defensive--were to be kept by the stat crew in the press box in real time.

At Tennessee, as at most other schools in the SEC, the stat crew sits in the working-media area of the press box and is surrounded by writers. It's awfully hard to "pad stats" for your team when a respected, national writer from the New York Times or is sitting within earshot of the individuals calling out tackles.

Not that such a thing would happen anyway. Stat crews are generally made up of sports information directors whose professional reputations hinge on their credibility. They're going to call it how it happens on the field. No B.S.

When the Vols won in five overtimes at Alabama in 2003, linebacker Robert Peace logged 16 tackles in an awesome, gutsy effort. That game was decided in five overtimes.

That five-overtime, 16-tackle performance wouldn't even crack Tennessee's all-time top-10 list for single-game total tackles. He would have needed six more stops just to tie for 10th place.

Why should Burnett, Peace and co. be compared to Fisher when it comes to statistics? You're comparing apples to oranges.

The records book should be separated into eras, with footnotes plainly stating that in Era X, defensive statistics were maintained by the coaching staffs via postgame film review. And in Era Y, those stats were kept in real time by the home team's official stat crew.

This suggested alteration of the records book doesn't take a thing away from any player in any era. It doesn't wipe anyone off the books. Football rules change all the time. Sports evolve.

So too, should the records books. Robert Peace's grandkids sure would appreciate that.

Postscript: I should point out that I am a member of the official stat crew at Tennessee home games. We place an emphasis on calling it right both ways. I can't say that for every school. We played a road game a couple seasons ago, and at halftime the home team had been credited with 30 assisted tackles, while we had been credited with only 12 assisted tackles. We had rushed the ball 14 times, and they had rushed the ball 17 times. They had only attempted seven passes. Do you really think with that kind of offensive playcalling by the opponent we were making that many solo tackles?