Covering any game in any league, for someone who didn’t go through the process of becoming a journalist in the strict sense, is an inexact science. Just because you didn’t choose it as your major, didn’t get an advanced degree in the discipline, didn’t start out at a small paper in a podunk town and work your way up to the big time, it doesn’t mean you can’t belong. In others’ minds, maybe. But just about anyone can hold their own. And just about anyone does.
If you keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth closed, you find that your colleagues and supposed betters who sport the little piece of unlaminated cardboard or the full lanyard run the gamut of “professionalism.”
I spent the last decade and a half traveling to games in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, from college to the NHL, and I have seen some stuff that would puncture any budding writer’s idea of what’s been sold as the “dream job.”
The final act to the tragedy that was the 2013 Flyers season happened in their home finale against the New York Islanders. One playoff bound team facing one headed for the golf course didn’t exactly attract a standing-room only crowd in the press box, but the end of the year apparently brought a bit of loosening from decorum on either side of where I sat.
Late in the third period as the Flyers clung to a one-goal deficit, on my right a gaggle of four colleagues created their own version of “The View,” whose laughter became so pronounced at repeated intervals that I was having trouble concentrating on this laugher of a game. Right about at the point where I was going to walk over and suggest they can it, a noticeably agitated long-time New York-area beat writer started craning his neck to his right, taking notice of what the kibbitzing was about, too.
That impending state of wretchedness was — fortunately or unfortunately — passed on to an unlucky gentleman, significantly younger, rounder and quieter than I, who plopped down in the seat next to this respected writer from Long Island — two over from me, and one in which he assumed was safe to co-opt for his writing purposes.
Keep in mind, this was with 9 minutes remaining in the third period. What followed was an all-time nuclear exchange, starting off with “I’ve been on the road for the last 12 days and I’m trying to get my work done,” leading into a string of profanities woven into every sentence talking about respect, and ending in frustrated silence as his efforts went for naught. The Lump just kinda sat there, deflecting all that anger, sotto voce, apparently with little deference to his “superior.” It was loud enough and long enough that everyone on the right side of the ledger stopped to gawk instead of paying attention to the action on the ice.
Within the span of 10 minutes in real time, that’s three separate instances of showing disregard for the unwritten rules of maintaining a presence in the press box. Although Rule #1 — no cheering — is hammered into our heads from the start, figuring out the remaining guidelines can only be gleaned through direct experience.
It also should be noted that direct address in these situations is a rare and beautiful thing. In most cases of press row indecency, those sitting around the offender simply snicker to themselves, or to their neighbors, and talk smack behind the offender’s back. Being part of the clique solves nothing, though.
The first significant move I made towards a career in sports media, was during the early stages of my senior year at Boston College. Looking to gain a coveted spot on the school’s adult-staffed, student-run and award-winning radio station, WZBC, in mid-September of 1999, I signed up for every available producing shift and hockey broadcast in hopes of kick-starting an exciting new career.
It was such a liberating experience that, on the way back to the dorms but within ear shot of roughly two dozen future co-workers, I blurted out “this is the first time I’ve ever walked out of a room on this campus truly happy.”
The next step in the process came three weeks later, on the eve of the hockey season, which was a meeting with the school’s then-director of sports information, Dick Kelley.
Five minutes inside his office, and my mind was blown forever. Here’s a man of power, who didn’t know me from anybody, nonetheless tasked with signing off on giving me the power to hit public airwaves while representing the student body of a Division I university through actions and voice. After some small talk surrounding my hometown and career goals, he hit me with the most ambiguous, but blunt and valuable piece of advice I’ve ever received:
“Don’t act like an idiot.”
He continued: “You’re not on the air to be a typical college kid. You have a job to do. Prepare for every broadcast. Take every game seriously, like it’s an audition. Same goes for when you’re in the press box. You’re a representative of Boston College.”
And while not acting like an idiot took a while to properly sink in (yes, I had my moments for WZBC [your home for Eagles...hockey action], including the joining of vodka to iced tea moments before the BC-BU Beanpot final to quell the nerves), what really did the trick was the via negativa route — seeing what my peers, colleagues and giants in the field did and making sure not to copy that.
Here’s a short list.
When preparing for the Hockey East final between BC and Maine, and you spot an ESPN hockey insider who was not that far removed from being the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings walking down the hallway with three of his cronies, just smoking and joking, stand your ground. If you try to wedge yourself to one side to try and pass, thinking any one of those guys sees it and recognizes you need to get by, you’ll end up with a hard shoulder check from the outermost crony into the press box wall as all four fail to break stride.
If you’re on a deadline, whether it’s one in a reasonable time frame or not, try not to punch the press box wall or the table top out of frustration when one team decides to break a tie with six minutes left in the second period. All apologies, but both teams are going to play the game how they see fit and they don’t care if you’re Shakespearean tale of a recap gets scrapped. And if you forget not to do it once, try not to do it every damned game, because it makes you look spastic and like a spoiled, petulant child.
We know intermissions are only 18 minutes long, and it’s not enough time to stretch the legs, talk to 10 different people in a crowded hallway, refill that Sierra Mist, dig out another heaping helping of popcorn and take your time deciding which mustard to put on your super-salted pretzel. Everyone at some point takes food and drink back to their seat to quietly munch on during the resumption of play. If you do, try not to create a blast zone around your area of the detritus from said snacking which can be clearly visible to the naked eye, and don’t do so enough times that the cynical internet mag of record gets wind of it and publishes an expose outing you with every clue except your actual name.
Every once in a while, personal business gets in the way of your job, and sometimes it has to intrude on your game duties. If you’re tired, don’t take up a seat and treat the press box like your personal rest home. Failure to heed will make you an instant Instagram/Facebook/Twitter All-Star/laughingstock. Fall asleep on your own time, at your own home. Likewise, if you have baby mama drama, and your phone calls (while on press row instead of out in the hallway) are increasingly louder each successive time, don’t treat the person who dares to bring it to your attention like he’s disrespecting you and your personal business and try to twist it into some sort of racist thing. Take it outside and don’t let people trying to do their work hear it.
And, harkening back to my lead story, remember to keep the socializing to the pre-game, intermissions and post-game. No matter how bad the matchup or how ridiculous the score, conversation should be respectful while the game is on.
The kicker to all this is, in my estimation, roughly 75 percent of all the egregiously unprofessional behavior comes from the personality type which will be a success in sports media. They don’t care what anyone thinks or how they act, as long as they get the stories, the access and the byline and the accolades. I suppose that’s what makes the good ones who maintain that sense of responsibility and wield the written word like a velvet hammer stand out, and what draws the youngsters to them for advice and mentoring.
So, Mr. Kelley, while I’ve tried my best over the last 13 years to heed your warning and uphold that dignified air you spoke of long ago, it’s unfortunately a guarantee of nothing. It’s a major reason why I love working minor league and college games better than the NHL. I wish they did hand out awards for classiest person and that the prize was a jump to the head of the line in print or broadcast media, but so it goes.
Those five special words pretty much cover it, though. How you apply them is up to you, every time out. Remember, they say you write the story, not become the story.