Dear Dan: Is It OK for a Student-Athlete to Be a Sports Editor?

3Dear Dan is a CMM series featuring perspectives and advice on serious and quirky college media issues of the moment. Most installments include a question or quandary submitted by a student journalist and responses from Dan and a mix of journalists and college media advisers.

Here’s the issue: Our new sports editor is also on the school basketball team. He doesn’t play a lot and we’re not at a high-profile hoops school or anything. Some of us don’t think it’s right though, since technically he’s in charge of the bball coverage [he does not report on the team and separate editors vet the basketball copy, but he does create final layout, headlines, etc.]. Also just seems iffy overall with him being a student-athlete and then directing staff writers on how to cover other student-athletes. I’m new too to my position, so I wasn’t in charge of his hiring. I don’t think I would have [hired him as sports editor]. The editor-in-chief thinks it’s fine though. Your thoughts? S.L., managing editor, weekly student newspaper at a small Division I school

I’ll be blunt: This screams trouble. You’re fighting an uphill battle in the ethics arena and the realm of reader perception. OK, now I know that away from big-time college athletics the student part in student-athlete truly does tend to come first and athletes from all sports at a school don’t make blood pacts at the start of each semester to only say nice things about each other.

But, nevertheless, being a student-athlete is a prominent identity of sorts, one that cannot simply be tucked away or forgotten the moment your editor walks into the newsroom. Is he attending your school via an athletics scholarship? That, to me, is the deal-breaker. If so, consider the implications: He is in charge of leading coverage about an area of the university that officials are simultaneously paying him to take part in and represent in a positive way. Even a ref having an off night would spot that ASAP and call it a flagrant conflict of interest penalty.

Then there’s perception trouble. He might be the most objective journalist on the planet. But the first whiff of controversy over a story, say, being too positive about a team or the athletics program overall might dredge up lots of barbs from critics about the editor’s ‘insider’ athlete status.

Can this problem be solved by keeping him at the reporter level — ensuring he covers sports with which he has no affiliation or writes only about non-college athletics issues? I think so. In that framework, you can keep his coverage under closer watch. And his journalistic pluses would of course be plentiful — increased access, a greater understanding of sporting mechanics and mindsets, a wider awareness of perspectives or story angles and an empathy for the athlete as human being.

Now is he the only qualified candidate at your disposal? Are you upfront with readers and school officials to a fault about the crossover? Are checks and balances in place as much as possible to ensure no real or perceived conflicts crop up? Then, maybe, MAYBE, I would offer my consent, with a wince and a hiss. Otherwise, I’d say no.

For some additional thoughts on this dilemma, I reached out to Joe Gisondi, a journalism professor at Eastern Illinois University and author of the essential Field Guide to Covering Sports. He graciously offered his take:

1“Dealing with student media, I find you should never have any absolutes, primarily because you have so many different models. … If this were taking place at The Red & Black [at the University of Georgia], I’d say that it’s ridiculous.  If it happened here at Eastern, I would also have a problem with it. But if you’re talking about a student media outlet that’s scrambling to put something together, I don’t like it, but the reality is that if no one else is going to cover sports, what do you do?

“In that case, you need to sit this editor down and make sure he or she reports to other editors — including the managing editor and editor-in-chief — and has constant discussions about what’s right, what’s wrong, what they can or should do, what the parameters are. It’s clearly not an ideal situation. But I think there are some ways where it could work. Although again, I would do everything I could to avoid it.

“I think it’s more of a conflict of interest than a student involved in Greek life because … you don’t have that one person if you’re a member of a fraternity or sorority telling you here’s what you’re allowed and not allowed to do. Whereas, if you’re in the athletics department, you’re dealing with a scholarship and an AD [athletic director] who could ostensibly say ‘Hey, if you write about this, we’re going to withdraw your scholarship.’ …

“The closest connection I think I’ve had as adviser has been with members of student government. We generally don’t want them to be senior news editors because it’s like the government being the editor. That said, with sports, I have no problem with [a student-athlete] being a sports reporter. But if he’s a football player, let him cover lacrosse. Again, not ideal — but it’s better than him being sports editor.”

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Comments
One Response to “Dear Dan: Is It OK for a Student-Athlete to Be a Sports Editor?”
  1. Bob Bergland says:

    Agree with both of you. Joe’s comment about the reality of the situation at small schools struggling with inadequate staff rings all too true for me. I ran track and cross country at a small Division III (no scholarships) school. We had two people who knew anything at all about sports, and I was the only with with any reporting experience, so I became the default sports editor. We took steps to avoid conflicts of interest (or, as was pointed out, even the appearance of conflict of interest) by not having me cover my sports, not have me be interviewed for track/CC stories, and to generally place those stories at the bottom of the page (as they normally would at most papers), but I was still uncomfortable.
    In this student’s case, one possible compromise to avoid essentially firing the student from the position in mid-semester might be to appoint a co-sports editor, if anyone else is qualified. The BB player could be in charge of women’s sports, while the other editor handled men’s sports coverage and anything relating to the athletic department.