ACP Story of the Year Spotlight Series: Orlea L. Miller & Juliet Spies-Gans, The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University

By Katie Comerer & Mary Kate GibbonsCMM correspondents

This past spring, Harvard Crimson staffers Orlea L. Miller and Juliet Spies-Gans investigated the abnormal eating habits of Harvard University student-athletes and the mental stresses and social pressures connected to them.

As the pair write in the Crimson, “For athletes, eating habits don’t just regulate their choices in the dining halls. They also affect their lives on the river and on the field, in classrooms and in dorm rooms. Whether it is bulking up for training camp or slimming down for a weigh-in, for many Harvard athletes, diet remains a constant in the forefront of their minds, impacting their academic, social and athletic experiences at Harvard. Much has been made in the media about abnormal eating habits and disorders in young adults. But what happens when those exceptions become the norm? When the proscribed behavior on a team urges athletes to focus more on immediate results — a rower’s eligibility to race on Saturday — than possible long-term health ramifications?”

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Their 4,000-word piece — headlined “Disorderly Conduct” — has been named the first-place winner of the 2014 ACP Sports Feature Story of the Year award. The ACP awards, informally known as the student press Pulitzers, are among the most prestigious honors bestowed upon college journalists and their media outlets. Like an Oscar nomination, simply attaining finalist status is a mark of distinction student journos can humble-brag about on resumés and in job interviews for their entire post-grad careers.

While not affiliated in any way with the ACP awards, this CMM special series aims to tell the stories behind some of the year’s most impacting college media work — in the words of the students who created them.

In that spirit, in the exclusive Q&A below, Miller and Spies-Gans discuss the implications of what one person told them was a “critical but under-recognized issue in college athletics.” They also offer advice to student journalists interested in tackling a similar topic.

How would you describe “Disorderly Conduct” to someone who has not yet read it?

Spies-Gans: This feature discusses the unfortunate prevalence of disorderly eating in college athletics overall, and in Harvard athletics specifically.

What compelled you to tackle this story?

Spies-Gans: The idea of this article came to us simply from observing trends among athletes around campus. In addition to the pressure athletes receive from their academic courses, we began to recognize the pressure athletes feel to perform at the highest level on the field for the sake of their teammates and coaches, and the subsequent desire to maintain a “perfect body” that they believe will help said performances.

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Juliet Spies-Gans (left) is currently chair of The Harvard Crimson sports section and a men’s basketball beat writer. She has completed internships for ESPN’s Grantland, Fox Sports and the NBA. Orlea L. Miller is a Crimson staff writer currently covering the Harvard University field hockey team.

Do you think this is a pressing issue on a majority of college campuses today? And what do you feel is the media’s role in creating or perpetuating it?

Miller: Of course! Eating disorders and disorderly eating are, unfortunately, incredibly widespread. They can’t be deemed simply “athletes’ problems” or “a female problem,” and the breadth of the issue is something we hope we addressed in our feature. And, yes, the media does play a huge role by essentially promoting a “normal” body type when no such thing exists in reality. That’s harmful on the playing field, in the dining hall and in the classroom, in the short and long-term.

Do you think sports are worth all the stress, and complexity, of “making weight”? And why do you think people put themselves through so much related stress?

Miller: Sports do not have to be such pressure-cookers. Not all sports have these weight requirements and limitations, and thus not all sports encourage this type of anxiety. Non-weight-dependent sports necessarily allow for more variance in body type, consequently eliminating much of the focus on weight, food and eating habits.

In terms of your second question, most individuals involved in sports such as wrestling or lightweight crew know the challenge of weight management from the time they begin playing the sport, often leading this 130-pound-or-bust mentality to be ingrained in their minds from an early age. Of course, as journalists who are passionate about sports, we see the benefits athletics can offer — a healthy distraction from academics, a support network on campus and, often, a means through which one can gain a sense of community.

What ethical or practical reporting challenges did you face while working on the story?

Spies-Gans: While most of the athletes we interviewed demonstrated concern with weight or eating-related issues, some were hesitant to discuss the pressure they had received — whether the pressure was internally or externally driven.

What were you happiest with about the final piece?

Miller: We were happiest after receiving feedback from athletes and non-athletes alike, in which they expressed their appreciation that, as one person put it, this “critical but under-recognized issue in college athletics” was finally being discussed on a public stage.

What advice would you offer other student journalists interested in tackling a similar topic?

Miller & Spies-Gans: We would say that when a story feels the hardest to write, that is the time when you want to push forward most in your prose. It sounds cliché, but the most rewarding experiences truly come when you have to overcome the various journalistic barriers — you can’t get a source to be on the record, you can’t think of a perfect lede — that arise. If you are passionate about your story pitch, your writing will show that passion and readers, too, will become invested in the topic at hand.

Separately, what has been the motivation for you both to practice journalism?

Miller: We both love to write. We hope “Disorderly Conduct” showed that sportswriting doesn’t need to only be about baskets and game scores. It can, and should, be as varied as news stories, digging into the incredibly complex social web that is an athletics team.

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