The McCormick Tribune Center Forum hosted a discussion Wednesday afternoon on the rapidly evolving role of media in college sports and the changes that Division I athletics should expect to see in coming years. The lecture, titled "Beyond the Box Score: Covering College Sports in 2012 and Beyond," was part of Medill's Gertrude and G.D. Crain Jr. Lecture Series.
In a 90-minute discussion, a panel of well-known Northwestern graduates and sports journalists shared their opinions on controversial issues like athletes’ use of social media, collegiate recruitment and scouting and whether student-athletes deserve to be compensated for their success on the fields.
Moderated by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols (BSJ ’95), “Beyond the Box Score” boasted SI.com senior writer Stewart Mandel (BSJ ’98), the New York Times’ college sports reporter Pete Thamel and Northwestern football head coach Pat Fitzgerald (SESP ’97). A standing room only audience of all ages gathered in the Forum to hear the panelists speak.
The conversation began with something ‘Fitz knows all too well: how the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks can wreak havoc. The former ‘Cats linebacker smiled bashfully before divulging into the pressures and dangers that athletes face online. “You make a mistake right now...and it’s viral, it lives on forever...you’re vilified,” he noted.
And while Thamel couldn’t disagree with the negative aspects of Internet use, he did express the belief that social media is a double-edged sword. “It’s a communication tool,” he said, acknowledging how the Internet has added color to the personalities of athletes, personnel and even entire programs.
The panelists also presented their opinions on a lesser-known issue: the augmented influence of localism and emotionally invested journalism in today’s sporting world. Thamel cited occurrences of this in the SEC and Big 12 conferences as “antithetical to the mission of the media,” while Mandel lamented the shrinking access of national reporters and the democratization of the field, expressing that “it’s getting harder and harder for the average fan to discriminate.”
When asked about the reformation or removal of the BCS system in college football, the group was reluctant to see any huge changes. Thamel noted that any future re-alignments or adjustments would solely have monetary influences, going on to explain that the interests of the student-athletes are less and less centralized in conference decision-making. Mandel advocated for a “football final four” system to determine a national champion, but he realized that opening the postseason doors wider would unfortunately give many teams a “playoff or bust” mindset, subsequently keeping dozens of coaches on a hot seat.
No consensus could be reached regarding the ethics of paying student-athletes either. Citing Welsh-Ryan Arena’s legion of Shurna jersey-wearers, Mandel suggested compensation for merchandise sales. Thamel, on the other hand, was a little more hesitant to start paying college players, predicting future debates over exactly where the line should be drawn. “There’s no silver bullet...it would open Pandora’s box,” he said, wondering if players in less profitable sports would make as much as primetime football or basketball stars. He then cracked a smile, adding, “If you don’t like [the system here], go to Canada!”
Before taking questions from the audience, “Beyond the Box Score” tackled one last pressing topic: high school scouting. Thamel dove right in, remarking, “Recruiting is very simple—it’s reality television for sports,” which prompted chuckles from the audience. He later touched on the American public’s obsession with finding “the next big thing, before anyone else does,” while naming Northwestern as just one of five major schools that, in his opinion, hold recruits to high academic standards. Mandel echoed a similar sentiment, adding that because sports media is becoming increasingly accessible for the common fan, “Signing Day is going to get bigger every year.”
After joking about using pick-up lines on potential recruits, Fitzgerald examined the matter with a very critical eye. He noted that scouting and media hype allow some prospects to feel a sense of comfort and security before even fielding a snap, offering the idea that recruitment should instead be about long-term goals and work ethic.
The panelists fielded a few questions from the standing-room-only audience. Although the discussion was all about sports, “Beyond the Box Score” exemplified the passion and enthusiasm that makes Medill among the best journalism programs in the country.
“You can tell these are mostly journalism students when the coach of Northwestern football is sitting up here and all the questions are directed towards [Thamel and Mandel],” laughed Nichols, who was greeted after the discussion by swarms of audience members.