- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 24, 2011

School pride surges this time of year for the fortunate alumni who get to cheer on their respective alma maters in various basketball tournaments.

Chests swell even further when the graduates and former attendees hail from nontraditional powers, such as Virginia Commonwealth and San Diego State. And only the scale is different, not the gratification, when alumni and students watch their schools contend for titles at lower levels like Division II or the NAIA.

Howard University, my alma mater, hasn’t had much recent success in that regard. But the Bison are well-represented as chroniclers of such feats, perhaps the next best thing to achieving them.

ESPN anchor Stan Verrett (Class of ‘89) was the keynote speaker Thursday for Howard’s first “Sports Media Day,” and he told students plenty of stories about CBS announcer Gus Johnson (Class of ‘90). Sports Illustrated senior writer Jim Trotter (Class of ‘86), Washington Post Hoyas reporter Tarik El-Bashir (Class of ‘96) and Atlanta Journal-Constitution Falcons reporter D. Orlando Ledbetter (Class of ‘84) were also in attendance.

NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche (Class of ‘89) and NBA.com columnist Shaun Powell (Class of ‘83) had planned to attend, but were called away on assignment. Such is the nature of this business, one aspect that remains the same amid a sea of changes.

Those who write and broadcast sports have a responsibility to readers and viewers. The subject matter certainly isn’t as weighty as national disasters and world events, but we take it seriously nonetheless, because fans take it seriously.

Whether they go too far in their quest to learn - or we cross the line in our desire to dig - is a matter of debate.

“Demand drives the coverage,” Verrett said. “People want to know more and more about athletes, not only on the court and field, but also who they are as people. We live in that sort of culture, and it’s not just sports, but entertainment and politics, too. If no one watched, read or clicked on, the focus would change. But obviously, it’s working. ESPN just enjoyed its best year ever.”

No wonder. There was LeBron James’ decision and Reggie Bush’s Heisman. There was Gilbert Arenas’ gun follies and Ben Roethlisberger’s role in “Girls Gone Wild.” There was Brett Favre, accused of “sexting”; Cam Newton’s father, accused of shopping; and Rick Pitino, testifying about accusations of inappropriate public affection.

And the aftermath of an event that arguably changed sports media forever, Tiger Woods’ crash - literally and figuratively.

Veteran journalists from my era (Class of ‘85) didn’t sign up for this, where the lines between TMZ and ESPN are blurred, and Sports Illustrated plays catch-up behind the National Enquirer. But we also know none of this stuff is new, just the bright light bringing it into the open.

“Sports is what it is,” Powell said. “It’s not a perfect world. Anyone who tries to depict it as a perfect world is living with rose-colored glasses. I don’t have any problems telling it like it is.”

Trotter would prefer letting other outlets cover the more salacious stories, but he’s resigned to the new reality. “Yes, we’re being asked to write about things we never wrote about,” he said. “Back in the day, people knew that Babe Ruth and other folks were heavy drinkers and partiers, but that wasn’t written about. Now, it’s going to turn up someplace. There’s obviously a market for it.”

True, but as Verrett puts it, “There’s a dark side for the [athletes] involved,” which essentially can turn them into products more than people. In such instances, images are shaped and molded to a point where the athletes’ humanity can be compromised, especially as young adults.

“They can’t make the normal mistakes that young people would make without it turning into a big media event,” Verrett said. “Think about the dumb things you did at that age, 21 and 22. And you didn’t have nearly the pressure and nearly the money and access to do stupid things.

“The majority of athletes do their jobs, live their lives and don’t cause problems for their teams, communities or themselves,” he said. “But the ones who get in trouble are always going to get the coverage.”

And we’ll be there to provide it.

This is the life we choose.



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