Lake Country Publications Sports Director JR Radcliffe provides tidbits and details from the Lake Country prep sports scene to the Wisconsin sports world at large. His weekly column presents exclusive interviews, commentaries and observations.
Covering prep athletics can be a delicate business. On one hand, serving our readers is our No. 1 priority, and that means being thorough in our storytelling and reacting to what’s newsworthy. On another, we’re frequently profiling kids age 14-18, sometimes younger, and that population is prone to understandable lapses in judgment. Some of those lapses get documented in our publications, and some don’t.
It would be foolish to deny that double standards exist. We aim to give a proportional amount of credit to each sport and each kid, but we still have readers to think about. The star athlete on the football team – a high-profile position – will likely get his name in the paper if he gets suspended for a minor athletic code violation. The top player on the less-visible JV golf team probably won’t. It’s not equitable. But it’s reality.
It’s not always easy to know where to draw the line; that’s one of our toughest tasks. Is there a point where we go too far in our reaction and start creating the story?
I was thinking about this last week when reports surfaced that Marquette University High School coach Jeff Mazurczak had been arrested on suspicion of DUI. His story led local news broadcasts, complete with video of his traffic stop.
Mazurczak is a public figure, coaching a high-profile sport at a high-profile high school. But if he were a varsity swimming or golf coach, does it get regional television coverage? Possibly, but probably not. If it’s in our communities, however, it’s still likely to make our papers.
The media often draws the ire of finger-pointing when something like this surfaces, accused of overdoing it. A quick glance of online comments on Mazurczak’s story at JSOnline shows the same. There are a number of arguments put forth for downplaying this story: the offense is too minor to make a big deal out of it, he’s just a prep football coach who shouldn’t be held to the standard of college or pro coaches, he’s a tremendous role model who has done far more good than harm and the number of drivers under the influence is too numerous to zero in on one individual.
But whether it’s because he’s a name people know, whether it’s because he’s an educator with influence over youth or whether it’s because he has such a prominent affiliation with a respected institution, this is something people care about. All those comments on the online story present just one piece of evidence to that claim.
If it’s within the realm of public forum and it’s important to readers, then it belongs in our paper. As prep writers, we occasionally fall into the arena of advocates for the sports programs. But that’s not all we do.
Inside the newsroom
When readers accuse the media of enforcing a double standard, I think it frequently comes with the inference that the media doesn’t realize what they’re doing. But I’m saying we do. Our job is to interpret and serve a population that has created its own hierarchy of what’s “newsworthy.”
We obviously don’t condone the behavior of driving under the influence of alcohol, but space and time constraints make it simply impossible to report everything that happens everywhere, much as police can’t enforce everything. Serious news organizations don’t make their decisions to be sensationalist, even if it might seem that way to some. Drunken driving is an issue affecting society, and the offense is serious even if not every offender gets profiled in the paper as a result.
It’s a judgment call for media personnel every day, and in this case, the interest in the school and the sport dictates that yes, this is a story. This is a big deal to a lot of people. Football is a bigger deal than other sports, and Marquette is a bigger deal than a lot of high schools. Call it unfair, but that’s how it is.
I could never be a football coach. I don’t have the character or the drive.
The job means hours of work for minimum pay, ensuring a nurturing learning environment and managing a staff. It means being judged on wins and losses with a workforce composed of students age 15-18. It means catering to parents and administrators with an array of viewpoints, keeping kids safe and being a role model.
All the while, you have to make sure you don’t do something in your personal life that winds up on the local news.
I take all of this into account, not to mention that I want to maintain a quality relationship with a chief source. But we serve the readers above our sources.
Crime and punishment
For me, one of adulthood’s surprises was the prevalence of driving under the influence of alcohol. When I was in school, it seemed like a very black-and-white issue. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could ever get behind the wheel after having even a few drinks. The risk was too great. People who did so, in my mind, were idiots.
My perception has shifted slightly, though I still find the act incredibly unfortunate. Many can proudly say they never put themselves in that position. But they have friends and family who have, so to moralize on the subject is tricky.
It’s true that for every person caught by police, there are hundreds more who go unnoticed. Maybe it’s bad luck to get caught, though it obviously doesn’t make the act permissible.
The outcome doesn’t matter. Maybe you didn’t hurt yourself or anybody else. Maybe it was the first time you ever drove that way. Next time, having skirted by safely the first time around, you might feel a little more bold to try again. The action is what matters. Getting caught is not the gravest of potential consequences.
I think it’s good that Mazurczak was allowed to keep his job. He’ll probably apologize publicly, speak to the mistake and re-prove himself as a role model over a long period of time – all actions that others in different fields probably wouldn’t have to worry about. Life and sports have many parallels, and lack of fairness is one such attribute. As media, we have to keep that in mind, but it doesn’t always mean we should behave differently.